Jefferson Airplane: WCBT
efferson Airplane were the best of the 60s SF ‘psychedelic’ bands, combining improvised electric noise with concise pop songwriting, completing the package with intense complicated individuals up front. The main songwriters/frontpeople were Grace Slick and Marty Balin, while the instrumental bathtub chemists were Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. “WCBT” was written by rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner.
Featured on their fifth album Volunteers, the song was released in 1970 when youthful alienation from the ‘system’ (as personalised by then-President Richard Nixon) had reached a critical mass due to the policy of conscripting said youths for the futile, extremely bloody and seemingly endless Vietnam conflict. At the same time, the sometimes-tragic consequences of prolonged enthusiastic and undiscriminating drug use were becoming evident on a large scale for the first time, leaving the original class of psychoactive proselytes in a somewhat uncomfortable position, as the salvation promised by chemical hedonism was revealed as being as deadly as the draft. Musically, popular artists of the era reacted in opposing fashions—either concentrating on formal/aesthetic innovation with the aim of exploring the palpable currents of frustration of nihilism in a time of lowered-if-not-annihilated expectations (ie “heavy rock”), or retreating inward both stylistically and geographically by cultivating a rustic, unspoiled acoustic/folk return to basic wholesome values.
Though one associates the latter with “singer-songwriters”, most of the first wave of ‘psychedelic’ bands and their splinters gravitated toward this as well. One possible reason for this was their (mostly) West Coast origin, which guaranteed easy and unlimited access to the largest temperate rural idyll in the developed world. “WCBT” begins with a standard easy-rollin’ piano/ac-rhythm gtr-arrangement standard to urban-refugee contemporaries like Traffic and James Taylor, although for some reason this sound surfaced years later when Creation Records decided to explore every last variation possible. Parts of Screamadelica were probably the most successful examples although the Charlatans managed to derive a series of hit albums out of it.
This song is typical of Kantner’s compositions: the form is very eccentric, a linear yet open-ended series of progressions entirely unconcerned with traditional song-form symmetry. (Whether this has anything to do with the head injury he once claimed wiped out the left hemisphere of his brain, I can’t say.) For example, the song starts with a two-chord sequence that repeats a few times building a groove, then for some reason abandons it and moves to another key altogether, where it just chugs along pleasantly until the vocal (ie ‘song-proper signifier’) wanders in, like the singer was waiting to exhale some pot smoke first while the band obliges. Except when the singing starts there’s actually three of them. That the harmonies are at all congruent is quite a testament to their commitment, as their voices and styles are entirely unrelated. There is a woman singing like Judy Collins (Grace Slick), a man singing in a Cooke-via-Stax soul-derived moan (Marty Balin), and Kantner’s Socialist Worker-benefit open-mic folk purism. The blend is as pleasant as the sentiments: “We can be together/ we should be together”, etc. More pleasant to my ears, though, is the wailing tube-fuzz gtr that’s deliberately ignoring them all the time. I believe this was the gtr sampled on the intro to Ice Cube’s “I Wanna Kill Sam”, though I’m unsure whether it was supposed to allude to song’s ‘Nam-era vintage (Cube’s track also features an ‘induction officer’ skit) or a backhanded acknowledgment of screechy psychedelic solos as the ultimate affluent-white-identified sound. I can see how that’s possible, considering that limey Jimi Hendrix. (Whoa, my bad. Hendrix had a ‘warm’ [clean-bottomed] tone underneath the effects, whereas the guitar sound here is that distorted-beyond-recognition tunnel-tube mod sound where the sound of the guitar has effectively been replaced by the sound of circuitry with only the notes remaining. The main exemplars of this thin, piercing buzz were the Canadian Neil Young and [later] the English Steve Howe as well as the Finnish-named Kaukonen, and how much whiter can you get than those places, so maybe the ‘whiteness’-identification was inevitable.) But the guitar noise doesn’t bother you because you’ve had decades to get used to it as period-pieceworthy, so it drifts along like this, until they suddenly remember the OTHER song (the one they were doing at the start), except it has lyrics now. Which are…
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America/ In order to survive we steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide and deal/ We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young.” This is sung in the same soothing style as before, a bit Sergio Mendes-like in fact, unlike say on David Bowie’s “Cygnet Committee” where he rants ineffectually like an angina-cursed pensioner who’s arrived at the pharmacy 30 seconds after closing time. Slick’s voice seems to trail off on that last line, perhaps because the ‘young’ seemed like a bitter joke – apparently it was an extremely ageist time, and even when they started years previous JA were ‘seasoned’ as well as fried and (in Grace’s case) pickled. (Slick had already written “Lather”, regarding the prospect of having to not only advance chronologically but having to endure others claiming superiority for better adjusting to this process. I find this song personally upsetting sometimes, as precocious children who spent the first 20 years of their life being immature adults then wasted the reminder trying to recreate their idea of a lost adolescence might well do. It made me feel so great to read an old interview with Slick where she said she felt justified in daily boozing and wild behaviour because “I’m only 38”.) So far so far out, man.
Then it turns into Stereolab. “All your private property is target for your enemy/ and your enemy is we.” (The “forces of chaos” line doesn’t grab me as much, because, like, everybody alive can rightly claim to be one of those.) The shift in lyrical tone from the beginning has been so drastic that when there’s another breakdown out of nowhere and the key arbitrarily shifts AGAIN (maybe I had the ‘brain hemispheres’ mixed up, plus apparently the right/left-brain thing is bullshit anyway and the stuff is just scattered all over the cortex) you don’t even notice anymore. Like, what else could possibly happen, and it’s still the same good ol’ piano-led Creation Records music anyway. Then the Judy Collins voice starts calling everybody a ‘motherfucker’. I assume she means everybody listening because this is the same singer who came up with the line “I’d rather have my country die for ME” (“ReJoyce”).
Can you imagine any American coming up with that line today? Today’s self-styled radicals are a pathetic, whimpering bunch, barely even making the grade of ‘reformist’. They may want to change the country to suit themselves a bit more but they still love it and won’t leave it. No more burning the country to the ground to clean the shit off it and then fucking off and leaving it to the Indians, it seems. These days wearing caricature masks at peaceful demonstrations seems to be as far as it goes. Nous sommes tous Americans maintenant, as Le Monde put it. Except for the ones who aren’t, they’ll remind us, since their country is so special and chosen. Ask any of them, they’ve all got overdeveloped patriotic glands. Maybe everyone who says things were better in the 60s is right, at least when it comes to the field of nihilistic revolutionary politics. (Then again, the primary weapon against Amerika turned out to be ‘airplanes’, so somebody out there must’ve been listening!)
Whether the strain came from declaring oneself a traitor (like, the WORST thing an American can possibly ‘do’) or from being only the fifth-most famous bandmember (soon to be sixth, after Papa John Creach), Kantner took his talent for withdrawal to its logical conclusion, leaving Earth entirely and subsequently writing science-fiction lyrics almost exclusively. Unless I’ve totally got the wrong end of the stick and there’s some guerrilla terrorist organisation somewhere whose rallying cry is “You must eat some of my purple berries/ I’ve been eating them for six or seven weeks now/ Haven’t got sick once.”
By: Dave Queen
Published on: 2004-01-08