Jefferson Airplane was a rock band based in San Francisco, California, who pioneered psychedelic rock. Formed in 1965, the group defined the San Francisco Sound and was the first from the Bay Area to achieve international commercial success. They were headliners at the three most famous American rock festivals of the 1960s—Monterey (1967), Woodstock (1969) and Altamont (1969)—and the first Isle of Wight Festival (1968)  in England. Their 1967 break-out album Surrealistic Pillow ranks on the short list of the most significant recordings of the "Summer of Love". Two songs from that album, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", are among Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
The "classic" lineup of Jefferson Airplane, from October 1966 to February 1970, was Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (guitar, vocals), Grace Slick (vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, vocals), Jack Casady (bass), and Spencer Dryden (drums). Marty Balin left the band in 1970, and then it officially broke up in 1972 when Kaukonen and Casady moved on to their own band, Hot Tuna. Slick and Kantner regrouped with Balin and recruited new members to form Jefferson Starship. Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and was presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.
In 1962, 20-year-old Marty Balin recorded two singles for Challenge Records, neither of which were successful. Balin then joined a folk group called the Town Criers from 1963 to 1964. After the Beatles-led British invasion of 1964, Balin was inspired by the success of the Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel in merging folk with rock to form a group in 1965 that would follow that lead. With a group of investors, Balin purchased a former pizza parlor on Fillmore Street, which he converted to a music club, the Matrix, and began searching for members for his group.
Balin met folk musician Paul Kantner at another local club, the Drinking Gourd. Kantner, a native San Franciscan, had started out performing on the Bay Area folk circuit in the early 1960s, alongside fellow folkies Jerry Garcia, David Crosby and Janis Joplin. Kantner has cited folk groups like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers as strong early influences. He briefly moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1964 to work in a folk duo with future Airplane/Starship member David Freiberg (who subsequently joined Quicksilver Messenger Service).
Balin and Kantner then recruited other musicians to form the house band at the Matrix. After hearing female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson at the Drinking Gourd, Balin invited her to be the group's co-lead singer. Anderson sang with the band for a year and performed on their first album before departing in October 1966 after the birth of her first child.
Kantner next recruited an old friend, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Originally from Washington, D.C., Kaukonen had moved to California in the early 1960s and met Kantner while at Santa Clara University in 1962. Kaukonen was invited to jam with the new band and although initially reluctant to join he was won over after playing his guitar through a tape delay device that was part of the sound system used by Ken Kesey for his Acid Test parties. Kaukonen came up with the band's name, based on the name of a friend's dog. A 2007 press release quoted Kaukonen as saying:
I had this friend [Steve Talbot] in Berkeley who came up with funny names for people," explains Kaukonen. "His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, 'You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!'
Drummer Jerry Peloquin and acoustic bassist Bob Harvey completed the original lineup. The group made its first public appearance as Jefferson Airplane at the opening night of The Matrix on August 13, 1965. The band expanded from its folk roots, drawing inspiration from the Beatles, the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful, and gradually developed a more pop-oriented electric sound.
A few weeks after the group was formed, Jerry Peloquin departed, in part because of his disdain for the others' drug use. Although he was not a drummer, singer-guitarist Skip Spence (who later founded Moby Grape) was then invited to replace Peloquin. In October 1965, after the other members decided that Bob Harvey's bass playing was not up to par, he was replaced by guitarist-bassist Jack Casady, an old friend of Kaukonen from Washington, D.C., Casady played his first gig with the Airplane at a college concert in Berkeley, California, two weeks after he arrived in San Francisco.
The group's performing skills improved rapidly and they soon gained a strong following in and around San Francisco, aided by reviews from veteran music journalist Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle who, after seeing them at the Matrix in late 1965, proclaimed them "one of the best bands ever". Gleason's support raised the band's profile considerably, and within three months their manager Matthew Katz was fielding offers from recording companies, although they had yet to perform outside the Bay Area.
Two significant early concerts featuring the Airplane were held in late 1965. The first was the historic dance at the Longshoremen's Hall in San Francisco on October 16, 1965, the first of many "happenings" in the Bay Area, where Gleason first saw them perform. At this concert they were supported by a local folk-rock group, the Great Society, which featured Grace Slick as lead singer and it was here that Kantner met Slick for the first time. A few weeks later, on November 6, they headlined a benefit concert for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the first of many promotions by rising Bay Area entrepreneur Bill Graham, who later became the band's manager. In November 1965, Jefferson Airplane signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, which included an unheard-of advance of US$25,000. Prior to this, they had recorded a demo for Columbia Records of "The Other Side Of This Life" with Bob Harvey on bass, which was immediately rejected by the label. On December 10, 1965, the Airplane played at the first Bill Graham-promoted show at the Fillmore Auditorium, supported by the Great Society and others. The Airplane also appeared at numerous Family Dog shows promoted by Chet Helms at the Avalon Ballroom.
The group's first single was Balin's "It's No Secret" (a tune he wrote with Otis Redding in mind); the B-side was "Runnin' Round The World", the song that led to the band's first clash with RCA Victor, over the lyric "The nights I've spent with you have been fantastic trips". After their debut LP was completed in March 1966, Skip Spence quit the band and he was eventually replaced by Spencer Dryden, who played his first show with the Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival on July 4, 1966. Dryden had previously played with a Los Angeles group called the Ashes, who later became the Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
Original manager Matthew Katz was fired in August, sparking a long-running legal battle that continued until 1987, and Balin's friend and roommate Bill Thompson was installed as road manager and temporary band manager. It was Thompson, a friend and staunch supporter of the band and a former Chronicle staffer, who had convinced reviewers Ralph Gleason and John Wasserman to see the band at the Longshoreman's Hall. Thanks to Gleason's influence, Thompson was able to book the group for appearances at the Berkeley Folk Festival and at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The group's debut LP Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was released in September 1966. The folk-music-influenced album included John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and Dino Valente's "Let's Get Together", as well as original ballads "It's No Secret" and "Come Up the Years". Despite the fact that the group had neither performed outside the Bay Area nor appeared on TV, the album garnered considerable attention in the United States and sold well enough to earn a gold record award. RCA initially pressed only 15,000 copies, but it sold more than 10,000 in San Francisco alone, prompting the label to reprint it. For the re-pressing, the company deleted "Runnin' Round This World" (which had appeared on early mono pressings), because executives objected to the word "trip" in the lyrics. For similar reasons, RCA Victor substituted altered versions for two other tracks: "Let Me In", changing the line "I gotta get in/you know where" to "you shut your door/now it ain't fair." In the same song, they also switched the lyric "Don't tell me you want money" to "Don't tell me it ain't funny". "Run Around" was also edited, changing the line "flowers that sway as you lay under me" to "flowers that sway as you stay here by me". The original pressings of the LP featuring "Runnin' 'Round The World" and the uncensored versions of "Let Me In" and "Run Around" are now worth thousands of dollars on the collectors' market.
Signe Anderson gave birth to her daughter in May 1966, and in October she announced her departure from the band. Her final gig with the Airplane took place at the Fillmore on October 15, 1966.
The following night, Anderson's replacement Grace Slick made her first appearance. Slick was already well known to the band—she had attended the Airplane's debut gig at the Matrix in 1965 and her previous group, the Great Society, had often supported the Airplane in concert.
Slick's recruitment proved pivotal to the Airplane's commercial breakthrough—she possessed a powerful and supple contralto voice that complemented Balin's and was well-suited to the group's amplified psychedelic music, and, a former model, her good looks and stage presence greatly enhanced the group's live impact. “White Rabbit” was written by Grace Slick while she was still with The Great Society. The first album Slick recorded with Jefferson Airplane was Surrealistic Pillow, and Slick provided two songs from her previous group: her own "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love", written by her brother-in-law Darby Slick. Both songs became breakout successes for Jefferson Airplane and have ever since been associated with that band.
The Great Society had recorded an early version of "Somebody to Love" (under the title "Someone to Love") as the B-side of their only single, "Free Advice", produced by Sylvester Stewart (soon to become famous as Sly Stone). It reportedly took more than 50 takes to achieve a satisfactory rendition. The Great Society decided to split up in late 1966 and played its last show on September 11. Soon after, Slick was asked to join Jefferson Airplane by Jack Casady (whose musicianship was a major influence on her decision) and her Great Society contract was bought out for $750.
In December 1966, Jefferson Airplane was featured in a Newsweek article about the booming San Francisco music scene, one of the first in a welter of similar media reports that prompted a massive influx of young people to the city and contributed to the commercialization of the hippie culture.
Around the beginning of 1967 Bill Graham took over from Bill Thompson as manager. In January the group made their first visit to the East Coast. On January 14, alongside the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane headlined the "Human Be-In", the famous all-day "happening" in Golden Gate Park, one of the key events leading up to the "Summer of Love".
During this period the band gained their first international recognition when rising British pop star Donovan, who saw them during his stint on the U.S. West Coast in early 1966, mentioned the Airplane in his song "The Fat Angel", which subsequently appeared on his Sunshine Superman LP.
The group's second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, recorded in Los Angeles with producer Rick Jarrard in only thirteen days at a cost of $8,000, launched the Airplane to international fame. Released in February 1967, the LP entered the Billboard 200 album chart on March 25 and remained there for over a year, peaking at No. 3. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The name "Surrealistic Pillow" was suggested by the album's "shadow producer," Jerry Garcia, when he mentioned that, as a whole, the album sounded "as surrealistic as a pillow is soft." Although RCA Victor would not acknowledge Garcia's considerable contributions to the album with a production credit, he is listed in the album's credits as "spiritual advisor."
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In addition to the group's two best-known tracks, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love", the album featured "My Best Friend" by former drummer Skip Spence, Balin's driving blues-rock songs "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds", and the atmospheric Balin-Kantner ballad "Today". A reminder of their earlier folk incarnation was Kaukonen's solo acoustic guitar tour de force, "Embryonic Journey" (his first composition), which referenced contemporary acoustic guitar masters such as John Fahey and helped to establish the popular genre exemplified by acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke.
The first single from the album, Spence's "My Best Friend", failed to chart, but the next two singles rocketed the group to prominence. Both "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" became major U.S. hits, the former reaching No. 5 and the latter No. 8 on the Billboard singles chart. By late 1967 the Airplane were national and international stars and had become one of the hottest groups in America. Grace Slick biographer Barbara Rowes called the album "a declaration of independence from the establishment [-] What Airplane originated was a romanticism for the electronic age. Unlike the highly homogenized harmonies of the Beach Boys, Airplane never strived for a synthesis of its divergent sensibilities. Through [-] each song, there remain strains of the individual styles of the musicians [creating] unusual breadth and original interplay within each structure".
This phase of the Airplane's career peaked with their famous performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Monterey showcased leading bands from several major music "scenes" including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the United Kingdom, and the resulting TV and film coverage gave national (and international) exposure to groups that had previously had only regional fame. Two songs from the Airplane's set were subsequently included in the D. A. Pennebaker film documentary of the event.
The Airplane also benefited greatly from appearances on national network TV shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on NBC and The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The Airplane's famous appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour performing "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" was videotaped in color and augmented by developments in video techniques. It has been frequently re-screened and is notable for its pioneering use of the Chroma key process to simulate the Airplane's psychedelic light show.
After Surrealistic Pillow, the group's music underwent a significant transformation. Key influences on the group's new direction were the popularity and success of Jimi Hendrix and the British supergroup Cream, which prompted the Airplane (like many other groups) to adopt a "heavier" sound and to place a greater emphasis on improvisation. The band's third LP, After Bathing at Baxter's, was released on November 27, 1967, and eventually peaked in the charts at No. 17. Its famous cover, drawn by renowned artist and cartoonist Ron Cobb, depicts a Heath Robinson-inspired flying machine (constructed around an idealised version of a typical Haight-Ashbury district house) soaring above the chaos of American commercial culture.
Recorded over a period of more than four months, with little input from nominal producer Al Schmitt, the new album demonstrated the group's growing engagement with psychedelic rock. Where the previous LP had consisted entirely of "standard-length" pop songs, Baxter's was dominated by long multi-part suites, while "A Small Package of Value Will Come To You Shortly" was a musique concrete-style audio collage inspired by Frank Zappa's contemporaneous work.
Baxter's also marked the ascendency of Kantner and Slick as the band's chief composers and the concurrent decline in the influence and involvement of founder Marty Balin. The other members, gravitating toward a harder-edged style, openly criticized Balin for his ballad-oriented compositions. Balin was also reportedly becoming increasingly disenchanted with the "star trips" and inflated egos generated by the band's runaway commercial success.
Baxter's also marked the end of the Airplane's brief run of success on the singles chart. In contrast to "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love", "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil" only peaked at No. 43 and "Watch Her Ride" stalled at No. 61. (Both singles reached the Top 40 in Cash Box.) None of the band's subsequent singles reached the Billboard Top 40 and several failed to chart at all. AM Top 40 radio became wary of a group that had scored a hit with a song that contained thinly-veiled drug references and whose singles were often deemed too controversial, so Jefferson Airplane never again enjoyed the kind of widespread AM radio support that served as a prerequisite for Top Ten hits.
In February 1968, manager Bill Graham was fired after Grace Slick delivered an "either he goes or I go" ultimatum. Bill Thompson took over as permanent manager and set about consolidating the group's financial security, establishing Icebag Corp. to oversee the band's publishing interests and purchasing a 20-room mansion at 2400 Fulton Street across from Golden Gate Park near the Haight-Ashbury, which became the band's office and communal residence. Bill Laudner was hired as road manager.
In mid-1968, the group was photographed for a Life magazine story on "The New Rock", appearing on the cover of the June 28, 1968 edition. They undertook their first major tour of Europe in August–September 1968, playing alongside the Doors in the Netherlands, England, Germany, and Sweden. In a notorious incident at a concert in Amsterdam, while the Airplane was performing "Plastic Fantastic Lover", Doors singer Jim Morrison, under the influence of a combination of drugs fans had given him, appeared on stage and began dancing "like a pinwheel". As the group played faster and faster, Morrison spun around wildly until he finally fell senseless on the stage at Marty Balin's feet. Morrison was unable to perform his set with the Doors and was hospitalized while keyboardist Ray Manzarek was forced to sing all the vocals. It was also during this tour that Slick and Morrison allegedly engaged in a brief sexual relationship, described in Somebody To Love?, Slick's 1998 autobiography.
Jefferson Airplane's fourth LP, Crown of Creation (released in September 1968), was a commercial success, peaking at No. 6 on the album chart. Grace Slick's "Lather", which opens the album, is said to be about her affair with drummer Spencer Dryden and his 30th birthday. "Triad", a David Crosby composition, had been rejected by The Byrds because they deemed its subject matter (a ménage à trois) to be too "hot." Slick's searing sexual and social-commentary anthem "Greasy Heart" was released as a single in March 1968. A few tracks recorded for the LP were left off the album but later included as bonus tracks, including the Grace Slick/Frank Zappa collaboration "Would You Like A Snack?"
The Airplane's appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the fall of that year caused a minor stir when Grace Slick appeared in blackface (she claimed she simply wanted to wear all the makeup she saw in her dressing room) and raised her fist in the Black Panther Party's salute after singing "Crown of Creation".
In November 1968, the band played "House at Pooneil Corners" on a New York City rooftop. It was filmed for D. A. Pennebaker movie 1 PM. The concert was stopped by the police just like the Beatles' famous rooftop concert about two months later, as depicted in the 1970 documentary Let It Be.
In February 1969, RCA released the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head, which was culled from 1968 performances at the Fillmore West on October 24–26 and the Fillmore East on November 28–30. It became the Airplane's fourth Top 20 album, peaking at No. 17.
Hot Tuna began during a break in Jefferson Airplane's touring schedule in early 1969 while Grace Slick recovered from throat node surgery that left her unable to perform. Kaukonen, Casady, Kantner and drummer Joey Covington played several shows around San Francisco, including the Airplane's original club, The Matrix, before Jefferson Airplane resumed performing. Their early repertoire derived mainly from Airplane material that Kaukonen (the band's frontman) sang and covers of American country and blues artists such as Reverend Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Blind Blake. In addition, Casady and Kaukonen played as a duo under the moniker with Kaukonen on acoustic guitar and Casady on electric bass. From October 1969 to November 1970, Hot Tuna (also including Balin and, following Kantner's departure, a dedicated rhythm guitarist in their electric performances until November 1970) performed as the opening act to Jefferson Airplane with a combination of both electric and acoustic sets.
In April 1969, sessions began for their next album, Volunteers, using new 16-track facilities at the Wally Heider Studio in San Francisco. This proved to be the last album by the "classic" lineup of the group. The album's release was delayed when the band ran into conflict with their label over the content of songs such as "We Can Be Together" and the planned title of the album, Volunteers of Amerika. "Volunteers of Amerika" is a corruption of the Volunteers of America charity, the term being in vogue in 1969 as an ironic expression of dissatisfaction with America; after the charity objected, the name was shortened to Volunteers.
A few days after the band headlined at a free concert in New York's Central Park in August 1969, they performed in what Grace Slick characterized as the "morning maniac music" slot at the Woodstock Festival, for which the group was joined by noted British session keyboard player Nicky Hopkins. When interviewed about Woodstock by Jeff Tamarkin in 1992, Paul Kantner still recalled it with fondness, whereas Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden had less than rosy memories.
Immediately after their Woodstock performance, the band appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and played a few songs. Other guests on that same episode were David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Joni Mitchell. The new album was finally released in the United States in November 1969 with the title shortened to Volunteers. The album continued the Airplane's run of Top 20 LPs, peaking at No. 13 and attaining a RIAA gold certification early in 1970. It was their most political venture, showcasing the group's vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and documenting their reaction to the changing political atmosphere in the United States. The best-known tracks include "Volunteers," "We Can Be Together," "Good Shepherd," and the post-apocalyptic "Wooden Ships," which Paul Kantner co-wrote with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, and which Crosby, Stills & Nash also recorded on their debut album.
RCA raised objections to the phrase "up against the wall, motherfucker" in the lyrics of Kantner's "We Can Be Together", but the group managed to prevent it from being censored on the album, pointing out that RCA had already allowed the offending word to be included on the cast album of the rock musical Hair. In addition, the song had the line "in order to survive, we steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal", which was also kept on the album (and which they sang on broadcast TV during their Dick Cavett appearance). For the single versions of "We Can Be Together," "motherfucker" was changed to a long, drawn out "Ma," and "fuck" was changed to "fred." These edits were reflected in the printed lyrics that accompanied the album.
In September 1969, Kaukonen and Casady played a week of acoustic-based concerts at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, California as Hot Tuna; recordings culled from this engagement were released as the band's eponymous debut album in 1970. This initial Hot Tuna album was remarkably successful, reaching No. 30 on the U.S. album chart. Over the next two years, the various configurations of Hot Tuna began to occupy more and more of Casady's and Kaukonen's time, contributing to the growing divisions within Jefferson Airplane that came to a head in 1972.
In December, the Airplane played at the Altamont Free Concert at Altamont Speedway in California, thus becoming the only band to perform at all three of the iconic rock festivals of the 1960s—Altamont, Monterey Pop, and Woodstock. Headlined by The Rolling Stones, the concert was marred by violence. Marty Balin was knocked out during a scuffle with Hells Angels members who had been hired to act as "security." The event became notorious for the fatal stabbing of black teenager Meredith Hunter in front of the stage by Hells Angels "guards" after he pulled out a revolver during the Stones' performance. This incident was the centerpiece of the documentary film Gimme Shelter.
Spencer Dryden was dismissed from the band in February 1970 by a unanimous vote of the other members. He felt burned out by four years on the "acid merry-go-round" and was deeply disillusioned by the events of Altamont, which, he later recalled, "did not look like a bunch of happy hippies in streaming colors. It looked more like sepia-toned Hieronymus Bosch." He took time off before returning to music the following year as Mickey Hart's replacement in the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Dryden was replaced by Hot Tuna drummer Joey Covington, who had already contributed additional percussion to Volunteers and performed select engagements with the Airplane as a touring second drummer in 1969. Later that year, the band was further augmented by the addition of veteran jazz violinist Papa John Creach, a friend of Covington who officially joined Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane for their fall tour in October 1970.
Touring continued throughout 1970, but the group's only new recording that year was the single "Mexico" b/w "Have You Seen the Saucers?". Slick's "Mexico" was an attack on President Richard Nixon's Operation Intercept, which had been implemented to curtail the flow of marijuana into the United States. "Have You Seen the Saucers" marked the beginning of the science fiction themes that Kantner explored in much of his subsequent work, including Blows Against the Empire, his first solo album. Released in November 1970 and credited to "Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship," this prototypical iteration of Jefferson Starship (alternatively known as the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra) included David Crosby and Graham Nash; Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart; session luminary Harvey Brooks; David Freiberg; and Slick, Covington and Casady. Blows Against the Empire peaked at No. 20 in the United States and was the first rock album nominated for the Hugo Award.
Jefferson Airplane ended 1970 with their traditional Thanksgiving Day engagement at the Fillmore East (the final performance of the short-lived Creach-era septet) and the release of their first compilation album, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, which continued their unbroken run of chart success, reaching No. 12 on the Billboard album chart.
1971 was a year of major upheaval for Jefferson Airplane. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner had begun a relationship during 1970, and on January 25, 1971, their daughter China Wing Kantner ("Wing" was Slick's maiden name) was born. Slick's divorce from her first husband had come through shortly before this, but she and Kantner agreed that they did not wish to marry.
In April 1971, Marty Balin officially left Jefferson Airplane after disassociating himself from the group following the fall 1970 tour. Although he had remained a key part of live performances after the band's creative direction shifted from the brooding love songs that he specialized in, the evolution of the polarized Kantner/Slick and Kaukonen/Casady cliques—compounded by an emerging drinking problem—had finally left him the odd man out. Following the traumatic death of Janis Joplin, he began to pursue a healthier lifestyle; Balin's study of yoga and abstention from drugs and alcohol further distanced him from the other members of the group, whose drug intake continued unabated. This further complicated the recording of their long-overdue follow-up to Volunteers; Balin had recently completed several new songs, including "Emergency" and the elongated R&B-infused "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short," both of which later appeared on archival releases.
On May 13, 1971, Grace Slick was injured in a near-fatal automobile crash when her car slammed into a wall in a tunnel near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The accident happened while she was drag racing with Jorma Kaukonen; both were driving at over 100 miles per hour, and Kaukonen claims that he "saved her life" by pulling her from the car. Slick's recuperation took a few months, forcing the Airplane to curtail their concert and touring commitments. In the meantime, Slick recorded a comic song ("Never Argue with a German If You're Tired or European Song") about the incident for the new album.
In September 1971, Bark was released. With cover art depicting a dead fish wrapped in an A&P-style grocery bag, it was both the final album owed to RCA under the band's existing contract and the inaugural release on the band's Grunt Records vanity label. Manager Bill Thompson had struck a deal with RCA to allow Jefferson Airplane to run Grunt Records as they saw fit, but still use RCA's distribution. The single "Pretty As You Feel", excerpted from a longer jam with members of Santana and featuring lead vocals by Joey Covington, its principal composer, was the last Jefferson Airplane chart hit, peaking at No. 60 in Billboard and No. 35 in Cashbox. The album rose to No. 11 in Billboard, higher than Volunteers, Blows Against the Empire and Hot Tuna's second album, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, released three months before Bark in June.
In spite of the band's continued success, major creative and personal divisions persisted between the Slick/Kantner and Kaukonen/Casady factions. (Kaukonen's "Third Week In The Chelsea," from Bark, chronicles the thoughts he was having about leaving the band.) These problems continued to be exacerbated by the band's escalating cocaine use and Slick's alcohol use disorder. Consequently, while the band played several dates in August in support of Bark (including two concerts in the New York metropolitan area and a show apiece in Detroit and Philadelphia), no tour was planned. Following a private concert/party in honor of the formation of Grunt Records at San Francisco's Friends and Relations Hall in September, the band would not reconvene until several Midwestern engagements in January 1972.
Jefferson Airplane held together long enough to record one more album, entitled Long John Silver, begun in April 1972 and released in July. By this time the various members were thoroughly engaged with their various solo projects. Following the release of Kantner and Slick's Sunfighter in November 1971 and Creach's eponymous solo debut in December 1971, Hot Tuna released their first studio album and third opus (Burgers) in February 1972; meanwhile, Joey Covington immersed himself in various Grunt Records projects, including his own solo album (Fat Fandango, released in 1973) and the sessions for Black Kangaroo's debut album (led by Peter Kaukonen, Jorma's younger brother). However, Covington was either dismissed from the band or left of his own volition shortly after the sessions commenced.
With Hot Tuna drummer Sammy Piazza deputizing on one track, Covington (who had already recorded two drum parts) was soon replaced by former Turtles/CSNY drummer John Barbata, who ultimately played on most of the album. Long John Silver is notable for its cover, which folded out into a humidor, which the inner photo depicted as storing cigars (which may have been filled with marijuana). Despite middling reviews, the album rose to No. 20 in the United States, a significantly higher placement than Burgers (No. 68) or Sunfighter (No. 89).
The band began a proper national tour to promote Long John Silver in the summer of 1972, their first in nearly two years. Shortly before the tour commenced, David Freiberg (who had recently completed a prison sentence for marijuana possession after leaving Quicksilver Messenger Service) joined as a belated replacement for Balin. The East Coast leg of the tour included a major free concert in Central Park that drew over 50,000 attendees. They returned to the West Coast in September, playing concerts in San Diego, Hollywood, Phoenix and Albuquerque. The tour culminated in two shows at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco (September 21–22), both of which were recorded. At the end of the second show, the group was joined on stage by Marty Balin, who sang lead vocals on "Volunteers" and the final song, "You Wear Your Dresses Too Short."
The Winterland shows were the last live performances by Jefferson Airplane until their reunion in 1989. A new live album, Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, was culled from the tour and released in April 1973. Later that year, Kaukonen and Casady decided to focus on Hot Tuna as a full-time endeavor, effectively leaving the band; however, no official announcement was ever released. By December 1973, RCA had "[cut] off the band's salaries," resulting in Freiberg being forced to draw unemployment to maintain his house payments.
Following the commercially unsuccessful Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun (1973; credited to Kantner, Slick and Freiberg) and Manhole (1974; credited to Slick), Kantner and Slick appropriated the Jefferson Starship moniker in January 1974 for a new band that included the remaining members of Jefferson Airplane (Freiberg, Barbata, Creach); bassist Peter Kaukonen (soon replaced by British multi-instrumentalist Pete Sears, a veteran of Creach's solo oeuvre and Manhole); and lead guitarist Craig Chaquico, a member of Grunt Records band Jack Traylor and Steelwind who contributed to the Kantner/Slick solo albums. Their debut, Dragon Fly (1974), was credited to Slick, Kantner and Jefferson Starship.
After the acrimonious events that resulted in Jefferson Starship's 1984 evolution into Starship, Kantner reunited with Balin (who joined Jefferson Starship in 1974 following a guest appearance on Dragon Fly before leaving once more in 1978) and Jack Casady in 1985 to form the KBC Band. They released their only album, KBC Band, in 1987 on Arista Records. On March 4, 1988, Grace Slick made a cameo appearance during a Hot Tuna San Francisco performance at the Fillmore (with Kantner and Creach joining in), facilitating a potential reunion of Jefferson Airplane.
In 1989, the classic 1966-1970 lineup of Jefferson Airplane reunited (with the exception of drummer Spencer Dryden) for a tour and album. The self-titled album was released by Epic to modest sales but the accompanying tour was considered a success.
In 1996, the 1966-1970 lineup of Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Balin, Casady, Dryden, Kantner and Kaukonen attending as well as performing. Grace Slick was absent, as she was unable to travel for medical reasons.
1998 saw the production and broadcast of a very popular episode of the hit VH1 documentary television series Behind The Music about Jefferson Airplane, directed by Bob Sarles. Band members Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden were all interviewed for the episode, along with David Crosby, longtime Airplane manager Bill Thompson and China Kantner, daughter of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. 
In 2004, the film Fly Jefferson Airplane (directed by Bob Sarles) was released on DVD. It covers the years 1965–1972 and includes then-recent interviews with band members and thirteen complete songs.
Spencer Dryden died of colon cancer on January 11, 2005.
Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady performed a set at the 2015 Lockn' Festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Airplane. They were joined by G.E. Smith, Rachael Price, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. In 2016, Jefferson Airplane was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Both Signe Anderson and Paul Kantner died on January 28, 2016.
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