Summer of Love was a social movement that happened in 1967 by a bunch of people known as hippies (coming from the word ‘hip’ meaning fashionable) propagating love as the cure for violence, particularly the one happening in Vietnam. The epicentre of this movement was the American west-coast city of San Francisco, where thousands of these propagators gathered in their colourful clothes and created a sub-culture scene with its music, art and the infamous drugs. Out of this scene was born the mysteriously charming second album by the local band Jefferson Airplane, pioneers of the psychedelic rock sound. It had a mysteriously charming name as well – ‘Surrealistic Pillow’.
Apparently, the name was given by none other than Jerry Garcia (of The Grateful Dead), and his name also appears on the back of the album cover as the ‘Musical and Spiritual Adviser’. Jerry’s sweet guitar’s presence is felt throughout the album.
The first sound that you hear on the album is the thunderous pounding of the Bo Didley beat by the drummer Spencer Dryden. After which the trademark sound of Jorma Kuakonen’s guitar roars in and at that very moment, you realize that you are in for a trip. She Has Funny Cars, the first song of the LP, written by Marty Balin (who formed the band) talks about the rising materialism in America.
The next track is the band’s first and biggest hit, Somebody to Love. Sung ferociously by Grace Slick who had just joined the band after splitting from The Great Society from where she got this song. Aided by Jorma’s howling guitar, it became the anthem for the Summer of Love. The next two tracks are the country charmer, My Best Friend and the beautiful folky ballad, Today. In the latter you can hear the sounds of Jerry Garcia’s sparkling guitar-work.
The last song on Side One is a personal favourite. The gentle guitar leads to the recorder (Slick) and then Balin’s vocals come in singing surreal lyrics in a simple repetitive melody. Consider these lines.
One begins to read between the pages of a book
The shape of sleepy music, and suddenly you're hooked
Through the rain upon the trees, the kisses on the run
I saw you
I saw you
Comin' back to me
Comin’ back to me is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I have ever heard and the expanse of this one track is enough to dedicate one whole review.
Side Two shines with the last three tracks but that doesn’t mean that the first three are anything mediocre. They continue the west coast magical sound.
Sitting under two minutes is the six string, acoustic meditation appropriately called Embryonic Journey, composed and performed by Jorma’s genius. So sublime, so beautiful, so small. Perhaps the only other guitar instrumental from the popular music arena, in the same league, is Little Martha by The Allman Bros. Next comes the ominous, White Rabbit with its Bolero kind of cadence and Alice In Wonderland influenced lyrics, showcasing Slick’s stunning vocal strength and range. The song alludes to the sensory distortions experienced with the usage of hallucinogens. One of the reasons, it became one of their chart-busters. Those were such times.
For the last track of the album, the band chooses a groovy psychedelic track, Plastic Fantastic Lover with some brilliant guitar by Jorma on lead and Paul Kantner on rhythm. A befitting end to the trip.
1967 was a very important year for popular music across both the UK and the US with some path-breaking albums coming out one after the other. Disraeli gears (Cream), The Doors (The Doors), Are You Experienced (Jimi Hendrix), Between The Buttons (The Rolling Stones) and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band (The Beatles) to name a few.
And yet, ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ shines very bright with its own might. No other album mirrors that forgotten Summer of Love, better than this little, forgotten gem.
Genre: Psychedelic rock / Folk rock
Producer: Rick Jarrard
Label: RCA Victor
LP Courtesy: Sony DADC
Reviewed by Meraj Hasan
Meraj Hasan is a Mumbai based communication professional (and an amateur poet/musician) with a passion for listening to music the vinyl way. His 25 year old Technics turntable along with a humble collection of LPs across genres like Classic rock, Classical, Blues and Jazz (amongst others) are his prized possessions.
He can be reached at +91 9833410791 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org