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Credit: RCA Victor

Music

55 years since the Jefferson Airplane album 'Surrealistic Pillow'

8.9

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the release of one of the most influential rock albums of all time. Surrealistic Pillow was the second album to be released by San Francisco psychedelic rock legends Jefferson Airplane. For this second studio release of theirs, the group had brought in Grace Slick as the lead vocalist who brought an edge to the band’s sound that seemed to meet their burgeoning creative force right on cue. 

In the mid-to-late 1960s, American rock music seemed to have an east coast versus west coast rivalry much like hip-hop would experience some thirty years later. On the east side, the avant-garde counter-culture stirrings of The Velvet Underground had been making a great deal of noise in the New York underground music scene. The Velvet Underground were appearing to antagonise the half-full cup of the west coast with their half-empty step into salacious depravity and heroin abuse. On the west coast, bands appeared to be promoting the lighter side of life with a blurred can-do hippie spirit ostensibly fuelled by the ample supply of LSD in California. Of this west coast explosion of psychedelic rock, Jefferson Airplane became the very tip of the spearhead after the arrival of their iconic Surrealistic Pillow. 

Surrealistic Pillow was released in February 1967 and seemed to form the voice of a generation. By the summer of 1967, it appeared that the album had been timed perfectly as a precursor to the famous ‘Summer of Love’ that year. The ‘Summer of Love’ was a social phenomenon that began with around 100,000 hippie’s congregating in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. The gathering spurred a number of major music acts such as The Who, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to visit the area and perform for the sea of hippies. Jefferson Airplane were also among the acts to grace the gatherings and it seemed that no song met the free-love attitude of the movement more than ‘Somebody to Love’.

The music released on Surrealistic Pillow seems to perfectly reflect this moment in history, and the songs have since been regularly soundtracked and referenced in popular culture; for instance, the beautiful acoustic instrumental piece ‘Embryonic Journey’ was famously used in the very last scene of the hit US sitcom Friends.

Likely the most notable and extensive reference, however, came from the journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson. He had been an active journalist during the summer of love and wrote about the movement for the New York Times throughout the period. He later wrote his famous semi-autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream in which he recounted his experiences in the late ‘60s. In the 1998 film adaption, starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, ‘Somebody to Love’ soundtracks the scene where he is in a San Francisco nightclub taking psychedelic drugs. 

Later on in the story, his attorney, named Dr Gonzo, has a psychological breakdown in a Las Vegas hotel room and asks Raoul Duke (Thompson’s semi-fictionalised character for himself) to kill him by dropping a radio into the bathtub he’s sitting in. The radio is playing the song ‘White Rabbit’ from Surrealistic Pillow and he asks Duke to drop the radio into the tub at the dramatic climax of the song. Dr Gonzo: “and when [‘White Rabbit’] comes to that fantastic note where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin’ radio into the tub with me”.

‘White Rabbit’ was the second highest-charting track from Surrealistic Pillow after ‘Somebody to Love’. The lyrics are a clever link of references between Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the psychedelic experience. It seemed to connect vastly with the hippie community and, along with other hits on the album such as ‘Today’ and ‘My Best Friend’, it seemed to provide the most perfect soundtrack to both ‘The Summer of Love’ in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. 

The album is a truly unique work of art that has been immortalised by its intrinsic link to the emerging counterculture in the late 1960s. However, putting the cultural attachments to one side, the music alone is a creative triumph that has a great balance of tempos and emotions expressed throughout that make it unparalleled by any other artist in the psychedelic rock genre. It’s no surprise to me that one can still hear ‘Somebody to Love’ blasting out on the radio to this day 55 years on.