Got A Revolution! - The Turbulent Flight Of Jefferson Airplane
By Jeff Tamarkin

Helter Skelter 2003, £14.99, pp408

The reasons why artists and groups from the past can be considered to be "relevant" are many, so even a careful examination will leave many gray areas and a few unsolved mysteries. It goes without saying that commercial success can automatically give a name some "currency" - for in., consider Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Eagles and the Rolling Stones. Then there are those "nostalgia" acts - albeit of a minority appeal - who can make the faithful witness a blast from a past when music really stood for something - a good example being the Sex Pistols reunions. Obviously, a premature death can do wonders for one's career - see Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, and more recently Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley (but - curiously - not his dad, Tim). Being mentioned all the time doesn't hurt, either - check the Velvet Underground (the snowball/bandwagon effect will make everything confused). It's obvious that present conditions will give a framework - hence, the current popularity of the Byrds (and Gram Parsons) thanks to those musicians who align themselves to the (so-called) stylistic sub-genre alt country; add the perennial relevance of the MC5 and the Stooges for those who have decided that knowing how to play one's instrument is not terribly important. Then there is the case of the forgotten name who suddenly appears from the fog of the past - recently, it's Love (Skip Spence didn't quite make it).

Given the current climate, I wasn't really surprised by the deafening silence that greeted the tenth anniversary of Frank Zappa's death. And I'm not expecting big celebrations for the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Hatfield And The North's debut album. But there are two cases that I find really puzzling. The first being Creedence Clearwater Revival, a group that at the end of the sixties practically owned the airwaves and whose "elementary" - but highly sophisticated - "roots rock" with a low rhetorical quotient (pretty influential, I'd say) should have more than a few chances given the USA's current climate. And then there's the strange case of Jefferson Airplane.

Jefferson Airplane's "classic" line-up released quite a few albums that still sound good: Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing At Baxter's, both from 1967; Crown Of Creation (1968); the ebullient live album titled Bless Its Pointed Little Head (released in 1969); and Volunteers (also from 1969), maybe their best. Other albums are far from mediocre: the two that were released after the group had undergone some personnel changes - Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1972); the first three albums by the group's rock-blues spin-off, Hot Tuna; and the same is also true of albums recorded by various members of the group plus guests, such as Blows Against The Empire (1970), Sunfighter ('71) and Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun ('73).

A democracy always of the verge of splitting, Jefferson Airplane sported a nice and very personal vocal blend, had four solid composers of disparate styles and an instrumental side which saw the presence of one of the most original bass players in the whole history of rock (Jack Casady) and one of the few guitar players of whom it can be said that he really invented a style (Jorma Kaukonen). It's obviously impossible not to mention Grace Slick, in those days one of the few (two? three?) "women in rock": a highly personal vocalist, an animated presence on stage, a sarcastic, corrosive personality, a writer of fantastic songs that - though participating of the "spirit of the age" - are among those who less suffer from the passing of time (an anthology featuring only the songs she penned for the group would easily make the Top 20 in a "classic rock" chart).

But the history of Jefferson Airplane goes hand in hand with that of the political and cultural changes of the era of which the music of the group can be considered to have been a part. The Vietnam war (and the draft), the increasingly common drugs use, the slow ascending of a new musical aesthetic, the "gap between generations", a different attitude towards politics, are reflected in the music of the group. A group that - let's not forget it - was incredibly popular - and so, highly visible - at the time.

Though it's quite difficult to believe it, Got A Revolution! (the title comes from a line in the song Volunteers) is the first book that deals with the history of the group. There have been two books about Grace Slick. The first, Grace Slick: The Biography by Barbara Rowes (1980), was good precisely because it was the only one; then there was her autobiography, not surprisingly called Somebody To Love (1998), from the title of the song that together with the lysergic hymn White Rabbit is the most famous - and the most commercially successful - in the Jefferson Airplane catalogue.

Jeff Tamarkin is in many ways the right person to tell this story: a witness of the times, quite familiar with the history and the discography of the group, the former Goldmine editor has also penned the liner notes to many booklets of Airplane and Airplane-related CDs. So we have a meticulous research work - and direct access to the musicians, who had the opportunity to comment on those facts from a long time ago (and they don't necessarily remember things the same way). Pretty exhaustive when it comes to biography, the book offers a lot in the socio-political department. The reader will have the opportunity to remember - or to encounter for the first time - all that was important in the city of San Francisco - places, facts, personalities - and also in the United States.

Just its being the only book about the group would make Got A Revolution! an indispensable book in any case, but the sheer volume of facts and stories makes it indispensable for both newcomers and for those who - though fans of the group - never had access to reliable sources. The only problem of the book is its brevity - which in a way can read like a funny statement, given the fact that the book is more than 400 pages long (by the way, there are some pictures, an index, a discography, a bibliography and an index of some Web sources). The fact is that Tamarkin has chosen to tell the whole story, including the Jefferson Starship "commercial renaissance" of the seventies and up to those terrible eighties (the years of Reagan and MTV). Which, given the book's perspective, is a perfectly legitimate goal. But the fact makes it unavoidable to sometimes present a very superficial analysis of the records and the music; and if the space is not a lot when it comes to the "classic period" albums, it becomes stamp-size for those second-period (but by no means terrible) LPs mentioned above. (Sometimes one has the impression that Tamarkin knows the albums so well that he forgets this is not necessarily true of the reader.) But I could be wrong (and given the current degree of attention span it could be argued that the information offered by the book is probably way too much).

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Dec. 12, 2003