“Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane (1969)
What seems relatively tame today was pushing the envelope 40-some years ago.
Such was the case with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” which raised a small series of controversies with its release at the tail end of the ’60s.
The Airplane had put San Francisco on the musical map with its 1967 hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and the landmark “White Rabbit.” The latter, with its lyrics alluding to the fanciful imagery of Lewis Carroll and its connection to modern-day drug use, eventually drawing specific condemnation from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for its supposedly detrimental influence on the youth of America. (Agnew, of course, later pleaded no contest to tax evasion and resigned, paving the way for Gerald Ford to become president without actually being elected to anything having to do with the Executive Branch.)
With “Volunteers,” the Airplane seemed to aim for being a detrimental influence, at least with regard to people of Agnew’s ilk.
First, there’s the album cover, which features the band dressed in outlandish costumes against the backdrop of a U.S. flag. Remember, that was long before the Stars and Stripes became wardrobe fare, and the image of a decidedly strange-looking rock ‘n’ roll band coupled with the Stars and Stripes tended to rub the average American the wrong way.
The back cover is highly irreverent, as well, and it’s fun to study: a sendup of a newspaper page from the fictional Paz, S.D., complete with a Question of the Day, “What Is Your Favorite Stripe on the Flag?” Again, that’s hallowed ground, but responses include Grace Slick’s “Point that thing somewhere else,” Marty Balin’s “What flag?” and Paul Kanter’s “Michoucan.”
There there are the songs, themselves. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is nothing short of a call to arms: “We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we, are we are/And we are very proud of ourselves,” which leads into the epic line “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” the first time that particular word appeared on record. Slick’s “Eskimo Blue Day” violates another taboo with “Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”
The Airplane’s record company, not surprisingly, wasn’t overjoyed.
“RCA felt that some retail chains might boycott the album for any of the above reasons, to which the Airplane responded that record stores like that sucked anyway, so who cares?” Jeff Tamarkin wrote in “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.”
Whatever the case, the album sold briskly after its November 1969 release, staying on the Billboard chart for 44 weeks. Record buyers seemed to agree with reviewer Ed Leimbacher, who wrote for Ramparts: “In terms of sheer music, ‘Volunteers’ is the greatest Airplane album yet; they may have taken off four years ago, but they didn’t reach the stratosphere till now.”
The theme set by the album cover and the opening track, “We Can Be Together,” seems to peg “Volunteers” as some kind of countercultural rant. But the songs display a remarkable amount of diversity, touching on the band’s folk roots (“Good Shepherd,” “Turn My Life Down” and “Wooden Ships”), country-rock (“The Farm” and “A Song for All Seasons”) and even proto-metal (“Eskimo Blue Day” and Hey Fredrick”).
Kantner built “We Can Be Together” and the song “Volunteers” on the same banjo-derived riff, which works particularly well with the latter. Balin had his only co-composer credits of the album on “Volunteers,” and RCA released it as a single. It peaked at only No. 65 but remained a favorite focal point for late-’60s nostalgia, even making it to the soundtrack for the Academy Award-winning “Forrest Gump.”
“Good Shepherd” has its roots in a 19th-century hymn and later was transformed into a Southern spiritual, as recorded by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s. Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen learned the basic tune as “Blood-Stained Banders,” and his arrangement for “Volunteers” combines his finger-style acoustic guitar with the fuzztone of his electric Epiphone for “a psychedelic folk-rock song,” as Jorma has described it. The tune has remained a staple of his work with Hot Tuna ever since, as well as a highlight of the 1999 album “Love Will See You Through” by Phil Lesh and Friends, featuring Kaukonen dueling with virtuoso guitarist Steve Kimock on a lengthy rendition.
“The Farm” might be Kantner’s answer to Canned Heat’s cover of Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” that the band rewrote as “Goin’ Up the Country.” At any rate, it reflects the sentiment of plenty of San Francisco musicians who moved to rural Marin County after city life became more than a bit tense. Jerry Garcia’s lively pedal-steel guitar contributes greatly to the motif.
Slick had been writing purposefully obtuse lyrics since “White Rabbit,” and “Hey Fredrick” fits right into that category: “There you sit, mouth wide open, animals living by your side/On wire wheels, the four-stroke man opens wide.” As she explains in her autobiography (with Andrea Cagan), “Somebody to Love?”:
“My inability to successfully mainstream anything hasn’t bothered me much, but had I achieved mega-mainstream success it would have been an interesting test of the distorted pride I seem to take in my idiosyncratic behavior.”
What sets “Fredrick” – named for the band’s code word for intercourse – apart from other Slick compositions is the heavy jam into which it develops. Kaukonen, bass player Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and guest pianist Nicky Hopkins take over following Slick’s last words around the 3:20 mark and deliver nearly six minutes of what was as close to heavy metal as anyone was getting in 1969.
The tone lightens up quite a bit for Kaukonen’s “Turn My Life Down,” which Balin sings. The arrangement guest stars Steven Stills on Hammond organ and the vocal group Ace of Cups – Mary Gannon, Marilyn Hunt, Diane Hursh and Denise Jewkes – providing pleasant background.
Having called his generation to revolution, Kantner ponders the aftermath in “Wooden Ships,” which he wrote with Stills and David Crosby. Those who know the song best from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut album, and its inclusion by that band in a prominent place in Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock,” might notice that Kantner isn’t part of that version’s credits; apparently, it wasn’t cool to have an RCA artist’s name appear on an Atlantic Records album.
At any rate, “Wooden Ships” describes a world possibly following World War III, in which the few survivors poignantly ask, “Can you tell me, please, who won?” It doesn’t much matter, as the scenario starts to echo Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach”: “Horror grips us as we watch you die/All we can do is echo your anguished cries.”
Studio rehearsals for “Wooden Ships” had the Airplane segueing into “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues,” a song that the late Alexander “Skip” Spence wrote when he was the band’s drummer, before moving on to help found Moby Grape. Jefferson Airplane had recorded a version of the song in 1966, but it went unreleased until the 1974 odds-and-ends compilation “Early Flight.”
Slick addresses the plight of humanity on a more roundabout way on “Eskimo Blue Day,” with her ultimate assessment expressed with the previously mentioned scatological flourish. The instrumentation again features Kaukonen, Casady, Hopkins and Dryden turning it up near 11, with Grace adding touches of recorder in strategic places.
Prior to “A Song for All Seasons,” Dryden’s Airplane compositions had been Zappaesque sound collages, including the unreleased-for-decades “Saga of Sydney Spacehog.” His “A Song for All Seasons” sounds kind of like what the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers were playing at the time, a jaunty, country-flavored romp about the travails of a rock band: “I heard your manager skipped town with all your pay/And your lead singer’s bulge turns the sensors gray.”
A brief, somewhat bizarre rendition of the Soviet Army theme “Meadowlands” leads into “Volunteers,” which closes the ’60s with the key line: “One generation got old/One generation got soul/This generation’s got no destination to hold.” While those lyrics seem to be inextricably tied to the sentiments expressed on “We Can Be Together,” they certainly are applicable to the teens and twentysomethings of 2012.
“Volunteers” not only closes the ’60s, it closes Jefferson Airplane’s so-called “classic” era. “A Song for All Seasons” kind of hinted at the state of the band at the time, as subsequent events revealed.
Dryden and Slick had been a couple through early 1969, when she switched her affections to Kantner. Meanwhile, Kaukonen and Casady, who had played music together off and on for more than a decade, had started concentrating more fully on their side project, Hot Tuna.
As for Balin, who co-founded the band in 1965 with Kantner, his compositions hadn’t been central to an Airplane album since its second effort, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which was recorded all the way back in ’66.
Inner struggles combined with external forces just weeks after the release of “Volunteers.” On Dec. 6, 1969, “more than 300,000 souls found their way to one of the most desolate, depressing locations in the state of California to witness one of rock’s darkest moments,” Tamarkin wrote.
The occasion came to be known to the world as Altamont, during which a black concert attendee, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death in front of the stage by Hell’s Angels as the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb.”
Jefferson Airplane was one of the bands that opened for the Stones at their notoriously ill-planned free concert in the California desert. As Dryden recalled:
“It was just a horrible, pink-sky Hieronymus Bosch dustbin, not a tree in sight, just a hellhole. It was the beginning of the end. No, not the beginning. It was the end.”
Dryden had a great seat for “the end.” He was drumming during the Airplane’s obligatory cover of Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life” when:
“The band stopped playing momentarily,” Tamarkin wrote, “shaken by the brutality. Spencer, Jorma and Jack returned to riffing absentmindedly, one eye on the chaos offstage and another on their fellow musicians. Paul stood at the lip of the stage, his guitar dangling as he surveyed the weirdness.
“Then a scream came from below. Marty, standing a second ago at center stage peering at the melee intently, leaped from his perch, disappearing into the thick of the crowd. More movement followed, but there was still no sign of Marty. He had been knocked out cold.”
The scene was captured for posterity in the film “Gimme Shelter” by David and Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, culminating with Slick imploring the crowd in a shaky voice, “Let’s not keep fucking up!”
Dryden didn’t play too many more shows with Jefferson Airplane, departing in January 1970. Balin hung around until October, when he decided not to perform at a concert following the death of his friend Janis Joplin.
The band struggled through two more studio albums and a decent live set documenting its final days. Then came Jefferson Starship, then Starship, a story as convoluted as it is depressing.
Those later aggregations may have tarnished the reputation of the “classic” Airplane. A listen to “Volunteers,” though, shows it to be not a relic of its era, but an examination of topics that continue to hold relevance more than four decades later.