Jefferson Sound

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Posted by Keith E Rice on 04/21/02 - 02:54:32
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Have to disagree to some extent, Roman.

Between 65-78 JA/JS had a totally-distinctive sound that made them different to any other band on the planet.

The blueprint for the sound is there on the opening track of "TAKES OFF": "Blues From An Airplane" which sounds like it should have been a Kantner komposition but isn't.

Strong male and female leads with very unusual timbres - I've yet to hear anybody who sounds like Marty; and the only woman in San Francisco in 66 who sounded like Signe Anderson was Grace Slick! Shining vocal harmonies, in their own way as complex and as exciting as The Mamas & The Papas. And red-hot instrumentation, featuring upfront complex bass lines.

No one else has sounded like that - the closest I've heard personally was very early Fairport Convention. Indeed, in its review of "FLIGHT LOG" MELODY MAKER reckoned the main reason the Airplane weren't more stylistically-influential in, say, the way The Byrds were, was that it was almost impossible to imitate their sound.

When JS emerged as a refitted Airplane in 74, the JA sound was pretty much intact. ("Indeed, "Ride The Tiger" sounds like it came straight off "BARK"!) The Casady sound was effectively split: Sears did all the nimble finger stuff - indeed, in many ways was more nimble than his predecessor (just listen to that fretwork on "Devil's Den" or "Rose Goes To Yale") - while Freiberg's fuzzbox kept the Casady growl ("Switchblade", "Show Yourself"). Craig was a smoother and more melodic guitarist than Jorma but could still pull off Kaukonen-style slash on occasion. Plus, he could jam - and jam ad nauseum!

Kantner's songs - really, little more than chordal structures with gang-bang vocals - allowed the band their most adventurous arrangements - which usually meant 3-4 vocals and 4-5 instruments all fighting to be heard. (When it worked well, it made them one of the most exciting, innovative and unique bands on the face of the planet. When it didn't work, it was fucking dreadful!!)

The hits - most notably "White Rabbit", "Pretty As You Feel" and "Miracles" - were usually slightly atypical of the JA/JS sound. But even "Miracles" has enough of the soudn to be unmistakably JA/JS. Marty's lead (obviously!), Grace's instantly-recognisable voice doing "Hey, hey, hey" skits in the background and a deceptively pumping bass that every now and then breaks into complex chording and little riffs.

The sound started to become diluted with "FAPZ". Mickey Thomas is an excellent singer technically but his voice is identikit to a half-dozen other pomp-rock singers - eg: Journey's Steve Perry and that guy in Toto. Plus, pomp-rock was a direction Craig and Mickey pushed the band in.

Previously, influences - Jorma's folk-blues, Spencer's jazz leanings, Joey's liking for doo-wop harmonies, Marty's penchant for R&B - had been absorbed into the sound. With "FAPZ", the band began imitating. Consequently, the upfront bass was largely quashed: Freiberg would never again play anything interesting on record. (Live, he would sneak little extra riffs into "Stranger" and "White Rabbit".) Sears was just too good a bassist to keep quiet - but you get the sense he played the interesting bits (where he could!)against the wishes of the Chaquico-Thomas diktat.

In my view, it was this imitative bent - Craig in 82: "I don't care that people say we sound like Boston or Foreigner - I like Boston and Foreigner!" - which undermined JS both commercially and artistically in the early 80s.

I defend Mickey and those albums against those who would just rubbish them indiscriminately. (There were a number of gems; and they weren't all just written by PK.) But there's little doubt in my mind, it was a diluting of a unique sound and a unique identity which people didn't overly take to - as reflected by second-rate album sales.

Starship offered something quite different to JS - though occasionally there were JA/JS undertones (most notably on "Desperate Heart" - the last time Sears and Chquico sparred - "The Children" with its exquisite "BAXTERS"-style time changes - and "Wild Again" - the only studio track on which Brett Bloomfield really got to show his talent on bass - with those opening descending chords).

In the early 90s PK revived the core JA/JS sound. Comparisons of "DEEP SPACE/VIRGIN SKY" with "POINTED HEAD" are way over the top - at no point on "DS/VS" do you actually feel you're on a musical tightrope with no safety net and any second now you just know you've got to fall 'cause this just can't be sustained! But all the elements of JA/JS, as defined on the "Blue From An Airplane" blueprint, are there in spades. (Can't wait for "DEEPER SPACE/MORE VIRGIN SKY" - assuming we can get it this side of the pond. You listening, Michael?)

Which is one of the reasons I'm not too sure about the bassless versions of the band on tour for the past few years. If Casady won't come back and Tom Lilly won't commit full-time, then I'd much rather they recruited another really good bass player. There must be loads of young guys - and guyesses! - out there who would jump at the chance to play with a band of JS's pedigree. (I recently saw Big Brother with a couple of youngsters in the line-up and they were incredibly hot!)

So there was a unique JA/JS sound. In a sense, it was polythonic music. Most pop/rock music is symphonic - in the sense that everything supports the central melody (whichever voice or instrument is carrying the melody at that point in time). Polyohonic music has lots of little melodies going on - which when done well - mesh to create something bigger/greater.

It's like J S Bach (lots of polyphonic compositions) compared to Schubert (very symphonic). "Blue From An Airplane" is polyphonic and an awful lot of the best JA/JS stuff follows that blueprint.

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