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Credit: RCA Victor

Unravelling the weird sixties world of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’

“We can’t stop here – this is bat country!”

In 1963, the patent for LSD expired. There was a three-year period after that where the drug was legal and, although it seems very un-sixties-like to mention admin, it was this logistical oversight that defined an era as the kaleidoscopic headwind of acid blurred the zeitgeist in a tie-die hue of peace, love and utter psychedelic mayhem. Released on this day in 1967, we’re venturing down the rabbit hole of the Jefferson Airplane song that seemed to distil a movement down to a sonic two-and-a-half minutes that the band dropped on the tongues of the freak masses all around the world, and the reverberations of that trip are still being felt to this day. “One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small.”

“I always felt like a good-looking schoolteacher singing ‘White Rabbit’,” Grace Slick once said, “I sang the words slowly and precisely, so that people who needed to hear them wouldn’t miss the point. But they did.” The analogy of a schoolteacher is, of course, madder than a hermit crab with a mortgage, but there is no doubting that her near-unrivalled chanted incantation-like vocal performance was a bid to get a message across, albeit a madcap surrealist one. Slick’s searing singing performance could haunt an empty house. While she rattles the rafters of thunderclouds, it is the words that emanate out from her that tell the tale of the sixties and the racing melody that prophesied its inevitable demise. “And the ones that mother gives you/Don’t do anything at all.”

The song might seem as though it came out fully formed, as though it was fashioned in the studio in a violent eruption of sound, but the truth is that it took a long time in the making. Slick had ‘dropped some acid’ in her Californian condo when she plopped the needle into the murky depths of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain record. “[It] was drilled into my head,” Slick explained as she sat there listening to his haunting horn “over hours and hours”, and then it “came squirting out in various ways as I wrote ‘White Rabbit’.” “Go ask Alice/When she’s ten feet tall.”

While the Vietnam War and various assassinations might have stolen the headlines, the retrospective narrative of the sixties now can be defined by two words: swinging and drugs. The song’s lyrics, via the world of Alice in Wonderland, take on the latter. Far from just the perceived psychotropic hedonism, the era was awash with all kinds of drugs. Purple Hearts, for instance, were pills that were a form of the Benzedrine’s that had been used to perk-up soldiers in World War II, and with a surplus following its resolution, people began popping them like Smarties. So much so, in fact, that the punk poet John Cooper Clarke declared in his memoir that most of his school classmates were addicted. “And if you go chasing rabbits/And you know you’re going to fall.”

This craze of pick-me-up amphetamines and diet pills aplenty weren’t even seen as drugs, at least not in the narcotic sense. They were merely the modern miracle of Western medicines continued progress. If idiocy and hatred had plunged us into the depraved horrors of the war, then technology, progress and pills were going to get us out of it. In fact, your average churchgoing housewife in the late 1950s was full of so many appetite-suppressing amphetamines that if she were busted her street value would make the evening news but fuck me were the houses clean! “Tell ‘em a hookah smoking caterpillar/Has given you the call.

Whilst British prime minister Anthony Eden was literally popping so many pills that he can’t be said to have been of sound mind during the Suez Crisis, he went unchallenged, as did everyone else because the pills came with a label. The rising use of psychedelics, however, was met with disdain, judgement and extreme condemnation. As far as Grace Slick was concerned, this was rank hypocrisy. “Call Alice/When she was just small.”

This hypocrisy came to the fore in the 1967 summer of love. It was a summer that ‘White Rabbit’ would soundtrack, and a cultural event that the world is still rattling from, as Bob Dylan’s proclamation that the times were changing and those left behind should not criticise what they can’t understand, was finally realised. That summer counterculture announced that it was not some niche fad, but a subversive force. The issue was that it was underpinned by a tailspin of hedonism impossible to sustain, but at this point, the song hadn’t reached its “throw the radio in the bath” peak yet. It was still in its authority-defying maelstrom of a middle eight. “When the men on the chessboard/Get up and tell you where to go.”

Up until the summer of love, the sixties had journeyed to the precipice, now as Grace Slick explained, it was ready to jump down the rabbit hole, the old pills were out and the new were in: “I identified with Alice [in Wonderland]. I went from the planned, bland ‘50s, to the world of being in a rock band without looking back. It was my Alice moment, heading down the hole.” The same can be said of everyone who revelled in the music that the bands produced. “And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom/And your mind is moving low.”

This was a generation brought up in the despair of war, or at the very least the depressive rationing era that followed. Therein lies the heart of all ’60s movements, whether that be the beatniks or the black panthers – a singular determination to march to the beat of a different drum and forgo this thing almost in defiance of their forebearers. If the kids of the summer of love were going to fail, then they were going to do so on their own terms, not the banal ones laid out by previous generations. “Go ask Alice/I think she’ll know.”

And fail, they would. The glorious unfulfillable crescendo of ‘White Rabbit’ is the perfect allegory for the era, that sped at 100mph with a tailwind of progress and hope right towards a red light. It was a whirlwind of beauty, teetering on the line between a tragic overture and ecstatic fun, it sounded glorious and by God if the first verse of ‘Somebody to Love’ (“When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/Don’t you want somebody to love?”) didn’t get close to answering the whole thing! But that rattling build-up forecast the delirium for Alice that lay ahead. “When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead/And the White Knight is talking backwards/And the red Queen’s off with her head!”

The next page for Grace Slick was one of blacking up, shooting a gun at police officers with a head full of acid, and inevitably the synth-pop sedation of the uber commercial ‘We Built This City’. As another of the sixties most beloved songbirds, Joni Mitchell, once said: “[In the 1970s] You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.” But it was certainly something, and the music produced in that sanguine sepia-toned spirit of the age has never been matched since. “Remember what the dormouse said:/Feed your head. Feed your head. Feed your head!”

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