Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow (1967)

Surrealistic Pillow is the second album by the American rock band Jefferson Airplane, released by RCA Victor on February 1, 1967. It is the first album by the band with vocalist Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden. The album peaked at number three on the Billboard album chart and has been certified Platinum by the RIAA. The album is considered to be one of the quintessential works of the early psychedelic rock and 1960s counterculture eras.

Original drummer Alexander “Skip” Spence had left the band in mid-1966. He was soon replaced by Dryden, an experienced Los Angeles jazz drummer and the half-nephew of Charlie Chaplin. New female vocalist Slick, formerly with another San Francisco rock band the Great Society, joined the Airplane in the fall of 1966. Slick, Dryden, male lead vocalist Marty Balin, guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Paul Kantner, lead guitarist (and occasional vocalist) Jorma Kaukonen, and bassist Jack Casady formed the core of the best-known line-up of the group, which remained stable until Dryden’s departure in early 1970.

In 2003, the album was ranked number 146 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list, and dropping to number 471 in the 2020 revised list.

Track Listing:

Side one
“She Has Funny Cars” (Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin) – 3:14
“Somebody to Love” (Darby Slick) – 3:00
“My Best Friend” (Skip Spence) – 3:04
“Today” (Balin, Paul Kantner) – 3:03
“Comin’ Back to Me” (Balin) – 5:23

Side two
“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” (Balin) – 3:45
“D.C.B.A.–25” (Kantner) – 2:39
“How Do You Feel” (Tom Mastin) – 3:34
“Embryonic Journey” (Kaukonen) – 1:55
“White Rabbit” (Grace Slick) – 2:32
“Plastic Fantastic Lover” (Balin) – 2:39

AllMusic Review: The second album by Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow was a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia, and it hit like a shot heard round the world; where the later efforts from bands like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and especially, the Charlatans, were initially not too much more than cult successes, Surrealistic Pillow rode the pop charts for most of 1967, soaring into that rarefied Top Five region occupied by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and so on, to which few American rock acts apart from the Byrds had been able to lay claim since 1964. And decades later the album still comes off as strong as any of those artists’ best work. From the Top Ten singles “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” to the sublime “Embryonic Journey,” the sensibilities are fierce, the material manages to be both melodic and complex (and it rocks, too), and the performances, sparked by new member Grace Slick on most of the lead vocals, are inspired, helped along by Jerry Garcia (serving as spiritual and musical advisor and sometimes guitarist). Every song is a perfectly cut diamond, too perfect in the eyes of the bandmembers, who felt that following the direction of producer Rick Jarrard and working within three- and four-minute running times, and delivering carefully sung accompaniments and succinct solos, resulted in a record that didn’t represent their real sound. Regardless, they did wonderful things with the music within that framework, and the only pity is that RCA didn’t record for official release any of the group’s shows from the same era, when this material made up the bulk of their repertory. That way the live versions, with the band’s creativity unrestricted, could be compared and contrasted with the record. The songwriting was spread around between Marty Balin, Slick, Paul Kantner, and Jorma Kaukonen, and Slick and Balin (who never had a prettier song than “Today,” which he’d actually written for Tony Bennett) shared the vocals; the whole album was resplendent in a happy balance of all of these creative elements, before excessive experimentation (musical and chemical) began affecting the band’s ability to do a straightforward song. The group never made a better album, and few artists from the era ever did. — Bruce Eder

Schill Score: 8.75/10

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