Credited to Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship before there was such a thing, Blows Against the Empire remains one of my all-time favorite albums, the centerpiece to the Planet Earth Rock ’n’ Roll Orchestra (PERRO) experience, itself a loose (very loose) confederation of Bay Area musicians that cross-pollinated David Crosby’s masterful If I Could Only Remember My Name, as well as Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s first solo project, Garcia, the first eponymous Graham Nash/David Crosby record, and Nash’s own Songs for Beginners.
If that heady company doesn’t given you an idea of what’s going on here, Kantner provides some insightful notes along with the 2005 remastered Legacy CD. By the end of the ’60s, Kantner’s band Jefferson Airplane had begun to come apart at the seams. After recording their seminal album, Volunteers, in 1969 and watching as the hippie dream was beaten to death with pool cues by the Hells Angels at Altamont, the center could not hold.
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady had recently become more interested in their side project, Hot Tuna, and Marty Balin, perhaps tired of being arrested and/or punched in the head for a while, had disappeared—leaving Kantner to indulge his space fantasies at Wally Heider’s Studio in the San Francisco Tenderloin. That’s where the story gets interesting.
Kantner soon enlisted Grace Slick to help him sketch out some demos for the next Airplane album. According to Kantner’s notes, Slick had been really influenced by the playing of pianofighter-for-hire Nicky Hopkins on Volunteers. Slick’s rhythmic and dramatic grand piano work on Blows Against the Empire help to give the album a cohesive, timeless feel. Also wandering in and out of Heider’s at the time were various members of CSN, the Dead, Quicksilver, and Santana, as well as Jorma’s brother Peter Kaukonen, and Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks. Jack Casady later joined the ad-hock group and added his heavier-than-God bass playing (most notably to Slick’s vocal tour de force, Sunrise).
The new remastering job sounds fantastic, but beware: there is a very disappointing glitch four minutes into the first track, Mau Mau (Amerikon). I have to admit it took listening to the whole album three times in a row to notice it. The upside is that the record sounds so good that I was inspired to listen to it three times in row. Kantner’s dense lyrics helped hide the problem, as I often find myself drifting and riding the groove rather than hanging on every word. It’s a shame that an obnoxious digital goof mars such a great work of art.
The good news is the bonus tracks help make it well worth upgrading your copy. The “original” version of Let’s Go Together has been restored to the running order whereas the alternate version that had been strangely slipped into the first CD offering is now a bonus track. Kanter’s original question “Shall I go off and away to South America? / Shall I put out in my ships to the sea?” owe more to Crosby, Stills, and Kantner’s original vision of escape captured in the Airplane/CSN song, Wooden Ships, and it makes more sense in context of Kantner’s space opera for him to ask “Shall I go off and away to bright Andromeda?”
Slick’s acoustic demo of Sunrise proves that it is her amazing voice and not the myriad of overdubs that brings chills whenever I hear that song. SFX is Garcia and Mickey Hart goofing with musique concrete in much the same way as what became X-M on the album and Spidergawd on Garcia.
The last track is a live version of Starship from the Fillmore West later that year, but it although it sounds like latter-day Airplane, the notes don’t reveal what confederation is responsible. The Airplane would drift back together the next year for the uneven but shamefully out-of-print Bark, and hold together for one last hurrah, Long John Silver in 1972.
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, this is the high water mark where the crest of a beautiful wave broke and began to roll back.
Go to the forest and move.