California based Jefferson Airplane were one of the pioneers of psychedelic rock in the 1960s, a band made up of Marty Balin/vocals, Paul Kantner/guitar vocals, Grace Slick/vocals, Jorma Kaukonen/lead guitar, vocals, bassman Jack Casady, and Spencer Dryden on drums. Volunteers was the last album with this original lineup, and veers somewhat away from their previous albums Surrealistic Pillow, which featured their two best singles, Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, then After Bathing at Baxter’s which were the psychedelia centrepieces that had them headlining fabled concerts at Monterey ‘67, Isle of Wight ‘68, Woodstock ‘69, and Altamont ’69. Volunteers is probably their most underrated album because it was surrounded in controversy over the title, originally called Volunteers of Amerika, mimicking the charity group Volunteers of America by showing their dissatisfaction with the Vietnam war, so the name was changed to simply Volunteers, and the label RCA strongly objected to the terms, “up against the wall, motherfucker” in We Can Be Together, so “motherfucker” was re-edited to a long “Maaaaaaa”, and “fuck” was changed to “fred”, so, they were not impressed by the editing, but those were signs of the turbulent political times the country was living through. Also on the album were guests such as pianist Nicky Hopkins, Stephen Stills on Hammond organ, Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar (on the excellent The Farm), and David Crosby, to name a few.
Volunteers opens with We Can Be Together, a political anthem with Kaukonen’s strong lead guitar work on his Gibson ES-345 over the powerful lyrics, “We are outlaws in the eyes of America, In order to survive we cheat, lie, forge fred hide and deal”, a message that echoed the feeling of a generation that wanted change. The “fred” in the lyric was originally “fuck” as I’ve mentioned earlier, to clean it up without making much sense at all; the long ugly arm of the censor authorities.
It is often called their masterpìece, but there are many more that can claim that title (see the above mentioned hits). The album takes a decidedly country turn on numbers such as The Farm featuring Garcia on pedal steel, Slick singing lead, and Turn My Life Down with Stills on the organ, with Balin on lead vocals. Hey Frederick is a 8 ½ minute epic that starts with Slick singing “either go away or go all the way in, look at what you hold, come back down on the spear of silence…”, which explores the crisis of the day: the government and military in the Vietnam war. She taunts the listener, ‘how old will you have to be before you stop your believing?’ Slick and Balin team up for a lovely harmony on Wooden Ships, another of their most famous songs, followed by Eskimo Blue Day, an especially well sung tune by Slick, maybe one of her finest vocal cuts, she sings with such emotion, truly a treat. The closer is the title cut Volunteers, another politically charged effort encouraging simplicity, overthrowing the corporate greed and corruption thru activism, and revolution.
The album is a remarkable relic of the era, when young people thought you could change the world with music, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin on Good Shepherd, “If you want to get to heaven (if you want to get to heaven) Over on the other shore (over on the other shore) Stay out of the way of the gun shot devil Oh good shepherd Feed my sheep”.
It is a classic album which is as good a representation you will find from 1969, and may be the band’s finest moment. A gem of articulation, through the arrangements, vocals and lyrics. A time capsule, that will take you back and remind you that things haven’t really changed that much.