Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Every day, more music is released. Most of it will be quickly forgotten, some of it will resonate with an audience, and a very, very small percentage will be listened to for years to come. An even smaller subset can fairly be said to embody a particular moment in time. Surrealistic Pillow, the second release by the Jefferson Airplane, is one of those special albums. Released in early 1967 by a group of hippies who also happened to be extraordinary songwriters and musicians, it is both a classic and a reflection of its era.
Nearly a half century later, one can look back on early 1967 as a point when the potential for change was palpable. The idea that society could be improved by applications of peace, love and psychedelic drugs was not considered completely ridiculous. The ethos of the era, centered on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, embodied by bands like the Airplane and the Grateful Dead, who released their debut album a month after Surrealistic Pillow (which featured cameos and unspecified spiritual and musical guidance from Jerry Garcia), ultimately led to changes in society – and, by virtue of the law of unintended consequences, some of those changes were positive and some were negative.
Even the Airplane’s album title was perfect; a non sequitur (derived from a comment by Garcia) that was consistent with the psychedelic era of Strawberry Alarm Clocks and Chocolate Watch Bands, but also described the listening experience. In part because the band had so many creative forces, and in part because no one was telling them they needed to focus their sound to fit a narrow playlist, the music was a mix of sappy love songs, folky tunes, rock anthems, blues, instrumentals, and oddly cynical songs. Of course, drug references abounded, most famously on the allegorical “White Rabbit,” sung by new member Grace Slick, improving on the original version she had done with the Great Society (who also did the original “Somebody to Love”). Slick’s powerful vocals, when added to those from Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, joined with one of the great guitar/bass combinations of all time, boyhood friends Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, and strong drumming from new member Spencer Dryden (and the contributions of Garcia) to create something that worked, both individually and as a whole.
Although the Airplane would go on to create other good albums, and many great songs, the tensions among the members, fueled by egos, musical disagreements and various substances, meant that they never again reached the heights of Surrealistic Pillow. Not surprisingly, our crack research staff was easily able to find covers of the more popular songs from the album, but the choices for others were sparse. However, an uneven collection of covers still showcases the quality of the original product.
Second Coming – She Has Funny Cars (Jefferson Airplane cover)
This is an interesting historical curio. Second Coming was a band that featured the original Allman Brothers Band, without Gregg Allman. This performance of “She Has Funny Cars” is from a show in March, 1969, four days after the full Allman Brothers Band played its first gig. Instead of Gregg Allman, the keyboards are played by Reese Wynans, who later was part of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band, Double Trouble. Second Coming stays pretty faithful to the original, adding a lengthy, dull intro and a guitar based jam, which is fine, because, hey, it’s Dickey Betts and Duane Allman, after all.
The Ramones – Somebody to Love (Jefferson Airplane cover)
As long as there is classic rock radio, “Somebody to Love” will be played, and deservedly so, because it is one of the great rock anthems. It was a stirring lead-in to the “Summer of Love,” despite the skepticism of the opening lines (“When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies”), because at the end of it all, the song recognizes the redemptive power of love. The song has an archetypal Slick vocal, and a sweet little Jorma solo. The Ramones, augmented by ex-porn star Traci Lords on backing vocals, rip through the song Ramones-style, making it their own, although the guitar solo is a bit uncharacteristic.
Gizelle D’Mello – You’re My Best Friend (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Written by original drummer Skip Spence, who left before this album was recorded to sing and play guitar with Moby Grape (and then fall victim to the mental illness that ended his career, and ultimately his life), “You’re My Best Friend” is a lighthearted, goofy love song that epitomized the pre-cynical ’60s, which was soon to end in the violence of the later part of the decade. This version by Gizelle D’Mello, a Texas-based singer, appears to be from a recording of a bunch of friends sitting around, banging out versions of Jefferson Airplane covers, and has a certain shambling charm.
Renee Fleming – Today (Jefferson Airplane cover)
From a living room style recording by an unknown, we move to an expertly produced pop album by famous opera singer Renee Fleming; she decided to record an album of rock music and came up with 2010’s Dark Hope, which turned out surprisingly well. Her choices eschewed the obvious (Mars Volta!), and her version of “Today,” one of the most beautiful songs on Surrealistic Pillow, just works.
Rickie Lee Jones – Comin’ Back to Me (Jefferson Airplane cover)
“Comin’ Back to Me” was a beautiful ballad sung by Balin, and this version by Rickie Lee Jones is musically faithful to the original, but with Jones’ trademark mumbly jazz-like vocals, which suddenly take off and soar at the end.
Skullflower – 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Like the album, we follow two mellow songs with a change of pace. The original version of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” is a rocking travelogue describing the San Francisco streetscape of the time, although with a bit of an edge. This cover by Skullflower, a metal/noise band, thrashes through the song, harder and rougher than the Airplane did, even in the excellent live version on Bless Its Pointed Little Head.
Mike and Candy Show – D.C.B.A.-25 (Jefferson Airplane cover)
The cryptic title “D.C.B.A.–25” refers to the chords of the song, and L.S.D.-25. It’s a nice folk rocker with a catchy riff, entwined vocals and a pleasant guitar solo. This cover by the Mike and Candy Show is an unpolished, competent version with nice vocals, similar in feel to the original but lacking its depth and complexity.
Cubensis – How Do You Feel? (Jefferson Airplane cover)
The only song on the album not written by a current or former member, the pleasant folk ballad “How Do You Feel?” was composed by Tom Mastin, an obscure musician with ties to bigger names beyond the Airplane. A member of Mastin & Brewer, which paired him with Michael Brewer (later of Brewer & Shipley, of “One Toke Over The Line” fame) and saw him working with future members of The Mothers of Invention and Blood Sweat & Tears, they opened for bands such as the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. Stephen Stills recorded a Mastin & Brewer song, “Bound to Fall,” on the Manassas album. Mastin suffered from depression and committed suicide in the 1990s.
This cover is by Grateful Dead tribute band Cubensis, who performed Surrealistic Pillow in its entirety at a Halloween show in 2010 at The Mint in Los Angeles. An agreeable, faithful version, but it sounds like a Grateful Dead tribute band covering the Airplane.
David Hilyard – Embryonic Journey (Jefferson Airplane cover)
A beautiful instrumental, “Embryonic Journey” was the first song written by Jorma Kaukonen, and his performance on Surrealistic Pillow is unforgettable, displaying his fingerpicking style that would later be showcased in Hot Tuna. One of the reasons that Pillow is so great is that this song is not out of place, despite being different from every other track on the album. David Hilyard’s cover is also a demonstration of his fingerpicking virtuosity; more remarkably, he is not a professional musician — he is an optician and makes astronomical optics for UCO/Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz (find out more about him here).
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane cover)
“White Rabbit” is one of the iconic songs of the Sixties, and was another Slick song that was improved over the original Great Society version. Its psychedelic music and clear drug imagery somewhat camouflaged by its literary allusions ends with the unmistakable, and at the time shocking, exhortation, “Feed Your Head!” This live version from 2009, with lead vocals by another fine singer named Grace, captures both the stentorian vocals and dreaminess of the Airplane version.
Backwards Clock Society – Plastic Fantastic Lover (Jefferson Airplane cover)
Surrealistic Pillow ends with “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” a bluesy rocker from Balin about the fascination with television and technology, with the lyrics delivered in an almost proto-rap style. Backwards Clock Society was a band put together by former Smashing Pumpkins vocalist Billy Corgan for occasional performances. This sludgy, metal-ish version (not that there’s anything wrong with that) is from a live performance in 2009, at a benefit to help pay medical bills for the Pumpkins’ former fan-club president Laura Masura, who had suffered a serious motorcycle accident.
Bonus: Jefferson Starship – Today (Jefferson Airplane cover)
When is a cover not a cover? Obviously, if a band plays its own songs, then it isn’t a cover. And it would be fair to argue that if a musician plays his own songs, solo or even in another group, it isn’t a cover. What about this one? The song was written by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner and sung by Balin. The tortured history of the membership of the Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Starship, and their offshoots would require an entire blog of its own, but this version of “Today” was recorded on January 28, 2012 by a band billed as Jefferson Starship, led by Kantner, and featuring David Freiberg, who was in a late version of the Airplane and the original version of the Starship until 1984, rejoining with Kantner in 2005. The female vocals were performed by Cathy Richardson and Darby Gould, who have performed with later versions of the Starship, as have the other members of the band. It is sort of like the philosophy conundrum — at what point is a darned sock a new sock? A question that might have best been pondered under the influence of whatever they were having back in 1967.
That all being said, this is a very good version of the song, even without Balin. Who, after all the water that has flowed under the bridge, sometimes appears with Kantner at Jefferson Starship shows.
Surrealistic Pillow is available on Amazon and iTunes. Feed your head with more about the Airplane, Starship and even Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, by reading this, or this.
Excellent choice! One of the all-time great albums. Thank you for this.