My current reading matter, (Shakey, the definitive biography of Neil Young), has me thinking of San Francisco, Haight Ashbury and 1967 at the minute. Yesterday I reviewed the wonderful, eponymous Moby Grape album and today I've moved on to Surrealistic Pillow perhaps the definitive West Coast document for that Summer of Love LSD moment.
It still stands up, far and away the best thing these players produced throughout their long careers. Very much of its time, yet still a rewarding, educational and soothing listen over half a century on. By terms calming, touching and inspiring, a reminder of a time when the counter culture very clearly actually existed and it was about much, much more than just the music.
Perhaps all of that idealism was slightly misplaced. With hindsight we can see the pile up of bodies, drugs casualties, stalled revolutions, and explosive violence of the months and years that followed. The comedown. Surrealistic Pillow imagines a quite different succession of events where the garden is sustained and flourishes.
It puts forward a proposition of an alternative lifestyle to the one offered by 'The Man' and Nine to Five, but it's by no means a naive record. Airplane's second album, their first had sold modestly and they'd since replaced their lead singer Signe Anderson and brought in a new drummer. The arrival of Grace Slick and particularly the two songs she bought with her from her previous band, The Great Society, made all the difference.
Those two songs stand apart and in some ways they're not typical of the record, though when they arrive they don't jar either. Really, they're both about full on unrestrained attack and the rest of the record is considerable more quirky and eccentric than that.
On Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, Slick is allowed off the leash to devastating and highly commercial effect, but elsewhere she's mediated by the much gentler tones of Marty Balin and Paul Kantner to produce a three pronged attack that's really fundamental to why this album is still so listenable, even now that many of its sentiments seem as distant as The Flood.
There are eleven songs here, and although their moods and structures are vastly diverse, they all convey a similar assured intent. Slick, Balin and Kanter are augmented by Jorma Kaukonen's acidic, almost oriental guitar psychedelics and a driving ryhthm section, (drummer Spencer Dryden is crucial), that underpins matters throughout.
In many ways this comes across as Coffee House Punk. It certainly calls for a revolution in terms of thinking at least. 'Feed your head' indeed. But if Somebody To Love and White Rabbit take no prisoners, elsewhere proceedings are more concessionary and obscure. There are a number of genuine love songs here and The Airplane come across as willing to compromise and accept constraint. So you get You're My Best Friend, Today and Comin' Back To Me, which have as much in common with Simon & Garfunkel and Mamas & Papas as they do with Jimi Hendrix or The Who.These are altogether quite lovely songs, full of utopian fuelled energy.
But the band are always capable of putting their foot on the pedal too. 3/5 of a Mile in 20 Seconds has plenty of the fervent raga of the time, the same kind of messianic fire that powered So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star and Mr. Soul, a reminder that there was a wicked war raging in Vietnam all along and that it made the Love and Peace contingency righteously angry and rightly so.
Both exotic and approachable, Surrealistic Pillow meanders along its course to beautiful effect. A wonderfully well named record and one that sums up a time, place and attitude as well as any I can think of. A deserved commercial success, it stayed in the US Charts for over a year. Many probably bought it on the back of it and found much else going on besides.This still holds.