Review #471: Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane

Karla Clifton
3 min readNov 26, 2023

#471: Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane

Everything I learned about this album more insane than the last thing I learned. Makes sense, from a San Fran band.

This wasn’t their first album, but it was the first with their most famous lineup. They replaced their original drummer with Spencer Dryden (who happened to be Charlie Chaplin’s half-nephew — the insanity has just begun) and Grace Slick. Slick was previously in a band called the Great Society, with her husband Jerry and brother-in-law Darby. In fact, Darby wrote “Somebody to Love” and released it as a Great Society single, before gifting it to the Airplane. Another insane fact: the song was originally titled “Mind Full of Bread.” What!!! What was in the water over there?

Drugs, I guess. Grace Slick wasn’t the original Acid Queen for nothing. Even the most staunchly anti-drug activist can’t help but groove to “White Rabbit.” One pill makes you larger/ And one pill makes you small/ And the ones that mother gives you/ Don’t do anything at all. How clever, how literary! And how otherworldly does her voice sound? She sounds like a drugged-up elf or angel. The otherworldliness transfers to when she plays the recorder on “Comin’ Back to Me” — we need to bring back the recorder in popular music.

Mostly, the album meditates on hippie dippie themes with cryptic poetry. There’s a couple songs about the dangers of modernity and materialism — see “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” about this newfangled new contraption called TV, and “She Has Funny Cars,” which happens to be set over the Bo Diddley beat. But they also tackle friendship (“My Best Friend”), feeling comfortable in your own skin (“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”), and breakups (“D.C.B.A. — 25”). Just look at those titles — why are there so many numbers and initials? 3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds equals 216 miles per hour — why?! What does it MEAN?

When Jefferson Airplane isn’t trying to confuse the hell out of me, they’re just being insanely talented. I just love when old bands sing entire songs together in harmony — see “How Do You Feel.” On the other hand, I also love their only instrumental, “Embryonic Journey,” a gorgeous solo 12-string guitar number. It’s weirdly comforting — like being in a womb.

Doesn’t this feel like an album that Jerry Garcia “spiritually advised” on? If it does, you’re in luck — Garcia is literally credited as a “spiritual advisor.” Why? Who knows! The extent of Garcia’s involvement is disputed, but he confessed to doing more than just “spiritually advising,” and admitted that he played the beautiful lead guitar part on “Today.”

You know the rest. Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship, then Starship. They built this city. Grace Slick tried to drug Nixon with LSD. Like I said — every new fact more insane than the last. I gotta go lie down.

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