The thing about Surrealistic Pillow is that its so easy to write off.
Newcomer Grace Slick commands the room as soon as “Somebody to Love” starts, that brief a capella “When the truth is found…” like an announcement that Jefferson Airplane has officially taken off (despite what their debut’s title would’ve had you believed), and the climax of “White Rabbit” seems to rest completely on her shoulders. You know these two tracks, because that’s all that’s ever talked about when Surrealistic Pillow is mentioned, and worse, that’s all that’s ever talked about as far as Jefferson Airplane is concerned. I don’t mean to make it seem like these two singles aren’t worth talking about; they are the best things on this album by a huge stretch and they both place somewhere in the top 100 tracks of the 60’s. Just so you appreciate the importance of these tracks, they’re the ones that put America on the charts, right next to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the rest of the British Invasion goodness, coming just in time because the Byrds had fallen out of view. What I’m getting at is while Surrealistic Pillow is an incredibly flawed album, it’s certainly worth listening to as an album.
It’s flawed because the band has no idea what they are doing here. Surrealistic Pillow is an album without an identity; it’ll hand you an acid rock track (“Somebody to Love”) and immediately follow it with a track that sounds way too 60’s for its own good (Skip Spence’s leftover “My Best Friend”). This sort of variety both helps and hurts Surrealistic Pillow. It prevents the album from becoming one-dimensional, but the lack of identity makes the main attractions stand out way too much. And while there’s almost nothing wrong with tracks like “Today” or “Comin’ Back To Me” (well … the latter suffers from being about twice the length of the rest of the tracks here), other than the fact that there are better places to look for this folksy stuff (for example, Love will come out with a masterpiece in Forever Changes that same year).
None of these tracks are bad, though. A couple are directionless; like the (albeit pleasant) cover of “How Do You Feel,” or the lazily titled “D.C.B.A.-25,” which, because of its a multi-vocaled approach, the potentially good melody becomes lost in the mix (lazily titled, because it slams together the chords that it uses, “D.C.B.A.” and a reference to LSD, “-25.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; hippie culture is the worst). The rest of these tracks all have staying power. After more than 8-minutes of slow acoustics, the acid rock guitars of “3/5 of a Mile” attempts to recapture the momentum of “Somebody to Love,” somewhat successfully. The way everything builds on an almost lyrical drumming in “She Has Funny Cars” kicks things off to a great start. On the opposite end, the ode to television closer “Plastic Fantastic Lover” predates the fast-singing of Love’s “Bummer in the Summer” by a couple of months. The 2-minute interlude,
While new blood Grace Slick may have injected new life into the band, it’s important to note that Jefferson Airplane is a band, and not Grace Slick’s backing band. “Embryonic Journey,” written and solely performed by Jorma Kaukonen provides ample proof of that. It’s 2-minutes of psychedelic folk music, the way those cleanly-plucked acoustic strings just wash over you while simultaneously providing an appreciable melody. Elsewhere, Kaukonen’s guitar is just as loud as the chorused “DON’T YOU WANT SOMEBODY TO LOVE / DON’T YOU NEED SOMEBODY TO LOVE / WOULDN’T YOU LOVE SOMEBODY TO LOVE / YOU BETTER FIND SOMEBODY TO LOVE.” And while nothing beats Grace Slick’s closing lines, “FEED YOUR HEADDDDDDD,” you’d be a fool to think that the track would’ve been nearly the accomplishment it is without Dryden’s military drumming. At you post-rockists who love to listen to and then talk about crescendos, nothing beats “White Rabbit.” This is a crescendo upon crescendos, and probably the best I’ve ever heard, accomplished in only 2 and a half minutes. And frankly, I love Alice in Wonderland references.
1. I’m sure you’ve only taken a cursory glance at the cover. I mean, why would you spend more time on it? It’s the typical 60’s cover, with all the members in a (cute, pink-tinged) group shot. But, notice how, aside from Grace Slick, all of the other members have a smirk at best (they’re also rocking Beatles hairdos). Grace Slick, on the other hand? That smile could stop world wars.
2. Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards.