Crown of Creation at 50

The Jefferson Airplane Falls Prey to the Sweep of Psychedelia

Jefferson Airplane Crown of Creation, RCA 1968

By the time of its release in the fall of 1968, the Jefferson Airplane were already well established as one of the foremost purveyors of the San Francisco sound, which to the world at large meant a combination of substance-imbued sonics and the peace and love vibe that brought so many starry-eyed young people to the City by the Bay during that spectacular Summer of Love in 1967.

The Airplane had been working towards this peak since the release of Surrealistic Pillow the year before and while After Bathing At Baxter’s helped them pursue the trajectory, its disparate nature and distinct lack of deliberate cohesion did little to add an emphatic imprint to their signature sound. Consequently, Crown of Creation found more of a direct connection to early signature songs “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love,” confirming their ability to combine visions of sex and psychedelia in equal measure.

That was clearly the intent on songs such as “Lather,” Grace Slick’s ode to the ageless influence of drummer Spencer Dryden with whom she was having an affair at the time, and David Crosby’s “Triad,” previously recorded, but eventually rejected by his band the Byrds based on what was then considered a verboten subject, a three-way love affair. Nevertheless, both were perfect fits for the Airplane, each of which helped further affirm their outlaw image.

Crosby himself guested on the album, bringing him further into the Airplane’s orbit. Still, for the most part, the songwriting was split evenly between the various members of the band. Selected songs — “Chushingura,” “Star Track” and “Ice Cream Phoenix” in particular — broke from the template and brought the band to a higher level of abject experimentation, a rejection of the commercial intents their label RCA had pushed for following the success accrued by Surrealistic Pillow.

While the title track followed that formula to a greater degree than any of the album’s other offerings — especially given its sense of communal credence and tribal tenacity — Crown of Creation was overshadowed by the other monumental efforts released around the same time. The Beatles so-called “White Album,” Beggars Banquet, Electric Ladyland, Wheels of Fire and Music From Big Pink all made more definitive statements and gained the greater share of critical kudos.

Nevertheless, the album did make the top ten — their last album to do so — and while the single, Slick’s “Greasy Heart,” barely inched its way into Billboard’s Top 100, the advent of freeform FM underground radio ensured the album would be well represented on the airwaves.

Now, viewed in retrospect some five decades on, Crown of Creation can be viewed as the stunning achievement it was intended, a clear step forward on a path that would eventually lead to the album Volunteers and the Airplane’s overall standing as seminal pioneers of that hallowed era when seminal pioneers were never in short supply. Its cover, a artful mash-up of psychedelic suggestion featuring the band members shifting positions in front of a giant mushroom cloud, offered an ominous impression, but remained well in sync with the era’s darker designs.

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