April 1, 2020

Long John Silver / Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (Jefferson Airplane)
Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun (Kantner – Slick- Freiberg)

If anyone is unfamiliar with the work the Airplane did in that historical ‘no-man’s land’ between the end of the ’60s and the arrival of the Starship they will find this pair of releases enlightening

In which Esoteric Records turn their all-seeing retrospective eye on the final days of the Jefferson Airplane flight, shortly before they morphed into the latter-day Jefferson Starship incarnation. There are two releases here. Firstly, a double-disc package containing the final Airplane studio release, 1972’s Long John Silver (which over the years has been responsible for a string of poor jokes about pirate copies), and the following year’s live album from the resulting tour, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland. Also, we have the related album Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun, credited to Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg, but very much an Airplane ‘family’ album, and one which accompanied the transformation into the Starship.

Long John Silver, perhaps appropriately given the title, limped out somewhat on its initial release. Having released their monumental politically-charged ‘requiem for the ’60s’ album Volunteers in 1969, this was followed two years later with the relatively unremarkable Bark, before which long-time key member Marty Balin had departed. Hopes were not high for Long John Silver, and indeed much of its initial reputation arose from the controversial yet ingenious packaging, which opened up to form a cigar box containing a hidden stash of weed. However, it has built up something of a reputation as a strong parting shot over the years, and a listen to it with contemporary ears makes it easy to see why. In fact, it is conversely difficult to understand how the album was somewhat overlooked at the time, as it contains pretty much all of the ingredients which made the Airplane great. Grace Slick, first off, is in imperious form here, with her songs being highlights. The magnificent Aerie (Gang Of Eagles) is as soaring musically as is the title, while the closing heavy punch of the oddly titled Eat Starch Mom, with Slick’s rant about food additives and, bizarrely, cars, hugely entertaining. Her often meaningless yet profound-sounding lyrics are all over the album, with the aforementioned Aerie containing the couplet ‘You can’t fly, dying master / You can’t fly by yourself / You can’t fly, human master / Without a rifle on your shelf’. If there’s a better example of ‘deep and meaningless’ Grace Slick wordplay, then I’m at a loss to remember it!

The ‘inner lid’ of the original Long John Silver packaging

On the subject of lyrical content, it wouldn’t be the Airplane without some controversy, and the tracks Son Of Jesus and Easter? deliver that in spades. The former regales us with the tale of a son Jesus had with Mary Magdalene, who apparently went all Terminator after the crucifixion, hunting down the likes of Pilate and King Herod, and dispatching them with extreme prejudice and some bladed weaponry. Yep, that’ll get some people kind of riled up, for sure. They follow that up immediately with Easter?, complete with question mark, which aims both barrels at the collective targets of organised religion, the Catholic church’s wealth and Christian hypocrisy in general and simply blasts away. In 1972 this would have been even more controversial than it is today, and it is good to see a band who had been written off by some as irrelevant to the new decade still going for the jugular. There are other great tracks here: the opening title track, which actually is about a pirate, and the irrepressible Twilight Double Leader are the pick of the crop. Newly added as a full member, the fifty-something, shaven headed, black violinist Papa John Creach – who himself raised quite some eyebrows at the time – gets a showcase for his own not-inconsiderable chops on the rocking Milk Train, while Alexander The Medium deserves a mention for its excellent title alone! It’s an album you really should check out, and the only shame is that the original package isn’t reproduced, though the classic ‘tobacco’ advertising inner lid illustration, shown here, is included…

The band embarked on one final tour to promote the album, which resulted in the following year’s live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, the second album in this 2CD set, which provides an excellent snapshot of that incarnation of the band, with both Creach and other new recruit David Freiberg in the line-up. Of the seven tracks, the only one dating back to the ’60s is a slightly perfunctory Crown Of Creation, with the rest including two from Bark, three from Long John Silver and the opening Have You Seen The Saucers, which was a contemporary cut originally only released as a single. The Silver tracks consist of Milk Train, the slightly surprising inclusion of the bluesy Trial By Fire and a great closing rendition of Twilight Double Leader. Long John Silver itself was played on the tour (it has surfaced since as a bonus track on some editions) and it is surprising that it was omitted for the less dynamic Trial By Fire. Have You Seen The Saucers is a storming opening number, while the Bark selections are also highlights: When The Earth Moves Again is a commanding mid-set standout, while the extended jam on the ten-minute Feel So Good is absolutely essential Airplane. The album cover is also notable for the cover artwork featuring flying toasters, which gave rise to the later ubiquitous screensaver in the ’90s (a law suit was launched but failed as the original album art was apparently never trademarked, and the software developers denied ever having seen it in any case).

Released on the same day as the Winterland album was a related project, credited to Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg, entitled Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun, which in fact featured just about all of the Airplane cast, along with other guests Jerry Garcia and, unexpectedly, the Pointer Sisters. The somewhat odd title actually comes from the nicknames for Kantner (Baron Von Tollbooth) and Slick (The Chrome Nun, naturally) which were coined at the time by David Crosby, though where on earth the ‘tollbooth’ reference comes in nobody knows! Garcia is all over the album, contributing lead guitar on most of the tracks, and this makes the album essential listening for Grateful Dead aficionados – who will surely want to break off from acquiring the 75,000 or so Dead live albums which seem to have appeared over the years, and pick this up. It’s probably fair to say that the songwriting isn’t as strong as Long John Silver, and they were probably spreading themselves a little too thinly at that point, but the playing is splendid throughout, elevating many of the tracks to a step above their origins. Ballad Of The Chrome Nun, Your Mind Has Left Your Body and the lyrically fascinating pair of Flowers Of The Night and White Boy in particular are all more than worthy of the Airplane stamp, while Slick again excels throughout. The closing track, Sketches Of China, is perhaps the highlight of the album, with its lyrics relating directly to the country yet surely inspired by Slick and Kantner’s daughter, China, born in 1971. In actual fact, ‘China’ was something of a lucky escape, as the pair were allegedly originally planning to name the child ‘God’. Which would have been something of a high bar to live up to in school, one would think!

The musicians involved here went on to transition into Jefferson Starship in 1974, going on to record several more outstanding albums before the wheels came off somewhat disastrously with the dropping of the ‘Jefferson’ bit. If anyone is unfamiliar with the work the Airplane did in that historical ‘no-man’s land’ between the end of the ’60s and the arrival of the Starship they will find this pair of releases enlightening, as indeed will anyone interested in that particular mine of post-psychedelic ‘hippie-comedown’ rock. Fascinating stuff.