Before Starship, there was Jefferson Starship, and before Jefferson Starship, there was Jefferson Airplane. Jefferson Starship had their merits. Starship didn’t, but they had We Built This City, a song that purists may consider the final nail in the coffin of rock and roll, but that gave the band more chart success than either of their predecessors combined. But Jefferson Airplane was where it all started and, for many, where it should have ended. Jefferson Airplane gave us some of the best psychedelic rock of the era. They gave us white rabbits and surrealism and hookah-smoking caterpillars. Most importantly of all, they gave us Grace Slick. Starship may have tarnished their legacy, but if you can forget what came later and focus on that brief, dazzling beginning, you’ll find plenty to love. These are the 10 best Jefferson Airplane songs of all time.
By 1968, Jefferson Airplane were four albums into their career and riding shotgun on the hippie express. Lather couldn’t have existed in any other era. It’s got psychedelia, it’s got freaky sound effects, it’s got medieval melodies, and it’s got Grace Slick taking a gentle poke at drummer Spencer Dryden, who was about to turn 30 and thus, by the standards of the age, become utterly untrustworthy.
9. Crown of Creation
As Rolling Stone points out, Paul Kantner wasn’t just a founding member, guitarist, singer and songwriter for Jefferson Airplane, he was the group’s conceptual heart. His love of literature and science fiction informed their style, their songs, and their direction. Case in point, Crown of Creation, a sci-fi parable inspired by John Wyndham’s sci-fi epic, “Rebirth.” Weirdly, Kantner wrote it after someone from the Democratic Party called and asked the band to write a song for them. They didn’t end up using it (which is hardly a surprise giving its wacky premise), but it’s still an excellent track, with Jack Casady’s sensationally bouncy bassline driving the whole thing along at a merry clip.
8. Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon
Jefferson Airplane may have been at the forefront of the hippie movement, but they weren’t wide-eyed flower children with more incense than sense. They were astute, and they understood that underneath the peace and the love and the daisy chains was a seedy underbelly that smelled of anything but roses. Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon sounds mellow enough on first listen, but dig beneath the sweetness and you’ll find darkness and despair.
7. The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil
Kantner loved a bit of A.A. Milne. Idolized him, in fact. The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil, Katner’s first entirely self-penned creation, might be the only rock song in creation inspired by Winnie the Pooh. But if anyone could take on Pooh and Piglet and not sound like a joke, it was Jefferson Airplane, who drench the song with enough freaky deaky weirdness to kill any suggestion of it being some sweet little kiddie’s song.
6. We Can Be Together
By mid-1969, the counterculture movement had lost its sheen. Peace and love had had its day. Charles Manson was about to have his night. If there was going to be a revolution, it was going to be at the barrel of a gun. Jefferson Airplane still wanted to fight the good fight, but they weren’t going to be meek and mild about it. Volunteers, the band’s most virile political statement, is full of fire and rage. We Can Be Together, its most incendiary song, seethes with savagery. “We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young.” they rage. “We are the forces of chaos and anarchy.” They also manage to drop a few M-bombs, which didn’t go unnoticed by the censors at the time and probably still wouldn’t now. The sound may have been psychedelic, but the sentiment was pure punk.
When Jefferson Airplane wanted to go hard, they did. But this was a band that knew when to show restraint, Today showcases their softer side, with a tender lead vocal from Kantner and a dreamy guitar pattern from guest guitarist Jerry Garcia.
Described by ultimateclassicrock.com as one of the band’s most aggressive tracks and a “rousing anthem for the more revolutionary arm of Woodstock nation,” the titular track of Volunteers was actually less political than people thought. “It became political but it didn’t start out that way,” Marty Balin explained later to Relix. “I had woken up to the sound of garbage cans crashing outside the mansion and looked out, and there was this Volunteers of America truck, so I wrote that down and gave it to Paul and he wrote the song. Bang. People put all kinds of meaning into it.” Intentional or not, it served as a fitting close to the band’s most political album, and an equally fitting farewell to the classic lineup, which, by the next album, would be long gone.
3. Wooden Ships
An allegorical tale about a group of survivors of a future apocalypse, Wooden Ships was a joint effort between Kantner, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills, who wrote the song together aboard Crosby’s yacht. It got its first airing on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s self-titled debut in 1969. It was pleasant enough that time around, but it was nothing compared to Airplane’s version. Darker and more menacing than the original, it captures the dread facing those unfortunate survivors to perfection.
2. White Rabbit
Released at the start of the Summer of Love, White Rabbit is hippie gold dust. Using Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” as a very elaborate metaphor for using LSD, its crawling pace and hypnotic drum pattern suck you into the trip of a lifetime. It gave the band a top ten hit in 1967, and remains one of their most iconic songs to this day.
1. Somebody to Love
Somebody to Love was the song that catapulted Jefferson Airplane to fame. Written by Grace Slick’s brother-in-law and former Great Society bandmate Darby Slick, it drives harder, faster, and brighter than almost anything else in their cannon. This is the song that put Haight Ashbury on the map, that helped turn the mainstream onto the counterculture, and that proved hippies could deliver hooks and hits as well as the next band. They never topped its success, but in fairness, they didn’t need to. Had they never released another song again, they would still have gone down as one of the best bands of the ’60s on the strength of this alone. Even We Built This City can’t diminish its greatness.