Record review: Jefferson Airplane “Volunteers”

Err, who? Jefferson Airplane were the first of the 6o’s San Francisco psychedelic rock groups. Their unique sound was cemented by the acid rock guitar playing of Jorma Kaukonen and the soaring twin vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Jack Casady (Guild Starfire 2 bass with Alembic modifications) provided rock solid foundation. They epitomized the drug-taking hippie ethos as well as the left-wing, antiwar political movement of their time. They were controversial, and magnificent – especially live.
This album is the embodiment of the 60s. It’s more Woodstock than the Woodstock album. And I love it. Jefferson Airplane were and remain quintessential LSD-laced West Coast Bay Area late 60’s psychedelia. Does this mean you need to be on acid to appreciate it? Well, I don’t know. It might help, but I’ve no personal experience. However even today it’s a very potent record. It was outrageous at the time. A call to youth (not yoof, youth!) rebellion, albeit unarmed rebellion.

In a nutshell, it’s revolutionary rhetoric but set to a very compelling beat. The band were pretty much at their musical peak. Tight, solid, playing as one – with concise solos and without rampant musical egos. That came later.

What were they rebelling against? Pretty much everything. Nuclear power, capitalism, the political system, the marginalisation of ecology, and more. This music is very far from sombre though. Some of the most musically compelling rock recorded by this band and by implication the entire Bay Area community is here locked in the grooves. Well, pretty much here. I have numerous vinyl copies way back from the 60s and a couple of CD reissues too. while this vinyl is CD-quiet between tracks, some of the verve and sparkle has been lost. Frankly, I'm a bit pissed off about this. I expected more. This record isn’t cheap.
The mix is muddy and the superb rhythm section of Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden gets buried under the audio blanket. Despite this, the piercing harmonies and powerful musicianship remain – albeit slightly diminished compared to the original. Clapped out master tapes perhaps?
A serious black mark for having an undersized central hole. At this price, you don’t expect to have to open the hole out with a nail file to fit the centre spindle of a £2.8k turntable. However, very high marks for the impressive reproduction of the original artwork and an absolutely first rate if somewhat quirky set of inner sheets including lyrics. Don’t, just don’t read the lyrics before you first listen. You’ll probably not want to listen, which is a very big mistake.
Despite the bass-heavy transfer (the reissue CD is tighter in this respect), the musicianship is outstanding. The oh-so-tight harmonies between the incandescently indescribably beautiful Grace Slick and her cohort Marty Balin are spine tingling.
In summary then, outstanding music poorly served by an indifferent transfer to so-called audiophile vinyl. The record company could and should have done better. Even so, this still worth buying as a poignant yet compelling Tardis-like visit back to the 1960s. Go there and you might not want to come back.

 

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