Hash Faves: “Volunteers”

31 Oct

jeffersonairplanevolunteersThis week’s pick is hippie rock – Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers”. It’s from their 1969 album of the same name, and features what I (and I’d wager most people) think of as the “classic” lineup: Grace Slick and Marty Balin on vocals, Paul Kantner on guitar and vocals, Jorma Kaukonen on guitar, Jack Casady on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums. Pianist Nicky Hopkins guests on this, and other, cuts. The song was written by Balin and Kantner.

Ah, we were so young then! I was a snot-nosed wanna-be revolutionary, convinced that we could change the world, convinced that we knew better, and foolishly convinced that anyone with any sense would recognize this and go along with the plan. Kantner and Balin and Slick were idealists too, the main difference being that they had a public forum in which to make their statements (as well as a mansion in the Haight-Ashbury and tons of money as a cushion). I find much of their political posturing to be slightly embarrassing now, but that doesn’t mean that I think that they were wrong to hold those beliefs. I wonder what Kantner, who died earlier this year, would have thought about Donald Trump; my guess is that he’d be howling with glee. “See, I told you people, but did you listen? Noooo…”

Aside from the politics, what I love about the song is that it’s a gem of economical rock. It sounds raw, yet the parts are executed really well. Jorma plays some pungent, to-the-point guitar lines, and Casady rumbles along in typical Earth-shaking style (on one of the previous albums he was credited with ”Yggdrasil bass” (this is how Jack explained it, in an obscure interview: “The Yggdrasil, in Norse mythology, is the tree of life; to play the Yggdrasil bass is to play the low notes of existence. And the low notes are the sweetest. When I hit a good low-bottom string A and shake the ground and force wind from the speakers, I’m playing the planet through my bass. No one’s cheering or writing me checks, but it doesn’t really matter. In these moments I’m wired into deity.”). The singers all sing with youthful passion and rage; they were true believers, even though I think Grace was always a skeptic (and a sexy one) at heart. The changes are simple, 3-chord rock, but they’re still interesting.

This was the last album for the classic lineup, and indeed future drummer Joey Covington has a cameo on the record. Balin would leave shortly, and I always thought that he was absolutely essential to the band’s sound. He was a great singer, as, of course, was Slick; Kantner not so much, although he was an inventive harmony singer. But Balin’s departure forced Paul to sing more lead, and the band’s signature 3-part harmonies were gone forever. This was also the time that Casady and Kaukonen, a bit frustrated by the Airplane’s hippie indolence, formed their offshoot band Hot Tuna, which quickly became their priority. Eventually, Slick and Kantner would be the only “original” members left (the true original band, of course, had Signe Anderson on vocals, Bob Harvey on acoustic bass and Jerry Peloquin, soon to be replaced by Skip Spence, on drums). Although I find parts of the subsequent albums interesting, they just don’t hold a candle (in my exalted opinion) to Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing At Baxter’s, Crown Of Creation and Bless Its Pointed Little Head.

This was the infamous album that the Airplane butted heads with RCA Records, their label, over inclusion of the words “Motherfucker” (in the song ”We Can Be Together”) and “shit” (the chorus to ”Eskimo Blue Day”). For various reasons, not the least, I’m sure, being that the Airplane were RCA’s top money-makers, the company finally caved. It was also, I believe, the first album to use 16-track recording technology.

You can listen to it here:

 

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at steven.hashimoto@sbcglobal.net.

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Steve Hashimoto

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