Stuff the Universe into Your Eyes: The Sci-Fi Dreams of Paul Kantner
Part 1: The Jefferson Airplane and Solo Years (1967-1974)
There’s a long history that intertwines science fiction and music together, from Les Baxter’s Space Escapade (1958) to the 1968 hit In the Year 2525 by Zager and Evans; from David Bowie’s classic Space Oddity (1969) to the vast sci-fi universes of Hawkwind. The purpose of this article is not, however, to explore all of that music. There’s an excellent book by Jason Heller called Strange Stars: How Science Fiction and Fantasy Transformed Popular Music (2018) that explores this in detail and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic. In this article, I’m particularly focusing in on the music of Jefferson Airplane/Starship rocker Paul Kantner. His classic solo album Blows Against the Empire was released 50 years ago this month.
Kantner was a founding member of 1960’s American psychedelic pioneers The Jefferson Airplane, and went on to lead the band as it transformed into The Jefferson Starship in the 1970’s. With Jefferson Airplane, Kantner wrote or co-wrote such classics as Come Up the Years, D.C.B.A.-25, The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil, The House at Pooneil Corners, Martha, Crown of Creation, We Can Be Together, and Wooden Ships. He continued to write and co-write classic rock tunes with Jefferson Starship including Ride the Tiger, Caroline, St. Charles, Song to the Sun and Lightning Rose.
I’ve been a long-time fan of both bands and have always been drawn in particular to Kantner’s song writing. Kantner wove themes of escape, freedom, social inequality, sex, war, and possible futures into tales that ran the course, from ancient history to apocalyptic worlds to dazzling hippie utopias. He especially had an interest in exploring his themes through science fiction. Sci-fi weaves a thread through songs on both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship albums, as well as Kantner’s solo works and collaborations and side projects. The interconnected web of stories can often be confusing, so in this article, I’m going to try to untangle it all and take a closer look at what he was trying to say.
Kantner’s interest in science fictional concepts first began to appear in his music on the early Jefferson Airplane albums. The title track from their 1968 album, Crown of Creation, written by Kantner, was based on John Wyndham’s post apocalyptic novel The Chrysalids (Kantner actually wrote Wyndham to get permission to write the song). That book’s themes of nuclear holocaust (referred to only as ‘The Tribulation’ in the book), persecution of those who are different, and children with telepathic abilities would continue to inform Kantner’s work over the next two decades. The album also featured a song co-written by Kantner and Marty Balin called The House at Pooneil Corners, a sort of dark sequel to The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil from their previous album, After Bathing at Baxters (1967). Ballad painted a portrait of a beautiful world full of colour, with the narrator pondering whether it would still all be there after he died, whereas House destroyed that world, with lyrics describing a post apocalyptic landscape similar to the one Wyndham wrote about in his novel.
Cliffs like heaps of rubbish
Seen from the stars hour by hour
As splintered scraps and black powder
From here to heaven is a scar
Dead center, deep as death
(from Crown of Creation by Paul Kantner, 1968)
Kantner returned to the post apocalyptic landscape on the Airplane’s following album, 1969’s Volunteers, with Wooden Ships. It was a song he co-wrote with David Crosby and Stephen Stills (who also did a version of it on CSN’s debut album released in the same year). Wooden Ships was written at the height of the Vietnam War, which was also a time of great tension between the US and Russia. It tells the story of survivors of a nuclear holocaust, many of whom die from radiation poisoning, but a lucky few who escape on ships of wood to, presumably, somewhere safe and not poisoned. In lyrics that were written for but did not appear in the final song, the people escaping are described as “free happy crazy people naked in the universe”. Kantner would expand majorly on this idea the following year, in his first solo album, Blows Against the Empire.
Jefferson Airplane was made up of a variety of distinct talents, and the band’s three main songwriters, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin and Grace Slick had three very different personalities. Because of this, Kantner was finding it increasingly difficult to express his expansive ideas on just a couple of songs on each Airplane album. So, in the spring of 1970, he set to work on his first solo album.
Just prior to Kantner heading into the studio to record Blows Against the Empire, Jefferson Airplane released a one-off single called Mexico, a diatribe against President Nixon’s anti-drug initiative, Operation Intercept. On the flipside was a song written by Kantner called Have You Seen the Saucers. Lyrically it was filled with Kantner’s obsessions of the time, pleas to take care of the environment, warnings that the government was lying, and hints of a sci-fi, hippie utopia that was coming:
Star children on the back road to salvation
Children of the forest, and child of the Woodstock nation
You gotta' care for the needs of your planet
Catch the dawn that once was there
First-born atomic generation
Open the door, don't you know that's what it's for
Hey, come and join us on the other side of the sun
(from Have You Seen the Saucers by Paul Kantner, 1970)
Sonically, the song featured some of the elements that would inform Kantner in the recording of Blows. Pulling together all the thematic bits and pieces from a number of his Jefferson Airplane songs he created his masterwork, the concept album Blows Against the Empire.
Kantner drew on the talents of a number of musicians to bring his ideas to life, a collective of musicians from the Marin County area that included himself, along with Grace Slick, Jack Casady and Joey Covington from the Jefferson Airplane; Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead; David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service; as well as David Crosby, Graham Nash and others. The collective had begun just as a bunch of friends jamming and playing together. On the Blows album, they were collectively credited as The Jefferson Starship (the first time this name would be used) with the overall album being credited to Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship. The collective continued to play and record several more albums for various members, but subsequently became known as PERRO, short for Planet Earth Rock n’ Roll Orchestra. It was a short-lived union but it left a legacy of classic rock albums that included Songs For Beginners by Graham Nash, Papa John Creach’s self-titled debut album, and David Crosby’s masterpiece, If I Could Only Remember My Name. Though PERRO was pretty much non-existent by the end of 1973, Kantner would resurrect it again a decade later in the 1980’s (more on that in Part 2).
Blows Against the Empire tells the story of two young people, a man and a woman who are going to be having a baby together (Grace Slick, at the time the album was being written, was pregnant with her and Kantner’s child). When they realize that in this world and its current state, their child would never be free, they decide to not tell the government about him (referred to as a ‘him’ on the album, Slick and Kantner’s child would turn out to be girl, China Kantner). To further ensure their own future and their child’s freedom, they join a group of hippies who are planning to steal a government starship that’s being built in orbit around the earth, and use it to escape to somewhere else, and create a new society. Filled with themes of government persecution, hippie ideals of free love and mind expansion, and the notion of escape, the story eventually takes the hijackers to a new beginning, as they essentially become the “free happy crazy people naked in the universe” described in the prelude lyrics of Wooden Ships.
Hydroponic gardens and forests
Glistening with lakes in the Jupiter starlight
Room for babies and Byzantine dancing astronauts of renown
(from Starship by Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Gary Blackman, 1970)
The album was lyrically and sonically ground-breaking. Aside from the album as a whole being a visionary concept, the lyrics of the opening track, Mau-Mau (Amerikon), which describes the current state of America through the hippie's eyes, are believed to contain the first mention of future president Ronald Reagan in a rock song:
You unleash the dogs
Of a grade-b movie star governor's war
(from Mau Mau (Amerikon) by Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Joey Covington)
The album was loosely based on the works of the science fiction author Robert Heinlein, himself a noted libertarian who’s works often dealt with themes such as sexual liberation, personal freedom and the tendency of authorities to persecute non-conformists. His classic novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, was embraced by the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s. Like in the case with John Wyndham, Kantner had written to Heinlein asking him for permission to use the ideas. Heinlein wrote back and said that over the years, many people had used his ideas, but Kantner was the first ever to ask for permission, which he granted to the young musician. Blows Against the Empire was nominated for a Hugo Award (a prestigious award for science fiction literature) for Best Dramatic Presentation. It was the first rock album to be nominated for the award.
Sonically, the album presented a similar kind of folk and rock music blend as Jefferson Airplane had but added atmospheric textures with guitar feedback and Grace Slick’s haunting, chord heavy piano. The result was similar to what Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and Gong were first doing at the time but drawn from distinctly American forms of music, especially the West Coast psychedelia of artists like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. In this broader sense though, it could be called the first American space rock album (Hawkwind had released their seminal debut record just a few months before). It reached number 20 the Billboard 200.
Kantner would go on to echo the themes of Blows again briefly the following year in the lyrics of When the Earth Moves Again from the Jefferson Airplane album Bark:
If you've only lived on earth you've never seen the sun
Or the promise of a thousand other suns that glow beyond here
And if you care to see the future look into the eyes
Of your young dancing children don't be afraid of our ways
(from When the Earth Moves Again by Paul Kantner)
After their 1972 album Long John Silver, Jefferson Airplane began to disintegrate. The album would be their last. Kantner, along with Slick and other members of PERRO recorded two more albums, Sunfighter and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. Sunfighter featured a picture of Kantner and Slick’s infant daughter China on the cover. It was a bit of a rambling affair, not sure what direction it wanted to go in, but it did close with the nearly 8-minute epic Holding Together, which again seemed to touch upon the themes and ideas from Blows Against the Empire:
I see the Empire is breakin' down from the inside
And the underground ain't no place for hidin’ now
It's a way to move
You are the ocean that we travel through
On the way to Andromeda
50 million light years beyond you
(from Holding Together by Grace Slick and Paul Kantner)
Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (nicknames for Kantner and Slick) is far more successful artistically and is one of my personal favourite albums. This album shies away from science fictional themes, but there is one truly sublime track on the album that does take a flight of fancy, the Kantner penned You’re Mind Has Left Your Body, an incorporeal journey through time, space, beneath the polar icecaps and beyond, echoing the transcendental ending of Blows:
Mankind gone from the cage
All the years gone from your age
I was iridescent
I became transparent
I was absent
(from Starship by Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Gary Blackman, 1970)
Although these two latter solo albums were not very successful commercially, Kantner and co-horts would soldier on, forming a new band and using the name first used on Blows, The Jefferson Starship. The new band had massive success in the 70’s, and in the 80’s, Kantner would finally realize an epic sci-fi dream that had its origins all the way back in 1968. Read all about it, coming up in Part 2!