The best album by the Airplane? For me, that’s easy. Volunteers. Their previous album, Crown of Creation was a good one, full of psychedelic rock. Volunteers, the Airplane’s fifth album, was released in 1969, infused a folk flavor, and was controversial by intent. Anti-war lyrics and pro-ecology, the album’s lyrics included “motherfucker” and “shit” so I guess that was a bit edgy 50 years ago.
Volunteers is also full of expansive musical riffs and strong melodic verses, with songs by Slick, Kantner, Balin, Dryden and Kaukonen, in addition to other writers. Kaukonen stepped up as a writer and arranger, while Balin was less of a presence as a writer on the album, and would be leaving the band. The inclusion of “Good Shepard” and “Meadowland,” not written by band members, was based on tailoring the songs to fit the the lyrical landscape of the album.
The protest and militant lyrics of Volunteers was a middle finger to Richard Nixon and the Establishment. The album came out the same year as Woodstock, but this wasn’t a peace and love album, which was the vibe with Surrealistic Pillow, of just two years ago. Volunteers was an angry album, and the subtext of the lyrics suggested that if things weren’t going to change, maybe it was time for a revolution and new leadership. Very heady stuff. The record company was concerned about the push-back, from radio and from government. These were difficult times in America.
The album was originally going to be titled Volunteers of America, but the organization of the same name objected. The Airplane set out to make an album that reflected the rising forces in this country opposed to the war, against pollution and the strong arm of government. Funny, 50 years later, with war in the Middle East, the concerns over environmental regulations and climate change and the fear of the rising tide of fascism, this album could be made today.
“But there is most assuredly something there with the Airplane, something that may raise the musical sophistication and complexity of rock and roll to new heights. The only trouble is that in the process, the Airplane is turning off a part of their audience, those who might be called successors to the it’s-got-a-nice-beat-and-you-can-dance-to-it people.” – Rolling Stone review.
No. Title Writer(s) Length
- “We Can Be Together” Paul Kantner 5:48 The song starts sedately enough with a nice piano and lead guitar duet, then soaring harmony vocals. It’s a very melodic song, a counterpoint to the aggressive lyrics calling for change. Half-way through the song, the music becomes more aggressive to match the energy of the lyrics. Still, it retains melodic beauty.
- “Good Shepherd” traditional, arranged by Jorma Kaukonen 4:21 A pleasing acoustic guitar and piano folk song that has Kaukonen’s raging electric guitar in the background. Again, like the previous song, the song retains a folk beauty with harmony vocals and finger-picking guitar. It is a gentle song with underlying power of saying to take care of our fellow man.
- “The Farm” Kantner, Gary Blackman 3:15 A countrified rock song, with steel guitar by Jerry Garcia and excellent piano by Grace Slick. The good life of living on the farm, communing with nature.
- “Hey Fredrick” Grace Slick 8:26 A very sassy song by Slick and one of her best vocal performances. Slick, an underrated pianist, provides a great songscape, with the help of Kaukonen’s guitar. At over eight minutes, some critics have termed this song progressive-rock because of its jazz-rock mid-section. Whatever it is, the song’s instrumental section is not just an excuse for excess, it has purpose as the group shows its musical prowess.
No. Title Writer(s) Length
- “Turn My Life Down” Kaukonen 2:54 Balin takes lead vocals. A peppy but weak song by comparison, not one of my favorites, but a nice song with organ by Stephen Stills.
- “Wooden Ships” David Crosby, Kantner, Stephen Stills 6:24 A rather unique song. It was written by the three and first appeared on the Crosby, Stills & Nash debut album of a few months earlier, but Kantner was not credited, due to a legal dispute with the Airplane’s manager. Of the two versions, I like this one better, it lacks the tighter production of the CS&N version but this one has a better vocal harmonies, piano, guitar solo and sound effects. This version also contains verses added by Kantner not in the CS&N version. Both versions are good. The song references the aftermath of a nuclear war.
- “Eskimo Blue Day” Slick, Kantner 6:31 An angrier vocal performance by Slick, who also contributes a nice recorder. A song about ecology and the human impact on the environment, and very much ahead of its time. This song has some jazzy chords in the middle section. “Consider how small you are, Compared to your scream, The human dream, Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”
- “A Song for All Seasons” Spencer Dryden 3:28 A full blown country song, doesn’t quite fit the vibe of the album. Piano provided by Nicky Hopkins (Rolling Stones).
- “Meadowlands” Lev Knipper 1:04 Grace Slick on organ, you’ll recognize the Russian Army song melody.
- “Volunteers” Marty Balin, Kantner 2:08 This is a call to action, “Got to Revolution, got to revolution.” The song is a coda to the album. The music feels like an anthem in it’s feel, it rocks, particularly with Hopkins pounding out the piano part.
Al Schmitt (Steely Dan, George Benson, Henry Mancini) – producer
Grace Slick – vocals, piano on “The Farm”, “Hey Fredrick”, “Eskimo Blue Day” and “Volunteers”, organ on “Meadowlands”, recorder on “Eskimo Blue Day”
Paul Kantner – vocals, rhythm guitar
Marty Balin – vocals, percussion
Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, vocals
Jack Casady – bass
Spencer Dryden – drums, percussion
Guest musicians included: Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Nicky Hopkins.
A 2004 reissue includes five live tracks from a 1969 concert.
Volunteers, even though it was strong musically, now has a dated quality to it. Protests against Nixon and the Vietnam War faded in the rear view, and environmental awareness grew into a separate movement. Raging about these issues were bold then, but now relegated to the old hippie movement of the 1960s.
Even Cassidy and Kaukonen weren’t fully invested in the revolution theme, Cassidy calling it theater. Viewed through the searing political divide at the time, this album is fascinating and quite daring. Anarchy or theater, it is a product of the times.
Musically, it is also an album that stands on its own.
Caring about freedom, questioning the sending of boys to war, concern about the environment: We should all be good shepherds.