Jefferson Airplane was among the vanguard of rock bands exploding out of the San Francisco folk scene onto the national stage in the 1960s. Though the size of their following has perhaps been eclipsed in modern times by fellow travelers The Grateful Dead, for years the Airplane remained the biggest band in the city's scene.
Apart from their debut, all Jefferson Airplane albums hit the Billboard Top 20, and they eventually even got their own label deal via RCA Victor. One has to assume that Grunt Records deal worked out well for RCA, as the Airplane follow-up band Jefferson Starship probably sold even more albums. And, of course, Starship was huge in the '80s.
The '60s-era Airplane has long been a favorite, and I couldn't count how many times over the years I've spun all the albums up through Volunteers. The group's recordings present an extra layer of appeal for the dedicated listener, as a surprising amount of their music was released in radically differing versions back in the day.
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off had lines in two songs censored shortly after release, and a song dropped, leading to a handful of rare pressing variations. Surrealistic Pillow features a starkly different sound between the mono and stereo versions, the stereo lush and echo-y and the mono more direct and less reverb-ed out. The most radical changes took place from the original mix of Volunteers to a quadraphonic LP released in the mid-'70s, with the latter disc including completely different takes of some songs. The band's 45s also feature several different takes and arrangements of songs as compared to what appeared on the LPs.
The most intriguing of these discographical divergences to my ears is somewhat arbitrary, just because it's my favorite of the Airplane's albums. After Bathing at Baxter's is the group's sprawling, experimental follow-up to the smash success of Surrealistic Pillow. I've read over the years that the band got in trouble with RCA for taking too much time (and spending too much money) in the studio making Baxter's -- a perfect example of how fast pop bands were supposed to crank out albums in the '60s, since it was released only nine months after Pillow. The extra time spent helped the band create one heck of an album, with otherwise unconnected songs collated and cross-faded into five mini-suites veering from psych-pop to musique concrete to James Joyce-inspired balladry.
In a January 1968 review, then-new Rolling Stone called the After Bathing at Baxter's "probably the best ... rock and roll album so far produced by an American group." While I wouldn't go that far -- The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Love's Forever Changes were also on the racks by that time -- the reviewer's claim is not as wild as it may seem.
As is the case with the Love and Beach Boys discs, Baxter's is thematically rather adult for the era, with quite a few straight-up drug references that would have been unthinkable on a major label release even a year before. Musically it moves the group far beyond its folk roots into a nearly proto-prog hard rock sound. And I'm always surprised staid RCA allowed Grace Slick's envelope-pushing "Two Heads" to escape the studio.
As is the case with Pillow, the mono and stereo mixes sound very different, but in a more complex way than dialed back reverb. Listening closely it's clear the band spent a lot of time with the stereo mix, getting all the elements balanced just so and placed around in a wide stereo spread to good effect. The stereo mix can sound thin at lower volume, but really comes to life the more you crank it up. Conversely, the mono just sort of barrels out at the listener in a more visceral manner, no matter how loud you're listening.
Doing a quick back and forth between mono and stereo versions on a few songs reveals that all the carefully planned elements of the stereo mix are usually there in the mono, but with the stereo panning, removed individual elements can be harder to pick out, resulting in a more unified and powerful sound. It's worth noting that part of what makes the mono sound more unified is that it's a murkier-sounding LP, helping obscure edits and cross-fades that stick out in stereo. One exceptionally different mix in mono, however, is the song "Martha," on which the bass essentially leads the way alone for the first verse, and the electric guitar is absent.
After Bathing at Baxter's came out very near the end of the mono era, in November 1967, and finding an original is moderately tough. Finding a mono in good condition can be really tough, unless you want to spend a pile of dough. Thankfully, some years back Sundazed came to the rescue of Airplane fans with very well done mono reissues of their first three albums; Takes Off even restores the impossibly rare censored version of the album. (RCA Victor LOP/LSO 1511, 1967)