As far as classic psychedelic rock albums go, few have been as widely regarded as Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane. It was the second studio album released by the band in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love. It was their most successful album and the first to feature vocalist Grace Slick and drummer Spencer Dryden. The album peaked at number three on the Billboard charts and has since been certified Platinum.
I wanted to take a fresh listen and look back at Surrealistic Pillow for this edition of Classic Albums Revisited. I’ve heard it plenty of times before, but I wanted to examine the tracks and history of the album a bit deeper.
About Surrealistic Pillow
In the relatively brief time Jefferson Airplane made music together, the band became one of the foremost psych-rock pioneers and defined what would later be called The San Francisco Sound. They were the first band from the Bay Area that achieved widespread commercial success, as the Haight-Asbury scene would develop around them and other bands in the Sixties.
Jefferson Airplane’s debut LP, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off in 1966, was successful, but Surrealistic Pillow was an absolute international blockbuster. Grace Slick’s recruitment to the band was crucial in its breakthrough. Her powerful voice complemented Marty Balin’s vocals and was very suited to the band’s loud, amplified psychedelic sound.
Slick was also beautiful and had an impressive stage presence. The album’s most popular songs, Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, were provided to the band by Slick’s old act. Somebody to Love was by her brother-in-law, Darby Slick.
The lineup of Jefferson Airplane consisting of Balin, Slick, Paul Kantner (guitar, vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, vocals), Jack Casady (bass), and Spencer Dryden (drums) stayed together from 1966 to 1970. Balin left the band in ‘71, and after ‘72, the band effectively split into two groups: Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship. The lineup from 1966 to 1970 would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and forever changed rock music.
The album starts with She Has Funny Cars, a song co-written by Balin and Kaukonen. The lyrics emphasize materialism in American society, a common theme of early psych and counterculture songs. Musically, She Has Funny Cars is driven by a Bo Diddley-like beat and a strong guitar riff that sounds similar to The Beatles’ Day Tripper. It’s a solid opener, with Balin providing most of the vocals, complemented by vocals from Slick.
Somebody to Love bursts in next, a song you’ve likely heard even if you’re not a psych rock fan. As mentioned above, this song was written by Grace Slick’s brother-in-law, Darby, for the band The Great Society. It was initially recorded by that band, which Grace was in before Jefferson Airplane, on December 4, 1965, and released in February 1966. Darby Slick wrote the song after his girlfriend left him, and the lyrics talk of the virtues of loyalty and monogamy. This was rare in San Fran in the Sixties, the epicenter of the free love movement.
It’s hard to listen to Somebody to Love with a fresh perspective after hearing it so many times over the years. What surprised me upon closer inspection was how short the song was – just under three minutes. This song is also where Grace Slick’s vocal talents are fully displayed. Somebody to Love is energetic and full of vigor, and Slick’s voice comes booming through.
My Best Friend is a definite throwback song. It has that classic Sixties psychedelic feel and seems like something that could be in a Disney movie. The song was written by the band’s former drummer, Skip Spence, and was released as a single. By the time Surrealistic Pillow was recorded, Spence had left the band to join Moby Grape. It’s a sweet, catchy pop song, if not a little corny. One reviewer even said the song is even “polite.”
Today is one of the most popular songs from the album, a folk-rock ballad written by Balin and Kantner. Balin would later say he wrote the song to try to meet Tony Bennet, who was recording in the next studio. The trick never worked for Balin, but they recorded the song anyway. Another fun fact: Jerry Garcia plays the simple and repetitive guitar riff in this one.
Comin’ Back to Me is one of the more psychedelic songs on the record, for a good reason. It was written by Balin and created soon after he “indulged in some primo-grade marijuana” given to him by blues singer Paul Butterfield. Balin wrote the song furiously in one sitting and immediately dashed to the studio to record it with any available musicians. You can hear the beginnings of the psychedelic folk sound in this song, which would become very popular. Comin’ Back to Me would later be covered by Rickie Lee Jones and Richie Havens and appear on the soundtrack of numerous movies years later, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, of all things.
3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds is another song written by Marty Balin and perhaps one of the least memorable on the album. Like many songs, it’s shorter at just over three-and-a-half minutes. There’s plenty of rocking energy and a nice guitar solo, and it lays down the template for future psych rockers. It also has that jingle-jangle guitar tone that would become a psych-rock staple. It’s an okay song, but not one of my favorites on the album.
How Do You Feel is one of my favorite songs on the album. The rich sound of the acoustic guitars and (from what I could tell) flute gives this track an airy, trippy early psychedelic feel. This one was written by Tom Mastin and is longer than most of the songs on the album. There are layers of vocals, with the lead singer accompanied by a chorus of background vocals. It also has an Eastern vibe that would be so prominent in the music of early psychedelia.
Embryonic Journey is one of the more popular tracks despite being less than two minutes. Written by Jorma Kaukonen, this short instrumental is a beautiful acoustic ballad with some excellent playing. Kraukonen composed this short tune in 1962 during a guitar workshop in Santa Clara, and he only included it on Surrealistic Pillow at the band’s behest.
The second-to-last song on the original release is one that everyone probably knows: White Rabbit. Grace Slick wrote the song and drew inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. White Rabbit was released as a single and became Jefferson Airplane’s second top-10 hit, peaking at number eight on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s one of the most iconic songs in rock history and appears on numerous best songs ever lists, including The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock.
Grace Slick wrote and performed White Rabbit while still with her previous band, The Great Society. Slick wrote the song after an acid trip, and it’s easy to tell by listening to the surrealistic imagery of the lyrics. The Great Society’s version of the song was longer and more aggressive than the one recorded by Jefferson Airplane. Slick said she was heavily influenced by Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain (1960) when writing White Rabbit. She was later quoted as saying, “Writing weird stuff about Alice backed by a dark Spanish march was in step with what was going on in San Francisco then. We were all trying to get as far away from the expected as possible.”
Plastic Fantastic Lover closes side two of the original release, a groovy song written by Marty Balin. Like most of the songs on the album, it’s short and only two and a half minutes long. It may be the most groove-driven song on Surrealistic Pillow, and it reminds me of the type of songs Jimi Hendrix made around the same time.
Surrealistic Pillow is not one of my favorites from the early psychedelic era, but it’s hard to deny its towering influence. Jefferson Airplane’s fusion of folk rock, acid rock, and psychedelia was wholly original at the time. Along with bands like The Byrds and The Beatles, this album pretty much defined the early psych-rock sound.
This album was also the one that launched the San Francisco music scene into national and international attention. A bohemian culture had already started in San Fran in the Fifties with The Beats like Jack Kerouac, but Jefferson Airplane would extend and propel the scene forward in the Sixties into the Haight-Asbury counterculture.
I also learned a few interesting aspects of Surrealistic Pillow during the research for this article. The biggest one was the role of The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia in the making of the album. Producer Rick Jarrard has denied Garcia’s presence on several tracks, but Jerry is credited on the RCA label copy. Some say Jerry was a “spiritual advisor” and “sage counsel” during the making of the album, but he also played on some of the songs. Others say Jerry was essentially the producer who arranged the songs during the recording process. At the very least, the album’s title comes from Garcia. Jerry commented that the music was “as surrealistic as a pillow is soft,” which reportedly inspired the title.
No matter how you look at it, Surrealistic Pillow was a groundbreaking album that still stands the test of time when listening to it today. Many psychedelic bands owe credence to this masterpiece, and one can argue the psychedelic genre wouldn’t be what it is today without it.