Often though it might be said that if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there, nobody present ever forgot the first Jefferson Airplane albums. The band had a palette of sound like nobody else’s, mainly because the solid bass riffs and the bitingly sweet guitars were dedicated to carrying a gorgeous burden. It was the voice of Grace Slick. The female equivalent of a baritone, she could dig in on the low notes as if she were ploughing your brains with an axe of obsidian. Almost unfairly, she also looked amazing: a kind of raven-haired mythologized threat, like Kundry out on a rumble or Lilith trawling for a mate. At Woodstock the Airplane’s arrival was delayed until the early morning and the results sounded a bit thin compared with their recordings. Nor, from other venues, is there very much technically acceptable footage of the band playing in suitably hippy al fresco conditions. (Even the poets automatically associated the Airplane with the open sky: Thom Gunn, probably stoned on the weed which he had only recently discovered, wrote a two-line epic to evoke the way their music altered its volume according to the direction of the wind.) There is quite a lot of footage from their guest spots on television shows, most of it hopelessly vitiated by a scrawny sound-balance and the dreadful sets which the Americans had not yet learned to abandon. By a stroke of good fortune, however, there is a sumptuous length of black-and-white footage, tactfully doctored with inserted album covers, which preserves one of their most beautiful songs intact. “Somebody to Love” was the very first Airplane number ever to blow me away, and I link to it here with unalloyed glee, confident that it will take the new viewer back into the best part of the immediate past. Crucially, the bass lines are boosted to their proper prominence, thereby underlining the Airplane’s fundamental power balance between band and singer. As for the singer, she still sounds like the low hoot of the mystery train, and, dare I say it, still looks like the dangerous dream girl of every mother’s son. She looks and sounds like her name in fact: long, dreamy Christian name, whiplash surname. Grace Slick: born to ride in the back of a limo, with the guys thinking up new tunes for her to slay the crowd with, because they knew she was the most precious instrument they had. Where did it all go? Well, time took it. Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship and eventually, all too recently, it was Jefferson Car-Crash. But back in the day they were as good as the music ever got.
Update October 2009: Alas, it was too good to last, and the television show clip has been taken down for copyright reasons. But the song, featuring the Airplane at its growling best, can be heard performed over a non-distracting still.
[ Update August 2020: Clive's recommended TV-show clip seems to have been expunged from the historical record. There are now several American TV appearances on YouTube, all ostensibly live but turning out to be mimed (including one in which bass guitarist Jack Casady has wound his guitar lead around the headstock of his instrument, as if to emphasise the fact). I've provided links here and on the video player to (1) the official Sony video, featuring the original track against a static shot of the Surrealistic Pillow album cover, and (2) The Airplane's appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival — a bit rough, shaky and muddy of a video but it captures the moment, and we can hear the bass. — Archive Ed. ]