Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific 60s hard-rock tune, White Rabbit. We will first discuss the original version by The Great Society. Next, we will review a cover by Jefferson Airplane and we finish with a cover by Elephant Revival.
The Great Society and White Rabbit:
The Great Society was one of the early Bay Area acid-rock bands. It was formed in the summer of 1965 by musicians who were inspired by the Beatles. After a couple of personnel changes, the group eventually featured Grace Slick, who was born Grace Barnett Wing in October 1939, on lead vocals. The other band members were Grace’s husband at the time Jerry Slick on drums, Jerry’s brother Darby Slick on guitar, and Peter Van Gelder on bass and other instruments. Below is a photo of The Great Society.
The Great Society developed some notoriety in the Bay Area. They only released a single song, Someone To Love written by Darby Slick. The producer of that record was Sylvester Stewart, who later achieved fame as the leader of Sly and the Family Stone.
Grace Slick wrote the song White Rabbit in 1965. Legend has it that she composed it after an acid trip, and that would certainly make sense. The song chronicles events described in Lewis Carroll’s masterpieces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through The Looking-Glass (1871).
Slick injects references to several of Lewis Carroll’s characters – the White Rabbit, the caterpillar, the White Knight, the Red Queen, and of course The Dormouse.
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall
And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call
And call Alice, when she was just small
When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know
What an inspired idea – to use scenes from Alice In Wonderland, so redolent of a drug trip, as a means to smuggle in allusions to drug use. In hindsight, it is mind-boggling that these lyrics made it past the censors on AM radio. There is nothing at all subtle about the drug references here!
White Rabbit contains some absolutely memorable lines – “One pill makes you smaller, one pill makes you tall, and the ones that Mother gives you don’t do anything at all …. Remember what the Dormouse said, Feed Your Head.”
This song was frequently featured by The Great Society in live performances. Here is audio of The Great Society featuring lead singer Grace Slick, in a live performance of White Rabbit.
This performance took place in April 1966 at The Matrix in San Francisco. We will hear more about The Matrix in the following section.
Anyway, this is a long, drawn-out version of White Rabbit. It begins with a 2 ½ minute soprano sax solo by Peter Van Gelder, where you can definitely see the influence of John Coltrane on Van Gelder. It then segues into a 2-minute guitar solo by Darby Slick that is – how can I say? – pretty darn awful. Darby displays pedestrian guitar skills and his solo simply wanders around aimlessly.
In the last two minutes of the song we finally hear from Grace Slick. At the beginning her vocals are somewhat halting; however, by the end we get the powerful contralto voice with the shimmering vibrato that we associate with Grace.
I always like to show live video performances of my bands. If I can’t locate a video of the desired song, I will include a clip of a different tune. However, for The Great Society I have struck out; I am unable to locate any live video of the band.
Despite this, I am happy to profile The Great Society. They were one of the early Bay-Area psychedelic bands, along with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. They featured lead singer Grace Slick, who would rapidly reach super-star status with Jefferson Airplane.
Based on their live sets at The Matrix, and also opening for local bands such as Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society began to gain a devoted following in northern California. In fall 1966 Columbia Records offered the band a record deal.
Unfortunately, just days earlier Jefferson Airplane’s lead singer Signe Toly Anderson quit after she had a baby, and Grace Slick had agreed to join the Airplane. The Great Society could not survive without their lead singer and main songwriter, so they folded.
However, after Grace became world-famous as the lead singer for Jefferson Airplane, Columbia Records released two Great Society albums that were compiled from tapes of live performances at The Matrix.
When she changed bands, Grace brought along two songs from her former group. These two tunes – White Rabbit and Somebody To Love – would become the first mammoth commercial hits for the Airplane, and turned into two of the signature Jefferson Airplane tunes.
So although they were never very successful as a rock band, The Great Society nevertheless played a significant role in the history of psychedelic rock, and on the growth of hippie culture in the Bay Area.
Jefferson Airplane and White Rabbit:
In 1965, singer Marty Balin bought an old pizza joint in San Francisco and opened a club called The Matrix. Inspired by groups such as The Byrds, Balin was interested in the folk-rock scene. Piece by piece, Balin began assembling the house band at The Matrix, which became Jefferson Airplane.
By summer 1966, Jefferson Airplane included Balin and Signe Toly Anderson as co-lead vocalists, Paul Kantner on rhythm guitar, Jorma Kaukonen on lead guitar, Jack Casady on bass and Spencer Dryden on drums.
When Grace Slick replaced Signe Toly Anderson in October 1966, this formed the “classic lineup” of Jefferson Airplane. Rock entrepreneur Bill Graham took over as the band’s manager, and within a few months the band’s fame spread from the Bay Area to the world stage. Below is a photo of Jefferson Airplane.
In February 1967, Jefferson Airplane released the album Surrealistic Pillow, which shot up the Billboard album charts, eventually peaking at #3. Two single releases from that album, Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, made it to #5 and #8, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists.
Next, Jefferson Airplane were headliners at the 1967 “Summer of Love” Monterey Pop Festival. The band prominently featured in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the festival – whereupon Jefferson Airplane, in addition to Monterey Pop performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin, rocketed to international stardom.
Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were bands that seemed to exemplify the Bay Area music and culture scene. San Francisco, and in particular the Haight-Ashbury district, became the epicenter for the hippie lifestyle.
So here is Jefferson Airplane in a live performance of White Rabbit.
This is from an appearance by the Jefferson Airplane on the Smothers Brothers TV show. I am not sure whether the band is actually playing or just lip-synching. However, I include this clip because it features pulsating colored shapes in the background. This involved a new ‘Chroma Key’ process and was considered a breakthrough in TV video technology. These increasingly complex psychedelic light shows became a signature look for the Airplane, and represented an integral part of their prominence in the acid-rock scene.
It is stunning to see the transformation of the tune White Rabbit. Where the Great Society version was long, slow and meandering, the Jefferson Airplane version is short and snappy. It begins with a brief intro featuring Jack Casady on bass and Jorma Kaukonen on guitar. Legend has it that the tempo chosen by Grace Slick was inspired by Ravel’s Bolero, and you can certainly hear the similarities.
There is nothing hesitant about Grace Slick’s vocals, which start out strong and continue to build. The tune climaxes with Grace’s stirring vibrato declaiming “Feed your head.” It is said that Grace was attracted by the professionalism of the Jefferson Airplane musicians, in contrast to the Great Society amateurs (apparently their record producer Sly Stone quit after Great Society required 50 takes on a song, before they got it right).
Below we show one of those great 60s posters for Jefferson Airplane that explicitly refers to White Rabbit.
And here is yet another poster for White Rabbit, this one featuring a profusion of psychedelic mushrooms (plus a tiny ‘Jefferson Airplane’).
In August 1969 Jefferson Airplane were headliners at the Woodstock Festival. Given their breakout two years earlier at the Monterey Pop Festival, it is not surprising that the Airplane were also triumphant at Woodstock – in fact, they were the only band to headline all three of the iconic late-60s festivals: Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont.
In the late 60s, Jefferson Airplane were flying high; however, strong tensions arose within the group. A major issue was antipathy between their co-lead singers Marty Balin and Grace Slick. While Marty favored sophisticated ballads, Grace was associated with the band’s hard-rocking anthems.
With the advent of hard-rock ensembles such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream, Jefferson Airplane followed suit and increasingly began to emphasize psychedelic music. Several of their new hits were co-written by Slick and Paul Kantner.
As a former model, Grace was a charismatic presence and she rather eclipsed Balin in the public eye. To make matters worse, Grace was prone to sleeping with various of her bandmates. This is never a recipe for stability in a group, and her behavior in this regard really bothered Balin.
In 1969, Grace Slick had throat surgery and during her recuperation, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady fronted a combo called Hot Tuna, that oscillated between acoustic folk-rock sets and power-blues electric jams reminiscent of Cream. For the next couple of years, Hot Tuna would frequently open for Jefferson Airplane concerts, and that band began to occupy more and more of Kaukonen and Casady’s time.
A competing faction was led by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. In late 1970 Kantner released an album titled Blows Against The Empire that was credited to “Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship.” Starship was a group that initially included David Crosby and Graham Nash from CSN, Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, plus several others.
Tired of being shunted to the side, Balin left Jefferson Airplane in 1971. Another reason for Balin’s departure was that he had taken up yoga and began abstaining from drugs and alcohol. This put him at odds with the notorious substance abuse by Airplane band members.
Although they never officially left Airplane, Kaukonen and Casady began working full-time on Hot Tuna sometime in 1973. With several new musicians, Kantner and Slick fronted a rather bloated Jefferson Starship ensemble for several years. Eventually Marty Balin re-joined his old mates in Starship.
Then in 1989, all members of the “classic” Jefferson Airplane lineup (except for drummer Spencer Dryden) re-united. They released an album that had indifferent sales, but the subsequent tour was a commercial success.
In 1996 the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All members were present at the induction ceremony and performed, except for Grace Slick who was unable to travel for medical reasons.
Jefferson Airplane was the quintessential acid-rock band. Their classic lineup was a tight, hard-rocking band that featured two extremely talented lead singers (Balin and Slick). The Airplane became a symbol of San Francisco’s hippie movement, and they helped attract a horde of counterculture youth to the Bay Area.
Jefferson Airplane produced several rock anthems and became known for their psychedelic light shows and politically-tinged tunes. They were also infamous for their rampant drug and alcohol use.
It has now been more than 50 years since the 1967 “Summer of Love,” but I still remember it vividly. Both the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were right at the heart of the action. By now several of the Airplane have passed away – Spencer Dryden in 2005, Paul Kantner in 2016 and Marty Balin in 2018.
To the surviving members we say “Power to the people.”
Elephant Revival and White Rabbit:
Elephant Revival is an indie musical ensemble. They originally formed in 2006 and hail from Colorado and Oklahoma. Their style of music is described as “transcendental folk,”
which incorporates elements of Scottish/Celtic fiddle tunes, original folk pieces, traditional ballads, bluegrass, and indie rock. I first noticed the group after they got a shout-out from NY Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman.
Each member of Elephant Revival plays several different instruments. They operate as a collective, where each of them takes part in the songwriting process, and they all contribute to the vocals.
Elephant Revival is sufficiently eclectic that they have collaborated with or opened for artists as diverse as Bela Fleck and Nickel Creek, to John Paul Jones and George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic.
The group released their first self-titled album in 2008. Here is Elephant Revival in a live performance of White Rabbit.
Isn’t this neat? It was performed at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in 2015. I especially enjoy lead singer Bonnie Paine’s vocals. Although Paine does not possess the sheer power of Grace Slick, she does have a pleasant vibrato, and overall her vocals are an excellent fit to White Rabbit.
Somewhat to my surprise, I also enjoyed hearing the guitar solo from White Rabbit reprised on electric violin and, of all things, an electrified banjo. The song builds to a powerful conclusion, aided by an interesting mix of percussion instruments; I found this to be a successful cover of an iconic acid-rock anthem.
Sadly, Elephant Revival has been on hiatus since 2018. In the meantime, several of the band members are involved in solo projects. My hope is that “Elephant Revival” has a long memory and that they reunite soon – they appear to be a talented and creative group.