45 Years Ago: Jefferson Airplane Call for a Revolution on ‘Volunteers’
Subscribe to Ultimate Classic Rock on
Jefferson Airplane‘s breakthrough second album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ was all about peace and love in 1967. Two years, and two albums, later, the San Francisco band was talking about a revolution on its post-Woodstock classic ‘Volunteers.’
Released in November 1969 as Vietnam hate raged across the nation, ‘Volunteers’ served as a middle finger to the establishment, the government and pretty much anyone else not on board with the Airplane’s worldview. It was a tough one for tough times, but the group found little reason to be cheerful and smile during those dark days of U.S. history.
So they rallied the troops with the weapons they had (their songs) while calling for something way more revolutionary than change through music. This wasn’t some metaphorical revolution Jefferson Airplane were proposing on ‘Volunteers'; they actually wanted blood in the streets.
The hypocrisy of putting an end to a bloody war with violence wasn’t lost on some members of the band, who expressed discomfort with some of the songs and sloganeering on the record. Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, for one, called them naive. And all these years later, the sentiments can strike modern listeners as a bit strident. But there’s no denying the impact and power of the album. Aside from ‘Surrealistic Pillow,’ Jefferson Airplane have never made a better record.
From the opening alarm of ‘We Can Be Together’ and the updating of the traditional ‘Good Shepherd’ to the Airplane’s take on ‘Wooden Ships’ (co-written by the band’s Paul Kantner with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, who recorded it on Crosby, Stills and Nash‘s self-titled debut released earlier in 1969) and the closing ‘Volunteers’ (barely two minutes of call-to-arms back-and-forth), ‘Volunteers’ is the sound of Woodstock’s idealism sinking in the mud.
It was a defiant move, made by a band growing more defiant by the day.
Little surprise, then, that the album was immediately hounded by controversy, starting with that very first song. The line “Up against the wall, motherf—er” (from ‘We Can Be Together’) did not sit well with the band’s record company; neither did the repeated use of the word “s—” in ‘Eskimo Blue Day.’ And the LP’s strong antiwar message also made the group’s corporate bosses somewhat uneasy.
The force of it all may have been a little too much as far as mainstream acceptance goes. But the band barely wavered. They’d always been their hometown’s scene’s most vocal and, to an extent, political group. They were used to the controversy, the suggestions and, in the end, getting their way.
All of this didn’t hurt the album’s sales much. ‘Volunteers’ reached No. 13 — not as strong as its predecessor, ‘Crown of Creation,’ or ‘Surrealistic Pillow,’ both of which made it to the Top 10. But it went gold, and remains their most adventurous album (in addition to the psychedelic and folk shadings, some country twang — thanks to Jerry Garcia‘s pedal steel — makes its way on the record).
‘Volunteers’ would be the last album by the group’s classic lineup. Singer Marty Balin and drummer Spencer Dryden weren’t around by the time Jefferson Airplane regrouped two long years later for ‘Bark,’ by which time Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady were busy with Hot Tuna, and Kantner and singer Grace Slick became parents. And by that time, the fight and fire were pretty much gone. Up against the wall indeed.