Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Jefferson Airplane - Bless Its Pointed Little Head

Jefferson Airplane
Bless Its Pointed Little Head

Released 1969 on RCA
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 27/01/2009ce

Live albums really sprung to the fore at the tail-end of the 1960s, in the wake of Bob Dylan's seminal 1966 Tour with The Band, when The Rock Bard unleashed his Highway 61-era songs to the anger and revulsion of many in the audience. Gone were the days of packed clubs or stadia where screaming kids emptied their lungs at the feet of The Beatles and their two-minute wonders. Dylan's actions ushered in the days of ROCK, and extended jams and ear-splitting amp volume became the norm. And pretty soon, all the major acts of the late '60s had hopped on the bandwagon, leading to the defining era of live single- and double-albums, with such classics as The Allmans' At Fillmore East, The Dead's Live/Dead and Hendrix's Band of Gypsies, all mentioned above.

In this morass, Jefferson Airplane's contribution, the immense Bless Its Pointed Little Head, seems to have gone oddly un-heralded, despite being one of the very best of the period. Jefferson Airplane were -and remain- legends of the hippy counter-culture that sprung up in the mid-sixties in San Francisco. Their politically-charged and drug-tinged anthems touched a deep chord in the hearts and minds of California's youth, whilst the charisma and beauty of singer Grace Slick made them perhaps the most media-friendly of all the West Coast bands bar The Byrds. Their 1967 hits "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" became staples and signatures foran entire generation of American refuseniks.

But all that only tells a small part of the story of this singular band. They may have had hits and media exposure, which probably caused them to burn out and become rapidly obsolete as the starry-eyed sixties gave way to the cynical seventies, but at their height, they were so much more than simple poster children for fashionable -and dispensable- hippyness. Jefferson Airplane was in fact perhaps the hardest-hitting acid band in Frisco, capable of belting out a raw and ragged sound that even the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Silver, in all their jamming, couldn't equal. By 1969, Jefferson Airplane had an edge to rival the Doors and Iron Butterfly, which sat up nicely alongside their anthemic singles.

And Bless Its Pointed Little Head captured that edge and energy on vinyl. It's a proper, unfettered, warts-and-all live masterpiece that showcases not only the band's knack for anthemic tunes and the neat vocal interplay of Slick and fellow singer Marty Balin, but also their ability to let loose, to improvise and to rave it up. Everyone's a hero on Bless Its Pointed Little Head. Slick is at her best, taking her staple "Somebody to Love", for example, and turning it inside out as the band funks it up behind her, belting out some delirious rapping vocalisations like a crazed Southern gospel singer. The song is revved up, white hot, yet tight and crisp, and the band delivers similar punchy moments of brilliance on Balin's staples "The Other Side of This Life", "It's No Secret" and "3/5's of a Mile in 10 Seconds". The 'Plane's other singer demonstrates just how underrated he is, particularly on an almost punkish version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover", where he shouts himself raw above a fierce garage beat.

But, as was often the case with '60s bands, the best moments are reserved for when the band sheds its shackles and rears its improvisational head. First up comes "Fat Angel", a Donovan cover that the band completely reworks, turning it into a seven-minute psych-drone epic given over to warbling guitar solos and Paul Kantner's stoned vocals. Then the reins are handed over to guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (a truly underrated axe master, in my opinion) and superb bassist Jack Casady, who basically showcase what would become their Hot Tuna side-project with a blisffully psyched-out blues called "Rock Me Baby". Kaukonen is of course the star here, unleashing molten guitar solos that are equal parts Muddy Waters and Happy Trails-era John Cippolina.

But it's the final psych-sludge landslide improv, "Bear Melt", that seals this album as one of the truly great live albums. Slick returns to the forefront to remind us all who's boss as, over a slow, heavy blues riff, she begins rapping again, her voice hurtling skywards as she reels off bizarre lyrics and Kaukonen rips up a storm behind her. Then the band takes over, unleashing a furious, mind-melting (see what I did there?) jam that stretches out for the best part of 10 minutes before Slick takes over again to bring it all to a shuddering, growling halt. Then, ever the slick customer (man, I am an a roll here!), she drolly quips to the delirious audience, "You can move your rear ends now" before strolling off.

Raw and rampant, Bless Its Pointed Little Head is a classic live album, brilliantly displaying the Ariplane's talents for improvisation and jamming whilst also providing enough punchy, jagged rock bursts to satisfy anyone out there gagging for a little MC5-ish raw power. At times, I swear, they move into proto-metal territory, with "Bear Melt" sitting alongside the best of The Doors' and Velvet Underground's output as some sort of precursor to nineties doom, albeit with a cleaner, more innocent vibe. Check it out if you like a bit of high-octane psych joy. I would defy anyone to say that, at their height, the Airplane weren't the best in the business.

Oh, and the sound is gorgeous throughout, for those of you who hated the likes of King Crimson's Earthbound.

From my blog: http://jphimister.blogspot.com

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