On High with Jefferson Airplane
by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"
Climb to the top of Primrose Hill in north London and the views
across the city are spectacular. It’s an ascent well worth the effort. Tourists from all over the world visit there
to take in the vista. The skyline has changed out of all recognition from the one that greeted onlookers in the
Sixties, when St Paul’s Cathedral dominated the rooftops, but the appeal of the place is still strong. I often take
to the summit on the occasions I’m in that part of London and invariably cast my mind back to a chilly, damp day
late in 1968 when the park was buzzing to the sound of the magical Jefferson Airplane …
ENTERING through one of the park’s heavy metal gates, I join a
group of colourfully dressed youngsters and head for the crest of the hill in the distance. I look upwards through
the soft drizzly spots of rain and see the backs of some twenty or thirty people standing and pointing to something
of interest in front of them before they scramble out of sight. As we get closer to the top we hear the launch of a
boom of drums and the roar of guitars that confirms we’re heading in the right direction. The music is immediately
identifiable. Jefferson Airplane has taken off and their distinctive vocals are soaring.
As I cross the brow of the hill, I make out the band tightly
packed on the cramped open-air stage. It’s a long way from the sunny climes of San Francisco to the dull, wet skies
that hang threateningly overhead but the Airplane obviously aren’t fazed. The sultry dark-haired singer Grace Slick
and her fellow band members look comfortable and in command. They exude a cool look and exciting stage presence.
So, not surprisingly, the few hundred enthusiastic onlookers are showing a real determination not to allow he
weather to interfere with their enjoyment, and the band responds accordingly. It isn’t long before they conjure up
a catchy fusion of folk rock and psychedelic goodies. It’s very clear why they are quickly winning over a growing
following in Britain.
It’s a pity the audience isn’t bigger. I tell myself that many
more people would have turned up to the free concert if the local council had given the event more publicity. I’m
only here myself because of a very late-in-the-day telephone call to the local newspaper I’m working on, inviting a
reporter to come along. I leap at the opportunity. I’ve bought the band’s Surrealistic Pillow album and like it
from the start, so I’m obviously keen to see and hear them in the flesh, and I’m not disappointed. There are superb
versions of You Me & Pooneil, Somebody To Love and, my personal favourite, the slow bolero beat White Rabbit.
All in all, an experience I’m glad I haven’t missed. After all, I ask myself, what’s a little rain when the
entertainment is so uplifting, bright and vibrant? And a quick chat with Grace Slick and Paul Kantner after the gig
is the icing on the cake. They’re both charming and very appreciative of the reception they’ve received. They seem
genuinely surprised that people want to stand in the open air and brave the elements with so much gusto. But as I
tell them simply: ‘We’re British’. They both smile politely and then they’re on their way.
THE Surrealistic Pillow album first came out in early 1967 and as
a result of a good review in a weekly music paper I purchased a copy on the spur of the moment (I used to do that a
lot in those days). I hadn’t heard any of the album’s songs, so I was gambling on my money not being wasted. It
wasn’t, of course. It turned out to be one of my top albums at the time. I played it a lot over the ensuing months
and often ended up discussing the merits of certain tracks with friends and work colleagues. Analysing the lyrics
to 3/5 Of A Mile In 60 Seconds, Someone To Love and the hypnotic White Rabbit over a glass or two of beer was not
uncommon. We didn’t always agree, but it was fun. The banter always seemed to add an extra dimension to the album’s
appeal. It wasn’t just a hunk of vinyl with a colourful cover, It was, still is, a total work of art. It sounds and
feels as good today as it did back then.
David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex, England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national
newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan,
Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer
and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel
about four friends growing up in the