UPDATED November 12, 2018
With the sad passing of Marty Balin and the release of Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography, Jefferson Airplane has probably made more headlines in the past few weeks than in the preceding few decades. So it seemed appropriate to focus the first installment of “The Best Version Of…” (TBVO), my new Computer Audiophile column dedicated to finding the best digital editions of classic albums, on one of the Airplane’s albums.
At one time, Jefferson Airplane was the brightest light in the constellation of bands that defined the amorphous “San Francisco Sound” of the 1960s. (“Trying to describe the Sound is like trying to describe air,” quipped Airplane and Moby Grape manager Matthew Katz. “It’s nearly impossible.”) More than just a local or regional phenomenon, the Airplane was also arguably “the best rock band in the country,” as famed music critic Ralph Gleason proclaimed in 1967.
But the subsequent decades have seen the Airplane get eclipsed in the popular imagination by some of their Frisco compatriots, whether due to tragedy (Janis Joplin), longevity (Grateful Dead), or mystery (Skip Spence). While the Airplane’s legend has been grounded since the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and the airing of an obligatory VH1 Behind the Music episode in 1998, recent years have seen Joplin, the Dead, and the once-forgotten Spence treated to scholarly monographs, critically-acclaimed documentaries, countless reissues and archival releases, and tribute albums galore.
Jefferson Airplane’s standing has surely suffered, at least in part, due to what followed the group’s demise. Whereas Joplin and Spence don’t have cringe-worthy post-‘60s output to live down and the Dead’s subpar late-career studio albums are largely overshadowed by its reputation as a live act, the Airplane beget Jefferson Starship and Starship, best remembered for 1985’s “We Built This City,” a song that even vocalist Grace Slick now calls “awful” and which is regularly placed near the top of lists ranking the worst songs of all-time.
The Airplane has fallen so far that the ubiquitous edited collection 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die includes just one Airplane album – three fewer than Metallica. The album included on that list, 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow, might not be the Airplane’s best album (my vote for that honor would go to 1969’s Volunteers), but it’s the band’s most iconic and perhaps the best place to begin a much-needed critical reevaluation and popular revival of the Airplane’s music.
Though Surrealistic Pillow was the Airplane’s sophomore album, it was the first to feature the band’s classic lineup of Balin, Kaukonen, and Paul Kantner on guitar and vocals, Jack Casady on bass, Spencer Dryden on drums, and Slick on vocals, keyboards, and recorder. Dryden and Slick were new additions. The band’s 1966 debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, had featured Spence on drums and Signe Anderson on vocals. Anderson departed after giving birth and Spence, who was already displaying signs of the mental illness that would plague him for the rest of his career, left to form Moby Grape.
Even in its earliest incarnation, Jefferson Airplane’s music was difficult to categorize. “It is not folk music, nor blues, nor rock ’n’ roll, yet there is something of all these forms in the Airplane’s sound,” San Francisco Chronicle critic John Wasserman wrote in 1965. “Elements of Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the topical, ‘White’ urban blues all assert themselves at one time or another and, although there are but hints at this time, it is entirely possible that this will be the new direction of contemporary American pop music.”
But the Airplane’s new lineup produced an album that was both more diverse and more powerful than Takes Off. Whereas Balin took lead vocals on the majority of the Airplane’s debut, vocal duties on Surrealistic Pillow were split between Balin, Slick, Kantner, and Kaukonen. Pillow was also the album where the Airplane first successfully melded its varied influences into its signature brand of psychedelic rock. “If you think about it,” Kaukonen has said, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was a folk-rock album while Surrealistic Pillow is rock and roll, and the songs are less than three minutes.”
The addition of Slick was key to the band’s more muscular approach. As David Crosby told Airplane biographer Jeff Tamarkin, “When they got Grace in the band, that was just beyond belief. She was stunning. She had a power and intensity[.]” Casady agreed: “Grace would lead us in different directions. I could play a lot more aggressive bass lines than I could to some of the things that Signe would do, which were much more folk-oriented. Here was something I could put my teeth into.”
Two songs that Slick brought with her from her previous group, The Great Society, were crucial to establishing the Airplane’s heavier sound, and both of those tracks, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” became Billboard and Cash Box top-10 singles in 1967.
“Somebody to Love” was written by Slick’s brother-in-law after his girlfriend cheated on him, and in the hands of The Great Society it was a somber tune. The Airplane’s rendition, on the other hand, ratchets up the tempo and the drama.
The Airplane owed this new arrangement to the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia (who is only credited on the album as “Musical and Spiritual Adviser,” but, by most accounts, played guitar on several tracks). “The original [‘Somebody to Love’] on the album is more or less my arrangement, I kind of rewrote it,” Garcia explained in a 1967 interview. “I’ve always liked the song she used to do with the Great Society, but it didn’t have – the chord changes weren’t very interesting.”
Above the charging bass-drums-guitar foundation laid out by Casady, Dryden, Kaukonen, and Kantner, Slick spits out the words of the song’s opening couplet (“When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies”), turning a sad reflection on infidelity into an angry denunciation of all hypocrisy and disappointment, whether personal, societal, or political. (For good reason, the Coen brothers made “Somebody to Love” the musical motif in “A Serious Man,” their 2009 meditation on the anxiety and depression wrought by life’s unfairness and uncertainty.) By the time “Somebody to Love” ends three minutes later with a siren-like solo from Kaukonen, the listener has barely had a chance to catch their breath.
Slick wrote the other Great Society holdover track, “White Rabbit,” at home on a junk store upright piano with missing keys. Its eclectic musical influences, according to Slick, were Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain and Ravel’s Boléro. Lyrically, Slick wove psychedelic imagery from Lewis Carroll stories into a commentary on older generations’ displeasure with Baby Boomers’ drug use. “To this day, I don’t think most people realize the song was aimed at parents who drank and told their kids not to do drugs,” Slick told the Wall Street Journal in 2016. “I felt they were full of crap, but to write a good song, you need a few more words than that.”
Like “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit” had been performed by The Great Society in a much different form. The Great Society’s “White Rabbit” wore the track’s musical influences on its sleeve. It clocked in at over six minutes, beginning with a three-minute instrumental jam before eventually building to something that somewhat resembles the Airplane’s eventual arrangement.
Led by Casady’s tight bassline, the Airplane scrapped The Great Society’s plodding jam and turned “White Rabbit” into a two-and-a-half-minute powerhouse. “The room [at RCA Studios] was massive. So we basically set up the instrumentation in the middle of this room and played it live onto four-track,” Casady has said. “It was very simple to record. I just led the song out as a bass part like Boléro, ripping off Ravel. It was all slow and slinky, it gave us the atmosphere we wanted.”
The highlight of “White Rabbit” is Slick’s soaring vocal. “After we recorded ‘White Rabbit,’ we all went into the control room to hear the playback on the monitor speakers,” Slick told the Journal. “I was blown away. I wasn’t aware I sounded like that, with all that power. I was impressed.”
The band was thrilled with the track. “It was a masterpiece, really,” Balin said later. “Perfectly written for the perfect time.” Yet, according to Cassidy, the band almost left “White Rabbit” off of Pillow, because they were worried it would be censored. Luckily, it made the cut.
One final track to add to our TBV) analysis is “Today.” Sung by Balin and co-written by Balin and Kantner, “Today” is, in the words of Tamarkin, “one of the great love songs of the era, an unabashed romantic paean devoid of both irony and gushiness.”
“I wrote it to try to meet Tony Bennett,” Balin claimed. “He was recording in the next studio. I admired him, so I thought I’d write him a song. I never got to meet him, but the Airplane ended up doing it.”
While it’s hard to imagine a Bennett arrangement of “Today,” the Airplane’s version – which allegedly features Garcia playing the plaintive guitar figure that repeats throughout the song – is a haunting piece of work.
Whatever their virtues as songs, however, “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and “Today” all suffer to varying degrees from the sonic shortcomings that make Surrealistic Pillow far from an audiophile recording. Though producer Rick Jarrard and engineer Dave Hassinger are often praised for their work, it’s hard to hear why on Pillow. The album is plagued by tape hiss and slathered in reverb.
It’s tempting to chalk the hiss up to the album’s age, but other rock albums released that year – including Sgt. Pepper’s, Buffalo Springfield Again, The Doors, and Younger Than Yesterday – are much quieter. Instead, the noise floor on Surrealistic Pillow is more in line with the lo-fi albums of 1967, like The Velvet Underground & Nico and Safe as Milk.
In part, Jarrard, Hassinger, and the Airplane were hamstrung by RCA’s Studio B in Hollywood. As Doors producer Paul Rothchild told Crawdaddy, “Dave Hassinger is a perfect example of a great engineer in a bad studio…. [H]e was strapped by one of the worst recording studios in the country, the now-famous RCA Victor Studio B in Hollywood, a colossus of an antique.” Indeed, Studio B’s limitations affected the band’s recording practices. “It’s important to note that Surrealistic Pillow was recorded on just four tracks, no noise reduction,” Kaukonen has noted. “So you couldn’t overdub more than once or you would degrade the track.”
While the tape hiss may be the result of an unavoidable technical limitation, the heaping spoonful of reverb was a production choice by Jarrard that drew “mixed reactions” from the band, according to Tamarkin. On one hand, the reverb gives Pillow a uniform sound and adds to the album’s psychedelic feel. On the other hand, it exacerbates the album’s distant, sometimes tinny sound.
Ultimately, then, finding the best digital Surrealistic Pillow is about discerning which edition squeezes the most fidelity out of a compromised source.
There are no hi-res downloads of Pillow, but there are at least five distinct readily available1 CDs of the album: 1) a late-1980s stereo mastering used for both Grunt and RCA CD releases with a PCD1 designation, 2) a mid-1990s stereo/mono remastering overseen by Paul Williams used for both a 1995 RCA gold CD release and a 2001 RCA silver CD release, 3) a 2003 stereo remastering by Bob Irwin, featuring six bonus tracks, released as stand-alone CD and as part of the “Original Album Classics” five-album box, 4) a 2013 stereo CD remaster by Culture Factory, and 5) a 2016 mono hybrid SACD remastered by Shawn Britton and Rob LoVerde for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab.
For better or worse, two of the editions can be thrown out immediately. The first is the Williams transfer used for the stereo/mono twofer CDs. These discs have good dynamics, whether measured by crest factor DR score or R128 dynamic range, and having both the stereo and mono mixes on the same disc is a real value. However, the Williams discs suffer from odd noise reduction, likely aimed at improving the aforementioned tape hiss.
Interestingly, astute fans have found that, while the gold and silver discs overseen by Williams appear to be the same digital transfer, they have different amounts of noise reduction, with the silver disc seeming to have an additional layer of noise reduction not present on the original gold CD.
The track lengths on both discs are the same and their dynamic range scores and the waveforms2 are nearly identical, but an overlay of the frequency spectrum3 of “Somebody to Love” on both discs confirms that they’re different. As discerning listeners suspected, it looks as though the gold edition (gold waveform) has more high-end energy than the later silver edition (silver waveform), despite being the same digital transfers:
(click to enlarge and see animated gif)
Subjective listening bears out this theory. 4 The silver edition sounds more heavily processed and muffled than the gold edition.
The issues with both the gold and silver twofers become clearest when comparing them to all of the other editions of the album. The Williams editions’ noise reduction not only creates odd artifacts, particularly on cymbals and acoustic guitars, but it also strips away some of the high end musical information and detail along with the tape hiss. In this case at least, the noise reduction cure is worse than the hiss disease.
The other edition that can be swiftly dispensed with is the Culture Factory remaster. A quick comparison of “White Rabbit” waveforms illustrates why. The 2003 Irwin remaster (which isn’t even the most dynamic digital edition of Pillow) is in red, and the 2013 Culture Factory remaster is in green:
(click to enlarge and see animated gif)
The numbers bear out what the waveforms show.
On every other CD edition of Surrealistic Pillow, “White Rabbit” scores an 11 or 12 DR value and has an R128 range of between 13 and 16 dBs. On the Culture Factory edition, “White Rabbit” has a 4 DR value with a 7.9 dB R128 range. Needless to say, a hissy, reverb-drenched album isn’t improved by being subjected to “loudness war”-style compression.
That leaves two contenders for the best digital stereo edition of Surrealistic Pillow: the Irwin remaster and the original PCD1 Grunt and RCA editions.5
First, let’s compare the waveform of “Today” on both editions. The original RCA is in blue and the Irwin remaster is in red:
(click to enlarge and see animated gif)
It’s clear that the Irwin disc is mastered slightly louder, but it’s not more compressed. “Today” is a DR 11 and a R128 8.0 dB on the RCA and a DR 10 and R128 8.2 on the Irwin – differences that are minor and cut in opposite directions.
Next, let’s look at frequency differences between “Somebody to Love” on the original RCA edition (black) and Irwin remaster (pink):
(click to enlarge and see animated gif)
As the screenshots show, the two editions are very different, with the Irwin remaster having significantly more top-end energy.6
Irwin has taken pains to explain that his Airplane remasters hewed as closely to the original production intent as possible, especially with equalization. “[E]ven though the original two-track masters had been used before…in each successive use and remastering, they got further and further away from the original sound of the albums…. [P]eople were taking liberties with EQ and different things…,” he told Analog Planet in 2003. “Conceptually, early on, consulting with Bill Thompson, the Airplane’s manager, Rob Santos of BMG and the band members, I said, ‘The right thing to do here, and the thing that I want to do here is to restore them to the way they should sound – the way they sounded on the original records’…. [A]ll the original cutting notes were intact. You know, which songs had to come up in level, and ‘put the left channel half a dB up on this song,’ etc. – all that stuff was there. So, as far as it comes to doing the actual album ‘bodies,’ it was restoration and following the original notes and not taking liberties.”
Subjectively, the differences between the two editions are clear. The RCA sounds fuzzier and has less low-level information, while the Irwin remaster sounds clearer and more detailed (but not in an artificial, over-EQed way). While some of this is certainly due to different equalization choices, it’s also possible that the Irwin remaster is helped by a better transfer from the master tapes or advances in analog-to-digital conversion technology.
No matter the reason, the Irwin CD wins the day over the original RCA CD. Even better, it’s the most readily available version of Surrealistic Pillow – selling for a whopping seven bucks new – and it features some genuinely worthwhile bonus tracks, including the mono single versions of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
Speaking of the mono edition of Pillow, the recommendation there is easy. Given the noise reduction issues with the mono/stereo twofers, the Mobile Fidelity SACD is really the only game in town, and like most MoFi editions, it’s clean and dynamic.
The mono mix slightly reduces the reverb and is more impactful, though at the cost of some of the stereo version’s ethereal appeal. It’s worth hearing both the stereo and mono mix, since it’s really a question of preference.
Ultimately, then, the Irwin stereo remaster gets the first TBOV nod, with the MoFi SACD getting a secondary TBOV recommendation for listeners who want to hear Surrealistic Pillow in all its mono glory.
Finally, if Pillow is your first trip on the Airplane, it’s worth flying deeper into the band’s catalog and picking up Volunteers and Crown of Creation, too. No matter how bad “We Built This City” was or what 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die claims, Pillow isn’t Jefferson Airplane’s only great album. And the worst Airplane album is still better than the best Metallica album, at least in this author’s humble opinion!
UPDATE November 12, 2018
I promised that I’d update this first installment of TBVO if I was able to secure a few of the more obscure pressings of Surrealistic Pillow, and I’m ready to make good on that promise.
Two of the most sought-after editions of Surrealistic Pillow are a 1987 Japanese edition that fetches in excess of $30 on Discogs and a slightly less pricey, though seemingly even rarer, 1995 Japanese edition. This TBVO update will pit these editions against the Irwin remaster, which TBVO crowned the best stereo mastering of Surrealistic Pillow.
Despite its steep price, the 1987 Japanese pressing is anything but special. In fact, it appears to be slightly louder than, but otherwise identical to, the original RCA pressing of Surrealistic Pillow, as evidenced by comparing the frequency spectrums of “Somebody to Love” from the original RCA edition (black) and the 1987 Japanese pressing (green):
A comparison of MusicScope reports seems to confirm this suspicion:
The 1995 Japanese pressing, on the other hand, does appear to be a unique mastering. In terms of both dynamic range and tonality, this edition is closest to the Irwin remaster. However, it accentuates the top-end energy that some people dislike about the Irwin remaster, producing a mastering that’s undeniably over-bright, even when paired with a rolled-off DAC or dark headphones.
This mastering’s additional brilliance is evident from a comparison of the frequency spectrums for “Somebody to Love” from the Irwin pressing (pink) and the 1995 Japanese pressing (orange):
The result of this extra treble is a noticeably brighter sound that introduces grating sibilance on phrases like “makes you small” from “White Rabbit.” It doesn’t make for a pleasant listen.
Ultimately, neither of these Japanese pressings are worthy of their sought-after status, but at least that means you can keep your wallets closed and stick with the cheap and ubiquitous Irwin edition!
1. There are also some exceedingly rare Japanese editions, but it’s unclear if these editions feature different transfers or mastering than their more common counterparts. If I’m ever able to lay my hands on any of these editions, I may add an addendum to this edition of TBVO.
2. Audacity was used for waveforms.
3. DFasma was used for frequency graphs. On import, the left and right channels were averaged, and a Hann window for the entire song was produced.
4. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played Audirvana Plus. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. Most critical listening was done on a diverse set of headphones: NAD HP50, Sennheiser/Massdrop HD6XX, and Focal Clear.
6. When looking at these screenshots, note that these are not normalized files, and the Irwin remaster is slightly louder. However, even with normalized files, the Irwin remaster has significantly more energy above 17,500 Hz.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.