Cleared For Take-Off

Cosmic compilation boosts maligned high-fliers back into orbit

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“FEW BIG NAME groups from the late ’60s have dated worse than Jefferson Airplane,” Jon Savage recently wrote, reflecting a widely held view that, apart from a couple of spectacular early singles, the group that offered the Yin to The Grateful Dead’s Yang in Frisco’s hippie cosmos was ultimately little more than an exercise in bloated ego-tripping and drugged-out self-indulgence.

Fly Jefferson Airplane gives the lie to such prejudice, and restores the band’s reputation in the rock pantheon. Superbly compiled, it juxtaposes vintage footage with thoughtful present-day interviews to give a compelling history of a band that was one of the crowning jewels in the lysergic-laced crown of ’60s psychedelia.

The Airplane played at Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont, but their huge hit singles “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love” meant that they also got to appear on prime-time TV shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Perry Como Special, leaving the makers of this doc a rich source of archive material. “Somebody To Love” from Monterey is simply explosive, with Grace Slick and Marty Balin coming on like a drug-crazed Sonny and Cher. Heaven knows how Slick got away with instructing a mainstream TV audience to “feed your head” on the acid anthem “White Rabbit”.

But she did. Then she blacked-up, minstrel-style, to sing the bizarre man-child ballad “Lather”. What middle America made of this freakish spectacle was, sadly, not recorded. We see them filmed by Jean-Luc Godard playing a free rooftop concert in central Manhattan (and getting arrested for halting the traffic below) more than a year before The Beatles pulled a similar stunt in London. And, finally, we get Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar showcase “Embryonic Journey” from the only reunion the band has undertaken in 30 years, at their induction to the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996.

Remarkably, all of the band have survived and offer illuminating commentaries. Grace reveals they’d taken “four or five different drugs” before hitting the stage at Woodstock. “I’m still awaiting the Altamont reunion on MTV sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and Chevrolet. Bring your switchblade,” Paul Kantner deadpans. A magnificent tribute to a band that flew higher than most.

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