Psychedelic rock existed in a bunch of forms and in different places, but San Francisco in 1970 was a hell of a place to be.
Jefferson Airplane, meanwhile, charted a uniquely weird course. They started as a bluesy rock band and quickly became two sorts of things at the same time: a loud, brash rock group (the “Somebody to Love/Volunteers” band) and a quiet, reflective acoustic group (“Comin’ Back to Me,” “The Farm”). Then again, the band’s musical tension came from the diverse history between the musicians, who were steeped in folk and blues.
By 1970, the group’s politics were getting more pointed and sharp, while their musical skills were at their peak. The loud, brash title track from Volunteers has Grace Slick shouting for revolution, while elsewhere she yells “up against the wall, motherfuckers!” Jefferson Airplane were loud, angry, and jammed like it was nobody’s business. But they were also splintering apart; soon after it’s release, Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden quit the band, leaving them without a drummer and a male singer.
What did one of the most popular San Francisco bands do next? Called in a few of their friends and made one of the weirdest psychedelic rock albums of the decade, Blows Against the Empire: a pot-fueled through the galaxy, where a handful of 60s stars steal a spaceship, visit a place where babies grow in trees and generally take the idea of tripping to it’s logical endpoint.
In early 1970, the remnants of Jefferson Airplane hit the studio: Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Slick, and Kantner and brought in a revolving cast of heavies: one-time roommate David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Bill Krutzmann, and Graham Nash, among others. Over the months, they’d eventually call themselves the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (PERRO, for short), but here they called themselves Jefferson Starship. With Kantner calling the shots, they started recording that fall.
Blows Against the Empire is split into two sort-of concepts, one on each side of the original vinyl record. The first half is set here on Earth, the second in space. It opens with the rave-up rock of “Mau Mau (Amerikon),” where between guitar riffs they take shots at then-governor Ronald Reagan (“you unleash the dogs of a grade-b movie star”), President Nixon (“Hey Dick, whatever you think of us is irrelevant”), talk about doin’ drugs and shout stuff like “drop your fuckin’ bombs,” before launching in a guitar jam. It’s very 1970, the sort of thing you’d half expect to hear on the Fear and Loathing soundtrack.
But just like that, everything drops away to the acoustic folk of “The Baby Tree,” a song imaging a tree that, well, has babies growing on it. And people come by and grab ‘em. The tempo picks up a bit for “Let’s Go Together,” a song where Kantner sings about leaving America. And the idea of starting a family and running away together come together on “A Child is Coming,” where Kantner asks “What are we gunna do when Uncle Samuel comes around, askin’ for the young one’s name?” with the side ending in hazy guitar feedback and strummed acoustic guitars. If side one suggests anything, it’s that usual post-60s hippie fantasy: drop out of society and create your own. You know, the commune way.
Side two suggests a drastic kind of dropping out, though. Right from the opening track – “Sunrise” – there’s a latent fury about the state of society. “Two thousand years of your goddamn glory,” they sing. So what to do? Well, the next tune’s called “Hijack” for a reason. After more vitriol about society, they sing about stealing a spaceship, flying out into space where they can experience “free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music.” It’s amazing and completely off-the-wall, a little sci-fi tale told a way very little music even is now. It builds up into a pretty good folk-rocker, too, driven by Jefferson Starship’s choir vocals and Slick’s piano playing, building slowly with spacey guitar effects, which segue neatly into the instrumental track “Home,” which I suppose is the spaceship flying into space.
Soon, the music has a nice, wide-sounding ambience on “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight,” which is highlighted by Jerry Garcia’s pedal-steel guitar; “X-M” is ship going into overdrive or something; and the album climaxes with “Starship,” where Garcia plays a tasty electric lead while Slick and Kantner sing about flying through space, a near-mutiny on board and blasting out into the unknown: “the planetary whip of the Sun will carry you well past Gideon,” they sing.
Really, the whole thing is kind of crazy, a hippie dream about dropping out of society and living by their own rules. And in that sense, it’s actually kind of charming, a period piece of the Nixon years, right before hippie idealism turned into cynicism. At the same time, it’s almost the crowning achievement of the first grouping of Jefferson Airplane: while they hit higher peaks on all their earlier records, here they took all of their musical tricks and lyrical anger and made an album-length statement, not just a collection of songs.
But of course, that’s diminishing the sheer amount of talent on Blows Against the Empire, which is far more than just an Jefferson Airplane record: it has some of Garcia’s finest playing, for example. And the sessions led directly to Crosby’s solo masterpiece, If Only I Could Remember My Name, which features many of the same players and was recorded around the same time. It was a fertile scene but within a few years, it was gone: Jefferson Airplane splintered into Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship, Garcia and Krutzmann were busy with the Dead and solo projects and Crosby and Nash were working on various permutations of Crosby Stills and Nash. Basically, there wasn’t quite the same sense of collaboration and loose jamming from these musicians ever again.
And Kantner never had quite as good a record after this, either. Jefferson Airplane released a couple more albums (Bark and Long John Silver) before transitioning into Jefferson Starship and eventually becoming the “We Built This City” band. And with Kantner’s recent passing, Blows Against the Empire stands out as one of his best achievements on record; I like it just as much as Volunteers and Surrealistic Pillow. Maybe it’s a little crazy and certainly dated in some respects, it’s also one of the most overlooked records of it’s time. Give it a listen and let it carry you into space; chances are you’ll have a big stupid grin on your face by the time they slingshot into the ether.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.