“Through literacy, you can begin to see the universe. Through music, you can reach anybody. Between the two, there is you, unstoppable.” – Grace Slick
Grace Slick, the American singer-songwriter, has the same unstoppable spirit as the quote above. Also known as the Acid Queen, her contribution to psychedelic music in San Francisco’s mid-1960s flourishing music scene, though considerably overlooked, can’t be denied. However, the lack of recognition didn’t break her, fierce as she was, she kept working at her own pace, silently adding one gem after the another in her list.
Born in 1939 Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, it isn’t easy to pinpoint a moment when music caught Grace’s attention. Her family had a purely academical background in which her father was an investment banker. Maybe it was the travelling associated with her father’s job that exposed Grace to different cultures and made an impression on her that later surfaced through her music. Grace, who was drawn to academics just like her family, would walk the same path in her early life and eventually completed her University degree in 1959.
However impressive as that was, it would be her marriage to the director Gerald Slick in 1961 which saw the beginning of her musical career. Slick began writing and composing music her husband’s small projects, including a short film. Therefore, the beginning of her journey can be said to be a spontaneous one which flourished with time and encouragement.
Let’s take a look back at her musical journey and reassess Grace slick’s contribution, which has been undermined for far too long.
Six definitive songs of Grace slick:
‘White Rabbit’ (1965)
Even though Slick lived in the musical hubbub of San Francisco, she didn’t consider it as a genuine career option. It was after she saw the newly formed band Jefferson Airplane feature in San Francisco Chronicles and their live performance at a nightclub called The Matrix, that she decided to embark on the journey. She formed the band The Great Society, a project in which she acted as the vocalist and guitarist whereas her husband Jerry Slick played the drums, his brother Darby Slick the lead guitar and David Miner the bass guitar.
‘White Rabbit’ was written and composed by Grace. It was a psychedelic number with which the band opened their first public performance at a venue named Coffee Gallery. The song uses Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland, or it’s sequel Through the Lookin-Glass, as imagery through the varying dimensions after taking pills or, on other occasions, drinking an unfamiliar liquid. Slick said the story was assumed to be a slap to parents who read their children such novels and then criticised them later when they started using drugs.
‘Somebody to Love’ (1967)
Though her own band became quite popular by 1966, Grace left the group for Jefferson Airplane, a decision which she claimed was made because the band had a more professional approach. When the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane Signe Toly Anderson quit the band, Grace was offered the position. Her presence was heavily felt in the band as their music turned from a folk-rock style to a psychedelic style that was Grace’s signature.
The song was originally penned by Darby Slick and was released on The Great Society album in 1966 under a local label. Grace took the song with her when she joined Jefferson Airplane and subsequently the band released the song in their album Surrealistic Pillow in 1967 along with ‘White Rabbit.’ The Airplane’s more ferocious rock and roll version became the band’s first and most significant success reaching number five on the Billboard Hot 100.
The lyrics, which talked about loyalty and monogamy against the budding concept of free love of which San Francisco was a central hub, was slightly altered in the Airplane’s version where it narrated the story from a second-person point of view to create an aura of alienation.
‘Mexico’ was a single by the Jefferson Airplane which would soon break apart after their six years of popularity. Written and sung by Grace, it was a rant against the then president of the United States Richard Nixon and his anti-drug drive. Operation Intercept implemented in1969 curtailed the drug flow, mainly marijuana from Mexico to the US.
The song was banned in some states, a decision which meant the track was barely ever played on the radio. However, it still reached number 102 in the charts. After five months after its release, the president requested that songs relating to drug abuse should not be broadcasted.
Slick formed Jefferson Starship with Kantner and other bandmates after Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen decided to leave Jefferson Airplane. Shortly around the same time, the keyboardist and bassist Pete Sears was also recruited. Together with Sears, Grace penned many songs for the newly formed band. ‘Hyperdrive’ was a song in their debut album Dragonfly released in 1974.
The album turned out to be a huge success, climbing as high as number 11 on the Billboard 200 charts before later emerging as a certified a gold record. This album also saw the emergence of a new type of music compared to Grace’s Airplane days. On the night of Nixon’s resignation, Grace was working on her vocals of ‘Hyperdrive’ and Grace’s satin-smooth voice is an absolute treat to the ears.
‘Do it the Hard Way’ (1980)
Grace Slick didn’t have a separate solo career per se. She released a few solo albums during her Jefferson Starship days, and it was during her first solo effort, Manhole, that she first met Pete Sears. Dreams was her second individual album which was released by the RCA records. The album reached number 32 on the Billboard charts and also attained the number 28 position on the UK album chart.
‘Do it the Hard Way’ thematically explored more of psychedelia and was a totally different approach, musically. It can be called a prototype of her style, or a peek at her musical standpoint during this time.
‘We Build this City’ (1985)
In 1985 a change in musical direction was introduced. The subsequent loss of personnel and a lawsuit settlement led to a name change of the band from Jefferson Starship to Starship. ‘We Build this City’ was written by Bernie Taupin, Martin Page, Dennis Lambert and Peter Wolf and was released as the band’s debut single in the album Knee Deep in the Hoopla.
The song is about an argument between the singer’s Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas and an unidentified “you”, presumably directed towards the executive of the music industry who marginalised the band, ripping them off by “playing corporation games.” As a protest to this injustice, the singers yell: “Listen to the radio! Don’t you remember? We built this city on rock and roll!”