Sunday, July 10, 2011

July 10: Jefferson Airplane, "Somebody To Love"

Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Song: "Somebody To Love"
Album: Surrealistic Pillow
Year: 1967


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Though it has only happened a few times throughout the entire course of music history, those rare moments when there are literally "no rules" in what is acceptable for a song to become popular have proved to be the most exciting times.  When the "general public" are so open-minded for new sounds and fusions of music, the most daring and creative artists quickly rise to the top, and this is what makes so many cite the "psychedelic era" as one of the most amazing points in music history.  With the sounds of country, rock, jazz, folk, and blues all mixing together with the new advancements in recording technology, along with the booming presence of drugs and individual freedom within the youth culture, many of the most iconic acts of all time hit their stride during these years.  As the influence of the "British Invasion" began to subside, it was San Francisco, California that became the new hotbed for the "in" sound, and it was out of this town where one can claim "psychedelia" was birthed.  Though there were a number of bands that would become more closely associated with this term, few groups were as pioneering in every sense of the word as Jefferson Airplane, and there may be no more definitive a psychedelic rock album than their 1967 release, Surrealistic Pillow.  Boasting what stand as the bands' two best-known tracks, there is a presence and power that has rarely been matched within Jefferson Airplane's groundbreaking single, "Somebody To Love."

On many levels, the genius and appeal of "Somebody To Love" lives in the sheer simplicity of the tone and musical arrangement.  Led by the almost rockabilly sounding guitar of guitar icons Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, there is a swing to the song that makes it uniquely danceable.  However, there is also a sense of urgency within the guitars that demand the listener pays attention, and it is this almost aggressive edge that sets the song apart from most others being recorded at the time.  It is also this juxtaposition in sound and mood that make it a bit difficult to classify "Somebody To Love," as it has a slightly mellow edge that can make it difficult to call "rock," but as the song progresses, the intensity almost demands this distinction.  The way in which the guitars wind around one another is also nothing short of stunning, and there are few recordings from anywhere in history that can be compared to the delicate, brief explorations they each make throughout the song.  Bassist Jack Casady flies across the fret-board, injecting a completely individual groove to the song, and his playing almost gives the sensation of "Somebody To Love" bouncing back and forth.  This is complimented by an almost harsh, steady rhythm from drummer Spencer Dryden, and it is the power with which he plays that also enhances the feeling of urgency within the song.  However, it is also the more subtle elements within the music that make "Somebody To Love" so definitive, as the tambourine from Marty Balin firmly roots the song in the psychedelic sound, and serves as the perfect finishing touch.

While this more aggressive musical approach was certainly a distinct difference from the bands' previous recordings, it is the presence of Grace Slick that not only defined the new era of the band, but in many ways, the new voice of women in music as a whole.  Truth be told, there are few female performers from any point in history that have been as vital to their development as Slick, as she quickly became the icon of female empowerment, proving that women could rock just as hard as their male counterparts.  Though she would show no problem with reaching higher notes, it was her more contralto-range vocals that defined her sound.  Harnessing a power in her singing that remains largely unmatched, Grace Slick's voice remains one of only a handful which simply cannot be ignored, and never lose their impact even after hearing a song like "Somebody To Love" countless times.  Along with her voice and presence making a massive impact, one can argue that few lyrics are more representative of the entire psychedelic era than one finds here, and yet there is also a bit of a darker, edgier feel to the words.  Within the opening line of, "...when the truth is found, to be lies...," one can draw a number of interpretations, from the most basic of trust being broken in a relationship to a an all-out critique of the government, and it is this duality that makes "Somebody To Love" all the more impressive.  It is also the driving, intense way in which Grace Slick delivers each line that is completely mesmerizing, and the song retains this strength even after more than four decades.

Truth be told, Jefferson Airplane's recording of "Somebody To Love" is actually somewhat of a cover song, as it had been recorded under the name "Someone To Love" by Slick's previous band, The Great Society.  However, in nearly every way, the Jefferson Airplane version is more complete, as it has a greater presence and brings far more energy than the original.  The song also serves as a clear turning point for the band, as the more folk-based sound for which they had previously been known is all but gone throughout Surrealistic Pillow, and this can be seen as largely the result of having a magnetic and powerful figure like Slick in front of the band.  Though one can argue that it would be the follow-up single, "White Rabbit," that would define the drug-side of the psychedelic movement, there are few songs that can compare to "Somebody To Love" when it comes to representing the entire mindset of the late 1960's.  As the years have passed, the song has remained a consistent part of popular culture, being featured in countless films and television shows, along with being covered by bands ranging from The Ramones to The Boogie Pimps, as well as other groups from all across the globe.  Whether it is the seemingly spinning, almost hypnotic hard-driving musical arrangement or the staggeringly powerful, pointed vocal performance from Grace Slick, there are few songs as truly important to the development of both music and culture than one can find in Jefferson Airplaine's monumental 1967 single, "Somebody To Love."

1 comment:

Bless My Bones said...

I just discovered your blog. It's an interesting concept and you certainly have the gift of the gab (unlike me) with your well-written commentary.