The Feb. 6 edition of Saturday Night Rock paid tribute to Paul Kantner who passed away Jan. 28 at the age of 74.
Kantner was one of the founding members of the Jefferson Airplane and later went on to lead the Jefferson Starship as well as some solo projects, including the highly acclaimed Blows Against The Empire.
Music featuring former Jefferson Airplane singer Signe Toly Anderson, who also passed away Jan 28, at 74, was also played throughout the special program.
Kantner, who would become one of the primary writers in the Airplane, formed the group with Marty Balin in 1965 with Toly Anderson becoming the band’s third vocalist with Balin and Kantner while Jorma Kaukonen (guitar) Jerry Peloquin (drums) and Bob Harvey (bass) rounding out the original lineup. The band played its debut concert on Aug. 13, 1965 at the opening night of the Matrix, a club that was once a pizza parlor that Balin had purchased in San Francisco.
Peloquin and Harvey would depart the band within two months, making way for Kaukonen’s friend Jack Casady to join on bass and Skip Spence — once a guitarist in an early version of Quicksilver Messenger Service — taking over on drums. Spence, who would later form Moby Grape and play with them until 1969, left the Airplane within a year, but appeared on their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off before Spencer Dryden replaced him on drums.
Toly Anderson and Spence would leave the band shortly after their debut album came out. Toly Anderson’s final show with the Airplane was on Oct. 15, 1966 at The Fillmore. The following night, Grace Slick was on stage with the Airplane, ushering in a new era for the band which would see a new commercial breakthrough thanks to a pair of tracks – “Someone To Love” and “White Rabbit” — Slick sang in her old group The Great Society.
That fall, the Airplane went back to the studio to work on what would become the massively successful Surrealistic Pillow album which would be the best performing release by the group, eventually going to No. 3 in the charts while the singles, including the renamed “Somebody To Love” backed with “She Has Funny Cars” went to No. 5 and “White Rabbit” backed by “Plastic Fantastic Lover” went to No. 8.
Kantner only had one sole composition on “Pillow,” “D.C.B.A.–25″” – the letters referring to chord changes and the “25” a reference to LSD-25.
The acid references would return in the Airplane’s follow-up, After Bathing At Baxter’s in late 1967. “Baxter” was the band’s nickname for LSD and while the album took on a more tripped-out style, it was laden with Kantner compositions as he wrote or co-wrote half of the material, including the ode to folkie Fred Neil and author A.A. Milne “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.”
Subsequent Airplane releases Crown of Creation (1968), Volunteers (1969), Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1971) would feature more equal contributions from the band with Kantner usually having two or three tracks on each. The band would also release two live albums, Bless It’s Pointed Little Head (1969) and Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973).
The Airplane appeared at what are considered landmark festivals, Monterey International Pop Music Festival (1967), Woodstock (1969) and the infamous Altamont Free Festival (1969). Altamont, a single-day fest which some hoped would be “Woodstock West,” with planned appearances by the likes of Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Grateful Dead and headliners The Rolling Stones who played their debut performance of “Brown Sugar” at the show.
Much of it was captured by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and would appear in their film “Gimme Shelter” which featured a portion of the Airplane’s set, including the assault by Hell’s Angles on Balin who was knocked unconscious by pool cue-wielding bikers. The Dead opted to not play after learning of the violence that was breaking out.
As the Airplane began to fragment, members turned their focus to side projects. Kaukonen and Casady began playing as a duo or trio in their blues-based Hot Tuna beginning in 1969, often opening Airplane shows.
Kantner and Grace Slick linked up with a loose aggregation of Bay Area musicians including Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann from the Grateful Dead as well as David Crosby and Graham Nash to record and release Blows Against The Empire under the moniker Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship in 1970.
Kantner and Slick combined for the adventuresome Sunfighter (1971) and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (1973).
The advent of Jefferson Starship would become more relevant in the years to follow as Kantner, Slick and Balin would form a full-time band that would become more AOR-friendly and a staple on FM rock radio for the next decade plus.