”The Long Play" is
a continuing Sunday evening Feature on The GOAT. This year, Every Sunday
Evening, Album Rock WXYG, The GOAT will feature a full album at 8:00 PM
from the halcyon musical days of 1970.
1970 was Quite an amazing year in Album Rock history. Gonna be a tough
choice every week. So many great ones to choose from.
We hope you’ll tune in next Sunday, July 12th, when We’ll be presenting
Blows Against the Empire, a concept album by Paul Kantner, released under
the name Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship. It is the first album to use
the "Starship" moniker, a name which Kantner and Grace Slick would later
use for the band that emerged after Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen left
Beginning in 1965, Paul Kantner had recorded five studio albums with
Jefferson Airplane, but by 1970 internal problems had began taking their
toll on the band, including the departure of drummer Spencer Dryden in
1970 and a rift that was forming between founder Marty Balin and the rest
of the band that would lead to Balin's departure in April 1971.
The group released only one single in 1970, and Kantner took advantage of
the hiatus to work on a solo album. Blows Against the Empire is his
concept album recorded and released in 1970, credited to Paul Kantner and
Jefferson Starship. This marks the debut of the Jefferson Starship
moniker, though not of the band of that name itself, since Blows predates
the actual formation of the band Jefferson Starship by four years.
album was recorded at Pacific High Recording Studios and Wally Heider
Recording Studios in San Francisco. The result derives from a period of
cross-collaboration during late 1969 through 1971 by a collection of
musicians from various San Francisco bands including Jefferson Airplane,
the Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, along with Crosby,
Stills, Nash & Young recording at the time in the city. These musicians
included Jack Casady, Joey Covington, David Crosby, David Freiberg, Jerry
Garcia, Mickey Hart, Paul Kantner, Bill Kreutzmann, Graham Nash, and Grace
Slick. Excepting Covington, all of these musicians would also play or sing
on Crosby's debut album recorded at the same time in the same studios.
Bassist Harvey Brooks of Electric Flag, and guitarist Peter Kaukonen,
brother of Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, also appear.
Stylistically, the songs range from the light folk of "The Baby Tree" to
the "musique concrète" passages "Home" and "XM". Kantner even presents a
kind of proto-grunge in "Mau-Mau (Amerikon)". Mostly, however, the songs
are delivered in the kind of improvised, free-form rock & roll
representative of the Bay Area bands of the day. Lyrically, the album
celebrates countercultural idealism; it is set in a future where the
counterculture is able to unite and decide their own fate far away from
planet Earth. Written in 1970, Kantner describes in "Hijack" the
construction of a starship beginning in 1980, which "ought to be ready by
The credit to Jefferson Starship reflected many things: the ad hoc
all-star line-up; the album being an evolutionary progression from
Jefferson Airplane; and finally the story it relates of the hijacking of a
starship. The album is a narrative concept album that tells the story of a
counter-culture revolution against the oppressions of "Uncle Samuel" and a
plan to steal a starship from orbit and journey into space in search of a
new home. The original vinyl release is divided into two album sides. "Mau
Mau (Amerikon)" launched Side One, a counter-culture manifesto and call to
arms. In the context of the narrative, this is the free music being
performed in the park, drawing everyone together.
"Put your old ladies back into bed,
Put your old men into their graves,
Cover their ears so they can't hear us sing,
Cover their eyes so they can't see us play."
"Get out of the way, let the people play,
We gotta get down on you,
Come alive all over you,
Dancing down, into your town."
It celebrates late-sixties counter-culture, depicting people celebrating
mind expansion and free love, "We'll ball in your parks, insane with the
flash of living...calling for acid, cocaine and grass." They've had enough
of the military, domestic and abroad, and make one of the earliest
references to Ronald Reagan in popular music in the line, "You unleash the
dogs of a grade-B movie star Governor's war...so drop your fuckin' bombs,
burn your demon babies, I will live again!" They condemn the divisive
strictures of conservative society, and dream of finding a Utopia.
"The Baby Tree", written by Rosalie Sorrels, is about an imaginary island
where babies grow on trees and are collected by happy couples when they
fall. The scene develops over the remaining album side, in "Let's Go
Together" and "A Child Is Coming", that a couple is among the gathering in
a park outside Chicago the night before the hijacking, tripping on acid as
dawn approaches. She reveals that she's pregnant, and predictably they
resolve to free their child from the government's "files and their numbers
game" by joining the hijackers. In this setting, "The Baby Tree" can be
seen as their acid-induced daydream about pregnancy, and so fits neatly
into the narrative. The allegory of "Let's Go Together" and "A Child Is
Coming" symbolizes Paul Kantner and Grace Slick's romantic relationship
and Slick's pregnancy by Kantner, which would result in the birth of their
daughter, China Kantner, the following year.
Side two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with "Sunrise", Grace
Slick's allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting,
while also symbolizing the dawn of a Utopian civilization, freed from
conservative mores and violent influences. "Sunrise" leads directly into
"Hijack", in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting
starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of "Hijack"
and leaving orbit in "Home". As the story progresses with "Have You Seen
the Stars Tonite", hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship's
engines and systems are readied in "X-M", "Starship" relates a mutiny
fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and
return, or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control, and the ship
is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner's admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was
derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A.
Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah's Children. Kantner went so
far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas.
Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas
but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. In
1971, Blows was the first rock album ever nominated for a Hugo Award in
the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. Although it received the
plurality of the vote among the five nominated works, the majority of
voters elected not to issue the award that year.
Throughout the album, Slick's acoustic piano is highlighted. She has said
that her chord-heavy technique at the time developed from watching session
player Nicky Hopkins during his many recordings with the Airplane. Most of
the tracks add standard rock instrumentation to her piano, including
electric and acoustic guitars, drums and bass. Thick vocal harmonies
backing Kantner and Slick in duet are a signature quality of many of the
A notable exception is "The Baby Tree", which has Kantner singing to a
solo banjo accompaniment by Jerry Garcia. "Sunrise" is Grace Slick's
self-penned solo vocal showcase, in part a duet with herself thanks to
multitracking. Here she is predominantly accompanied by Jack Casady
playing bass in a series of overdubs. "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?"
features lush vocal harmonies over acoustic instruments with subdued
electric guitar overlays. The acoustic parts throughout the second side
are centered on Kantner's detuned 12-string guitar, using a tuning
consisting of octaves and fifths of open C, which David Crosby has likened
to the droning tones of bagpipes.
Two tracks of the side 2 suite consist entirely of sound effects
simulating the starship engines and the flight through space. Scattered
among the other songs of the Suite are heavily processed background vocal
tracks and sound bites. During the hijack scene, an audio excerpt from the
1953 George Pal film version of War of the Worlds is used: a woman is
heard to call out "Let me through!" followed immediately by the sound of a
ray gun firing.
The original vinyl album was a single platter in a gatefold sleeve. The
cover featured a piece of Russian folk art from a painted lacquer box,
attributed to CCCP (U.S.S.R. in Russian). Kantner has said he enjoyed
stealing the art from Russia because many Jefferson Airplane albums were
bootlegged on the Russian black market. The back cover painting depicts a
partially opened parcel revealing a room inside with Jerry Garcia peeking
out, behind him a Heavy Naked Woman standing on an American Flag the
parcel being flown on a string by a trio of breasts with wings. Inside the
gatefold is more artwork with track listings and credits, done in silver
ink on black background and featuring a Paul Kantner caricature with a
head of marijuana-leaf hair rising over a mountainous planetscape and
inkblot pair of marijuana leaves in the lower fold. A mushroom on the left
hemi-sphere pyramid on the right and the mountainous planetscape is nearly
a mirror image. The inner dust jacket was decorated with collages of
musician photos, writings and doodles. Original pressings included a
full-color booklet as well, with lyrics, poetry and drawings mostly done
by Slick during the recording sessions and collected daily by Kantner.
Subsequent pressings included a black & white version of the booklet. A
small number of promotional copies of the album were released to radio
stations on clear translucent vinyl; these are now coveted by vinyl record
From a commercial standpoint, Blows Against the Empire performed
comparably to Jefferson Airplane albums of the era, peaking at #20 on the
Billboard 200 and receiving a RIAA gold certification. It was one of the
first two albums to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award in the category of
Best Dramatic Presentation.
Paul Kantner – vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, bass machine
Grace Slick – vocals, piano
Jerry Garcia – banjo on "Let's Go Together"; pedal steel guitar on "Have
You Seen the Stars Tonite"; sound effects and vocals on "XM"; lead guitar
David Crosby – vocals and guitar on "A Child Is Coming" and "Have You Seen
the Stars Tonite"; backing vocals on "Mau Mau" and "Starship"
Peter Kaukonen – lead guitar on "Mau Mau"
Jack Casady – bass on "A Child Is Coming" and "Sunrise"
Harvey Brooks – bass on "Starship"
Joey Covington – drums and vocals on "Mau Mau"; congas on "Hijack"
Bill Kreutzmann – drums on on "Let's Go Together"
Graham Nash – congas on "Hijack"; sound effects on "Home"; backing vocals
Mickey Hart – percussion on "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite"; sound
effects and vocals on "XM"
David Freiberg – backing vocals on "Starship"
Phill Sawyer– sound effects on "Home" and "XM"
Paul Kantner – producer, design
Tune In and Turn On, next Sunday evening, July 12th, and every Sunday
evening at 8:00 PM for The GOAT'S "The Long Play.”