Tuesday, October 5, 2010

370. Volunteers. Slick Hippie Rock.

Album: Volunteers
Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Year: 1969
Genre: Rock


1. We Can Be Together
2. Good Shepherd
3. The Farm
4. Hey Fredrick
1. Turn My Life Down
2. Wooden Ships
3. Eskimo Blue Day
4. A Song for All Seasons
5. Meadowlands
6. Volunteers

Before they became Jefferson Starship and then just Starship, Jefferson Airplane were a hugely influential San Fransisco rock band who genuinely pushed some boundaries and rattled some cages. They might be known today for songs like Somebody to Love, which is a fairly sweet and innocent pop song but in 1969 they were more interested in being the voice of sixties counter-culture. Volunteers was their most strident appeal and would be the album your mother warned you about if your mum had a good grasp of left-wing, proto-anarchist, hippie anthems of the late sixties.

By today's standards the lyrics on Volunteers aren't especially risque but back in 1969 the word "Fuck" wasn't making regular appearances on vinyl. If you listen closely to We Can Be Together, the opening track on Volunteers you can clearly hear the phrase "up against the wall Motherfuckers" being sung, and not just by some dirty hippie-type but by a woman. It seems that before the seventies started people hadn't worked out what they were offended by and no advisory sticker was required. Surprisingly the band performed the song without any lyrical revision on the Dick Cavett show which is apparently the first ever appearance of the word "Fuck" on American TV. The rest of the album offended America and not just because of it's language, although if you're a big swearing fan there are some random "shits" thrown about as well (also sung by Slick). We can be Together is an angry incitement to "tear down the walls," the title track openly incites revolution and Wooden Ships is a lament about what life will be like in a post-apocoplytic world. Airplane even prove that they don't need words to be controversial, Meadowlands is a strange dirge performed on an organ which many at the time would have recognised as the theme song for the Soviet Union's armed forces, which you can imagine went down well during the cold war.

Years later when bands like Rage Against the Machine have made motherfucker-ridden incitements to smash the state fairly commonplace it's possible to examine Volunteers with a focus more on the music than the controversy, which affords us an excellent chance to heap praise on Jorma Kaukonen. While he went on to establish a career as a perfomer of acoustic folk and blues, back in the sixties Jorma was the Airplane's lead guitarist and their most potent weapon. You can talk all you like about Grace Slick's vocals but for me what makes Volunteers a classic is Jorma and his six strings. Hey Frederick starts as Grace's ballad but quickly becomes Jorma's chance to shine as duels himself on a double tracked guitar break that is just magnificent. He wails and plays some magnificent passages while Nicky Hopkins pushes him along on the piano. If you're a lover of good guitarwork and you've never heard Hey Frederick then for goodness sake check it out, the only reason Kaukonen isn't better known is because nobody can pronounce either of his names.

Jorma doesn't just limit himself to one track. His talent is all over this album. It's time we saved Volunteers from the shadow of the motherfucker and treated it as the classic piece of sixties Rock and Roll that it is.

Highlight: Hey Frederick
Lowlight: The Farm, which features one of my favourite musicians playing one of my least favourite instruments.

Influenced by: The Haight Ashbury scene and the political climate.
Influenced: Pretty much every rock band with a female vocalist. Slick and Joplin laid down the blueprint for woman-front bands.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "It's too bad I've never been able to hear the first song in its entirety. My record has a big scratch right in the middle of the song, and I don't want to risk the life of my needle to find out that it obviously won't play."

-Now there's an old school complaint that you don't often hear in today's digitial age.

So are you a Volunteer or did you avoid the guys with the sign up sheets? Let me know below.


  1. Good call on the airplane although I am higher on Grace's work than on the guitar (and I love a guitar)! Just listening to Florence and the Machine today and I thought of Grace and how Florence Welch reminds me of her vocal stylings. Very intense hmmm.

  2. I love these guys. They all shacked up in some San Fran Hippy commune house, sort of like an early Full House sitcom but with lots of Persian Rugs. Great music with an exotic looking and sounding lead singer. Not a bad back up band behind her either.