Episode one hundred and fifty-eight of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “White Rabbit”, Jefferson Airplane, and the rise of the San Francisco sound. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a twenty-three-minute bonus episode available, on "Omaha" by Moby Grape.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
I refer to Back to Methuselah by Robert Heinlein. This is of course a play by George Bernard Shaw. What I meant to say was Methuselah's Children.
I hope to upload a Mixcloud tomorrow, and will edit it in, but have had some problems with the site today.
Jefferson Airplane's first four studio albums, plus a 1968 live album, can be found in this box set.
I've referred to three main books here. Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane by Jeff Tamarkin is written with the co-operation of the band members, but still finds room to criticise them. Jefferson Airplane On Track by Richard Molesworth is a song-by-song guide to the band's music. And Been So Long: My Life and Music by Jorma Kaukonen is Kaukonen's autobiography.
Some information on Skip Spence and Matthew Katz also comes from What's Big and Purple and Lives in the Ocean?: The Moby Grape Story, by Cam Cobb, which I also used for this week's bonus.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
Before I start, I need to confess an important and hugely embarrassing error in this episode. I've only ever seen Marty Balin's name written down, never heard it spoken, and only after recording the episode, during the editing process, did I discover I mispronounce it throughout. It's usually an advantage for the podcast that I get my information from books rather than TV documentaries and the like, because they contain far more information, but occasionally it causes problems like that. My apologies.
Also a brief note that this episode contains some mentions of racism, antisemitism, drug and alcohol abuse, and gun violence.
One of the themes we've looked at in recent episodes is the way the centre of the musical world -- at least the musical world as it was regarded by the people who thought of themselves as hip in the mid-sixties -- was changing in 1967. Up to this point, for a few years there had been two clear centres of the rock and pop music worlds. In the UK, there was London, and any British band who meant anything had to base themselves there. And in the US, at some point around 1963, the centre of the music industry had moved West. Up to then it had largely been based in New York, and there was still a thriving industry there as of the mid sixties. But increasingly the records that mattered, that everyone in the country had been listening to, had come out of LA
Soul music was, of course, still coming primarily from Detroit and from the Country-Soul triangle in Tennessee and Alabama, but when it came to the new brand of electric-guitar rock that was taking over the airwaves, LA was, up until the first few months of 1967, the only city that was competing with London, and was the place to be.
But as we heard in the episode on "San Francisco", with the Monterey Pop Festival all that started to change. While the business part of the music business remained centred in LA, and would largely remain so, LA was no longer the hip place to be. Almost overnight, jangly guitars, harmonies, and Brian Jones hairstyles were out, and feedback, extended solos, and droopy moustaches were in. The place to be was no longer LA, but a few hundred miles North, in San Francisco -- something that the LA bands were not all entirely happy about:
[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, "Who Needs the Peace Corps?"]
In truth, the San Francisco music scene, unlike many of the scenes we've looked at so far in this series, had rather a limited impact on the wider world of music. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company were all both massively commercially successful and highly regarded by critics, but unlike many of the other bands we've looked at before and will look at in future, they didn't have much of an influence on the bands that would come after them, musically at least.
Possibly this is because the music from the San Francisco scene was always primarily that -- music created by and for a specific group of people, and inextricable from its context. The San Francisco musicians were defining themselves by their geographical location, their peers, and the situation they were in, and their music was so specifically of the place and time that to attempt to copy it outside of that context would appear ridiculous, so while many of those bands remain much loved to this day, and many made some great music, it's very hard to point to ways in which that music influenced later bands.
But what they did influence was the whole of rock music culture. For at least the next thirty years, and arguably to this day, the parameters in which rock musicians worked if they wanted to be taken seriously – their aesthetic and political ideals, their methods of collaboration, the cultural norms around drug use and sexual promiscuity, ideas of artistic freedom and authenticity, the choice of acceptable instruments – in short, what it meant to be a rock musician rather than a pop, jazz, country, or soul artist – all those things were defined by the cultural and behavioural norms of the San Francisco scene between about 1966 and 68. Without the San Francisco scene there's no Woodstock, no Rolling Stone magazine, no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, no hippies, no groupies, no rock stars.
So over the next few months we're going to take several trips to the Bay Area, and look at the bands which, for a brief time, defined the counterculture in America.
The story of Jefferson Airplane -- and unlike other bands we've looked at recently, like The Pink Floyd and The Buffalo Springfield, they never had a definite article at the start of their name to wither away like a vestigial organ in subsequent years -- starts with Marty Balin. Balin was born in Ohio, but was a relatively sickly child -- he later talked about being autistic, and seems to have had the chronic illnesses that so often go with neurodivergence -- so in the hope that the dry air would be good for his chest his family moved to Arizona. Then when his father couldn't find work there, they moved further west to San Francisco, in the Haight-Ashbury area, long before that area became the byword for the hippie movement. But it was in LA that he started his music career, and got his surname.
Balin had been named Marty Buchwald as a kid, but when he was nineteen he had accompanied a friend to LA to visit a music publisher, and had ended up singing backing vocals on her demos. While he was there, he had encountered the arranger Jimmy Haskell. Haskell was on his way to becoming one of the most prominent arrangers in the music industry, and in his long career he would go on to do arrangements for Bobby Gentry, Blondie, Steely Dan, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others. But at the time he was best known for his work on Ricky Nelson's hits:
[Excerpt: Ricky Nelson, "Hello Mary Lou"]
Haskell thought that Marty had the makings of a Ricky Nelson style star, as he was a good-looking young man with a decent voice, and he became a mentor for the young man. Making the kind of records that Haskell arranged was expensive, and so Haskell suggested a deal to him -- if Marty's father would pay for studio time and musicians, Haskell would make a record with him and find him a label to put it out.
Marty's father did indeed pay for the studio time and the musicians -- some of the finest working in LA at the time. The record, released under the name Marty Balin, featured Jack Nitzsche on keyboards, Earl Palmer on drums, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Red Callender on bass, and Glen Campbell and Barney Kessell on guitars, and came out on Challenge Records, a label owned by Gene Autry:
[Excerpt: Marty Balin, "Nobody But You"]
Neither that, nor Balin's follow-up single, sold a noticeable amount of copies, and his career as a teen idol was over before it had begun. Instead, as many musicians of his age did, he decided to get into folk music, joining a vocal harmony group called the Town Criers, who patterned themselves after the Weavers, and performed the same kind of material that every other clean-cut folk vocal group was performing at the time -- the kind of songs that John Phillips and Steve Stills and Cass Elliot and Van Dyke Parks and the rest were all performing in their own groups at the same time.
The Town Criers never made any records while they were together, but some archival recordings of them have been released over the decades:
[Excerpt: The Town Criers, "900 Miles"]
The Town Criers split up, and Balin started performing as a solo folkie again. But like all those other then-folk musicians, Balin realised that he had to adapt to the K/T-event level folk music extinction that happened when the Beatles hit America like a meteorite. He had to form a folk-rock group if he wanted to survive -- and given that there were no venues for such a group to play in San Francisco, he also had to start a nightclub for them to play in.
He started hanging around the hootenannies in the area, looking for musicians who might form an electric band. The first person he decided on was a performer called Paul Kantner, mainly because he liked his attitude. Kantner had got on stage in front of a particularly drunk, loud, crowd, and performed precisely half a song before deciding he wasn't going to perform in front of people like that and walking off sta
The editing of this episode is all over the shop, to such an extent that it is almost unlistenable.
To some, racism is like a 9 year old with a bottle of ketchup. It's put on everything.
How did you ever not give any mention to "Stagger Lee"?
That was a great episode. I always loved that album and the story around it is a great one.
brilliant podcast and awesome episode (Honky Tonk)
Of all the great episodes you have put out, this was my favorite so far. Thanks for all the work you put into this podcast.
wonderful. could listen all day to this
Good grief. I long for the good old days, when the episodes came in at no more than about an hour long. I suspect Mr Hickey has forgotten the title of his own podcast.
This podcast really hits the spot, great music, great history and stories I never hear before.
Hope you get better. Yes, these are fucked up times. Got turned on to your podcast while listening to Let it Roll. I have learned an awful lot. Like, James Brown was hired by Little Richard to be Little Richard in small clubs he was contractually obligated to while Richard went off to be a star when he suddenly had huge hits. Boy, to go back in time and see that!
I was enjoying this but your increasingly frequent attempts to placate the woke police by reminding everyone you're a white man is becoming tiresome. What does the colour of your skin have to do with musical analysis? Or even cultural analysis? Let it stand and fall with the quality of your research and arguments, I don't care what colour your skin is it what country you come from. I know these days that makes me some kind of racist but well, that's just dumb
Very interesting episode. extremely well researched and thorough.
Hi Andrew - Jusr wanted to add my voice to what I'm sure will be a very large chorus among your listeners and say thank you for all the hard work you put into AHOR. Each episode has been very detailed and interesting, and I'm surprised you get them out at the rate you do. Good luck with everything. All the best, Francis
Not a problem I'm on catch up No .94, your podcasts have filled out a lot of gaps in my music knowledge, thanks for putting it all in perspective of the times, highly recommend
All the best from Australia love your podcasts 👍👍
All your work is appreciated and loved. Hope you feel better and life eases up on you from all angles. Take care and all the best
You might want to add to your compilation of stack-o-lee versions the very energetic one sung by Samuel L. Jackson in the movie Black Snake Moan. It seems to be based somewhat on the Johnny Otis version? That's a wonderful soundtrack in general and I was very surprised to hear that Samuel L. Jackson could sing so well. My favorite though is the Mississippi John Hurt version because it is simple and because it acknowledges the truth rather than glorifying. Stack O Lee is a cruel, bad man! Also, I expected you might say something about how the name is often modified, e.g. Stagger Lee.
Feel the well soon fella. Learning lots off yer pods. Cheers 2U
Loads of us will be very sorry to hear this. Your health is more important than podcasts, no matter how brilliant they are (and they are brilliant). Please concentrate on your wellbeing.
Great episode but missing was reference to/story of Abel Meeropol, Communist Party member who wrote Strange Fruit. Important detail that really needed to be there.