Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane was one of the earliest albums I remember buying as a teenager growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the band was based. I’d loved their two hit songs “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”, but when I heard the album in its entirety at a friend’s house when it was played by her older sister, I was immediately smitten. I loved every song on the album, and had to have my own copy. To this day, it remains one of my top 10 all-time favorite albums, and I still cherish my copy, now more than 50 years old. I also think it’s one of the best album covers ever!
Originally formed in 1965, Jefferson Airplane became one of the pioneering bands of psychedelic rock, and came to define what was then called the ‘San Francisco Sound’. They released their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in 1966 to critical acclaim and decent sales, eventually enough to have it certified gold. It’s a very good album, with songs that were more folk-rock oriented, and inspired by the music of bands like the Beatles, the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful. A turning point in the band’s sound came after the departure of their original female vocalist Signe Anderson in October 1966, who wanted to devote more time to raising her baby daughter. She was replaced by Grace Slick, who’d previously been with the band The Great Society. In addition, founding drummer Skip Spence had earlier been replaced by Spencer Dryden. This new Jefferson Airplane lineup, which would last until early 1970, now consisted of Marty Balin (vocals), Grace Slick (vocals), Paul Kantner (guitar, vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, vocals), Jack Casady (bass) and Spencer Dryden (drums).
Slick’s joining the band proved pivotal to the Airplane’s commercial breakthrough, as her wonderful resonant contralto voice nicely complemented Balin’s beautiful tenor voice, and was well-suited to the band’s increasingly amplified psychedelic sound. In addition, being a former model, her good looks and on-stage charisma greatly enhanced the band’s live performances. She also contributed two of what would become the band’s signature songs – “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”, both of which she originally recorded while with The Great Society (Slick wrote “White Rabbit” and her brother-in-law Darby Slick wrote “Somebody to Love”).
Surrealistic Pillow was recorded in Los Angeles under the guidance of producer Rick Jarrard in only 13 days, at a cost of $8,000. According to Wikipedia, the title “Surrealistic Pillow” was suggested by the album’s “shadow producer” Jerry Garcia, when he commented that the album sounded “as surrealistic as a pillow is soft.” Although the band’s label RCA would not acknowledge Garcia’s considerable contributions to the album’s production, he is listed in the album’s credits as “spiritual advisor.” The album was released in February 1967, and remained on the Billboard 200 album chart for more than a year, peaking at No. 3. Rolling Stone Magazine has ranked the album at #146 on their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
OK, enough with the background information. Let’s get to the album. It kicks off with the rousing “She Drives Funny Cars”, and what a great opening track it is. The first sounds we hear are Dryden’s aggressive galloping drumbeats, which are soon joined by Kaukonen’s and Kantner’s dual guitars, and we’re off to the races. Their intertwining psychedelic riffs are incredible, and so is Casady’s powerful bass line. Balin sings lead vocals here, with Slick nicely crooning in the background. Before we can catch our breath, we’re hit with Slick’s verbal assault of “When the truth is found to be lies”, and for the next two minutes and 55 seconds the masterpiece “Somebody to Love” unfolds, pulling us willingly into its maelstrom of explosive psychedelic greatness. The guitar work on this track is positively wicked! The song became Jefferson Airplane’s highest-charting single.
“My Best Friend” was written by former drummer Spence, and is a pleasing folk-rock song with a Lovin’ Spoonful vibe that would have been at home on their first album. Balin and Slick’s vocal harmonies are particularly nice. Next up is the haunting Balin-Kantner penned love ballad “Today”, with gorgeous jangly and chiming guitars and featuring Balin’s fervent vocals, enveloped by a dramatic percussion-heavy wall of sound that would make Phil Spector proud. “Comin’ Back to Me” is a beautiful mellow ballad with strummed acoustic and electric guitars, some of which were reportedly played by Jerry Garcia. Highlights of the song are the haunting flute and Balin’s stunning heartfelt vocals.
As we continue with the album, it’s clear that every single track is outstanding, and that the band had an incredibly diverse and wide-ranging sound. The hard-driving psychedelic guitars on “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” are fantastic and gnarly as hell, showcasing the band’s ability to deliver down and dirty blues rock. They seem to channel the Byrds on the breezy gem “D.C.B.A.-25”, with glorious jangly guitars and more of Balin and Slick’s gorgeous vocal harmonies. The song has a different feel from most of the others on the album, but is one of my favorites. “How Do You Feel” is a nod to the Mamas and Papas, with its pleasing melody, beautiful harmonies and more of those beguiling flutes. And then we have the stunning instrumental “Embryonic Journey”, featuring a tour de force acoustic guitar solo performance by Kaukonen of a song he wrote.
Next up is my personal favorite Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit”. Slick has stated she wrote the song as a slap to parents who read their children novels like Alice in Wonderland, then wonder why their children later used drugs. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she mentioned that besides Alice in Wonderland, her other inspiration for the song was “the bolero used by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on their 1960 album Sketches of Spain,” which was itself inspired by the famous classical composition “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel. It’s the buildup to the crescendo that makes both “Bolero” and “White Rabbit” so wonderful. Here’s a performance of the song on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.
The album closes with the bluesy “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, with more of those wonderful psychedelic guitars, accompanied by the kind of powerful head-bopping beat I love. It’s a fantastic finish to an album I consider a masterpiece. Although Jefferson Airplane would go on to release several more albums before splitting up in 1972 and going their separate ways with other music projects, none would match the phenomenal success of Surrealistic Pillow.
The album was later re-released with five bonus tracks not on the original 1967 release.