The “Listen Again” series went over well enough here in the L.A. area that your favorite rockin’ record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some Los Angeles TV execs and do a spin-off. In this series we once more examine previously-released albums BUT the platters we shall peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) FIVE-STAR albums. In this edition we discuss a request from friends at a great new Facebook group–You grew up in the Souderton/ Telford/ Harleysville area if you remember—Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers.
As some already know, The Jefferson Airplane is an American band originally formed in San Francisco, CA in 1965. This was one of the first San Franciscan psychedelic rock bands to internationally become both a critical and commercial success. They racked up a couple of Top 10 US hit singles and a string of Top 20 albums including their sixth release– the five-star ranked Volunteers.
The recording sessions for the album began in 1969 in a 16-track studio in San Fran. (It would be the final album to be credited to the “classic” band roster.) That roster included: Grace Slick (vocals, piano, recorder and organ), Paul Kantner (vocals and rhythm guitar), Marty Balin (vocals and percussion), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar and vocals), Jack Casady (bass) and Spencer Dryden (drums and percussion).
This originally 11-track, political platter would have its release date delayed due to the group getting into a conflict with their record label over the intended original title Volunteers of Amerikkka and the content of a couple of the tracks (mainly) “We Can Be Together” and “Uncle Sam Blues”. “Uncle Sam Blues” was pulled off the record (and later released on another LP).
RCA specifically took issue with the phrase “up against the wall, motherf*cker” in Kantner’s song “We Can Be Together”. The band won that argument by pointing out that the label had no problem with the so-called “offending word” being on the cast album of the musical Hair. The title track “Volunteers” included the lyrical line: “in order to survive, we steal, cheat, lie, forge, f*ck, hide, and deal”, which was also left on the recording. The singles, however, did not survive intact. The word “motherf*cker” in “We Can Be Together” was changed to a drawn out “Ma”and the word “f*ck” in “Volunteers” was changed to—God knows why–“fred”.
The remaining ten cuts totaled up to less than 45 minutes of playing time. Side One opens with “We Can Be Together”. Guest pianist veteran session man Nicky Hopkins contributed his distinctive talents here (and to a few other cuts as well).
The second selection is the cover version of the traditional piece “Good Shepherd” which features interesting guitar work. These two tunes were both two of the most well-known on the album. “The Farm” follows featuring the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar and vocals by Ace of Cups. This country rock cut was also one of the songs which explored themes such as community, ecology and nature. The side closed with “Hey Fredrick”. This was a lengthy track written by Slick and was highlighted by dueling guitar solos.
The flip side’s lead-in is “Turn My Life Down”. This is musically memorable for Stephen Stills guesting on Hammond organ and for future Airplane drummer Joey Covington playing the congas. It also includes vocals by Ace of Cups as well.
The next number is “Wooden Ships”. This is the definitive, post-apocalyptic cut co-written by Kantner, David Crosby and Stephen Stills. (In fact, which Crosby, Stills & Nash also recorded on their debut album.) This was also one of the more popular album tracks complete with noteworthy guitar work.
“Eskimo Blue Day” follows next here. This is another song that focuses on such themes as nature and ecology. (Oddly enough, on this cut Covington plays the chair.) This is yet another controversial cut as it includes the word “sh*t” repeatedly.
The next number is “A Song for All Seasons”. This is another piece on which the group gets into some country rock music. Guest singer Bill Laudner contributed vocals.
“Meadowlands” is another traditional piece the band covers on this album. The closing cut is also the title track. “Volunteers” is, of course, perhaps the best-known number off the entire album. This tune was inspired by a noisy “Volunteers of America” garbage truck that woke Balin up one morning.
Instrumentally-speaking many critics conclude this was their best moment and that they were never sharper. The material on this album is a blend of different rock genres including country, hard rock and psychedelic and acid rock. It also is considered their most political material.
It emphasized the group’s clear opposition to the Vietnam War and the overall fluctuating political atmosphere in the US at the time. It was filled with strong pro-anarchy and anti-war sentiments. It was also one of the first 16-track recordings. Eventually the album was released in late 1969. It was the group’s fourth top twenty record.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the lyrics and messages in the music, the recording was both a critical and commercial success. With the abbreviated title Volunteers the platter pushed its way up to number 13 and went gold in 1970. The title track single went to number 65 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart.
In 1973 the album would be remixed and a Quadraphonic (4 channel) version of the wax would hit the record racks. The quad version was also released on reel to reel and 8-track cartridge tape. The mixes are exceptionally different in several cases.
For example, “Hey Fredrick” has a different lead vocal, they include a different recording of “Volunteers” and “The Farm”‘s backing vocals by the Ace of Cups is brought up to the fore. (A few cuts from this version would later be featured in the 3 CD box set Jefferson Airplane Loves You, but the 4 channel recordings therein were reduced to 2 channels because of technical limitations of compact discs.)
The album would not go unnoticed in the new millennium either. In fact, in 2003, the disc was ranked number 370 on Rolling Stonemagazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Additionally, the following year (2004) the album would be re-released on CD.
It would include 5 bonus tracks off the band’s yearly Thanksgiving concert at the Fillmore East, New York in 1969. The bonus tracks include live versions of “Good Shepherd”, the classic cut “Somebody To Love”, the fun “Plastic Fantastic Lover” “Wooden Ships” and, of course the title tune “Volunteers”. 2009 witness yet one more release of this now classic album. The album itself and the entire live gig at the 1969 Woodstock Festival were packaged together as Jefferson Airplane Woodstock Experience.
Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers/RCA AFL1-4238is their best studio album and, unfortunately, marked the group’s last gasp in its most memorable, talented form. The material truly was a stirring tribute to what was an almost utopian idealism in the late 1960s. While similar statements from that era have not dated well since then, the message music here still stands if mainly due to their refusal to despair and the naïve realism.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.