Blows Against the Empire
, a concept album by Paul Kantner
and others, was the first album released using the name Jefferson Starship
Beginning in 1965, Paul Kantner had recorded five studio albums with Jefferson Airplane
, but by 1970 internal problems began taking their toll on the band, including the departure of drummer Spencer Dryden
in 1970 and a rift that was forming between founder Marty Balin
and the rest of the band that would lead to Marty's departure in 1971.
In 1970 the Airplane released only one single, and Kantner took advantage of the hiatus to work on a solo album. Blows Against the Empire is his concept album recorded and released in 1970, credited to Paul Kantner / Jefferson Starship. This marks the debut of the Jefferson Starship moniker, though not of the band of that name itself (Blows predates the actual formation of the band Jefferson Starship by four years).
The album was recorded in San Francisco by Kantner with a collective of musician friends that included members of Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick, Jack Casady, Joey Covington), The Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart), Crosby & Nash, David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Harvey Brooks of Electric Flag. Also appearing was Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter Kaukonen, and Phil Sawyer, the engineer at Pacific High Recording studios. The credit to Jefferson Starship reflected both the album being an evolutionary progression from Jefferson Airplane as well as the story it relates of the hijacking of a starship.
Stylistically, the songs range from the light folk of "The Baby Tree" to the "musique concrète" passages "Starship" and "XM". Kantner even presents a kind of proto-grunge in "Mau-Mau (Amerikon)". Mostly, however, the songs are delivered in the kind of improvised, free-form rock & roll epitomized by the Bay Area bands of the day.
Lyrically, the album celebrates counter-culture idealism: let the old make way for the young; free love, minds, dope and music; children kept free of the system; together we can make a difference. It is set in a future where the counter-culture is able to unite and decide their own fate far away from planet Earth. In envisioning the future, perhaps Kantner was as naively optimistic as Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Written in 1970, Kantner describes in "Hijack" the construction of a starship beginning in 1980, which "ought to be ready by 1990."
The album is a narrative concept album that tells the story of a counter-culture revolution against the oppressions of "Uncle Samuel" and a plan to steal a starship from orbit and journey into space in search of a new home. The original vinyl release is of course divided into two album sides. "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" launched Side One, a counter-culture manifesto and call to arms. In the context of the narrative, this is the free music being performed in the park, drawing everyone together.
- "Put your old ladies back into bed,
- Put your old men into their graves,
- Cover their ears so they can't hear us sing,
- Cover their eyes so they can't see us play."
- "Get out of the way, let the people play,
- We gotta get down on you,
- Come alive all over you,
- Dancing down, into your town."
It celebrates late-sixties counter-culture, depicting people celebrating mind expansion and free love, "We'll ball in your parks, insane with the flash of living...calling for acid, cocaine and grass." They've had enough of the military, domestic and abroad, "You unleash the dogs of a grade-B movie star Governor's war...so drop your fuckin' bombs, burn your demon babies, I will live again!" They condemn the divisive strictures of conservative society, and dream of finding a Utopia.
"The Baby Tree" (written by Rosalie Sorrells), an enjoyable if seemingly anachronistic song for this album, is about an imaginary island where babies grow on trees and are collected by happy couples when they fall. The scene develops over the remaining album side, in "Let's Go Together" and "A Child Is Coming," that a couple is among the gathering in a park outside Chicago the night before the hijacking, tripping on acid as dawn approaches. She reveals that she's pregnant, and predictably they resolve to free their child from the government's "files and their numbers game" by joining the hijackers. In this setting, "The Baby Tree" can be seen as their acid-induced daydream about pregnancy, and so fits neatly into the narrative.
Side Two, informally known as the "Blows Suite," opens with "Sunrise," describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, and leads directly into "Hijack." The revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of "Hijack" and leaving orbit in "Home." As the story progresses with "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite," hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship's engines and systems are readied in "X-M," "Starship" relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue on. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner's admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein
, particularly the novel Methuselah's Children.
Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows
was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award
, in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation (http://www.locusmag.com/SFAwards/Db/Hugo1971.html). Although the album garnered the most votes for the award, no award was given in 1971 for this category.
Vinyl LP Release
The LP release featured Tracks 1-4 on Side One and "Blows Suite", numbered Tracks 1-6, on Side 2.
- "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" — 6:33 (Paul Kantner / Grace Slick / Joey Covington)
- "The Baby Tree" — 1:42 (Rosalie Sorrels)
- "Let's Go Together" — 4:11 (Paul Kantner)
- "A Child Is Coming" — 6:15 (Paul Kantner / Grace Slick / David Crosby)
"Blows Against the Empire"
- "Sunrise" — 1:54 (Grace Slick)
- "Hijack" — 8:18 (Paul Kantner / Grace Slick / Marty Balin / Gary Blackman)
- "Home" — 0:37.2 (Paul Kantner / Phil Sawyer / Graham Nash)
- "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?" — 3:42 (Paul Kantner / David Crosby)
- "X-M" — 1:22.2 (Paul Kantner / Phil Sawyer / Jerry Garcia / Mickey Hart)
- "Starship" — 7:07 (Paul Kantner / Grace Slick / Marty Balin / Gary Blackman)
Casette / Original CD Release
- "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" — 6:37
- "The Baby Tree" — 1:45
- "Let's Go Together [alternate lyrics]" — 4:23
- "A Child Is Coming" — 6:22
- "Sunrise" — 1:54
- "Hijack" — 8:17
- "Home" — 0:37
- "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?" — 3:42
- "XM" — 1:24
- "Starship" — 7:04
- The remastered CD has the original lyrics of "Let's Go Together" as track 3, and the CD / Cassette version as a bonus track
- "Mau Mau (Amerikon)" — 6:37
- "The Baby Tree" — 1:45
- "Let's Go Together" — 4:23
- "A Child Is Coming" — 6:20
- "Sunrise" — 1:54
- "Hijack" — 8:18
- "Home" — 0:37
- "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?" — 3:43
- "XM" — 1:25
- "Starship" — 7:08
- Let's Go Together [alternate lyrics] — 4:22
- Sunrise [Grace Slick acoustic demo] — 1:21
- Hijack [Paul Kantner acoustic demo] — 7:02
- SFX [guitar effects used in Starship] — 2:04
- Starship [live] — 10:07
- Radio Spots [hidden track] — 2:57
Begun as the demos for the next planned Airplane album, it evolved into a Paul Kantner solo project while Jefferson Airplane was undergoing transformative personnel and stylistic changes. Blows
developed early on into a collaboration with Grace Slick. It was recorded in 1970 at Wally Heider
Recording Studios in San Francisco. The studio's popularity with Bay Area musicians, together with Paul and Grace's entrenchment in the West Coast music scene, afforded them the opportunity to involve many performers from their expansive circle of friends in the recording sessions. The album features musical, vocal and songwriting contributions from members of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, CSN and Quicksilver Messenger Service, as well as Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter Kaukonen. Kantner dubbed this musical collective the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra
. Over time the roster has changed and expanded, giving birth to a number of other recording projects. These eventually included a sequel to Blows
titled Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra
, released in 1983.
Mau Mau (Amerikon)
The Baby Tree
Let's Go Together
A Child Is Coming
Have You Seen the Stars Tonite
- Cover: CCCP
- Books: Patti Landers
- Space: Jim Goldberg
- Design: Paul Kantner, Jim Goldberg
- All the Work: Jim Goldberg
- Title: Tony Nagamuma
- Produced by Paul Kantner
- Engineering: Allan Zentz, Pat Ieraci (Mauriceman - Master of the Machines - Sir Real - Master of the Razor-Lazer), Graham Nash, David Crosby, Phil Sawyer, Bob Shoemaker
- Thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Michael Cooney, Jean Genet, Mike Lipskin, Buckminster Fuller, Theodore Sturgeon, A. A. Milne, John Lear and The Bear
Arrangements and Instrumentation
Throughout the album, Slick's acoustic piano is highlighted. She has said that her chord-heavy technique at the time developed from watching session player Nicky Hopkins
during his many recordings with the Airplane. Most of the tracks add standard rock instrumentation to her piano, including electric and acoustic guitars, drums and bass. Thick vocal harmonies backing Kantner and Slick in duet are a signature quality of many of the songs.
A notable exception is "The Baby Tree", which has Kantner singing to solo banjo accompaniment. "Sunrise" is Grace Slick's self-penned solo vocal showcase, in part a duet with herself thanks to multitracking. Here she is predominantly accompanied by Jack Casady playing bass in a series of overdubs. "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?" features lush vocal harmonies over acoustic instruments with subdued electric guitar overlays. The acoustic parts are centered around Kantner's detuned guitar, using a tuning consisting of octaves and fifths of open C, which David Crosby likens in sound to the droning tones of bagpipes.
Two tracks of the "Blows Suite" consist entirely of sound effects simulating the starship engines and the flight through space. Scattered among the other songs of the Suite are heavily processed background vocal tracks and sound bites. During the hijack scene, an audio excerpt from the 1953 film George Pal film version of War of the Worlds is used to good effect: a woman is heard to call out "Let me through!" followed immediately by the sound of a ray gun firing.
LP, CD, Remastered CD
The original vinyl album was a single platter in a gatefold sleeve. The cover featured a piece of Russian folk art from a painted lacquer box, attributed to CCCP (U.S.S.R. in Russian). Kantner has said he enjoyed stealing the art from Russia because many of their albums were bootlegged on the Russian black market. The back cover painting depicts a partially opened parcel revealing a room inside with Jerry Garcia peeking out, behind him a Heavy Naked Woman standing on an American Flag the parcel being flown on a string by a trio of breasts with wings. Inside the gatefold is more artwork with track listings and credits, done in silver ink on black background and featuring a Paul Kantner caricature with a head of marijuana-leaf hair rising over a mountainous planetscape and inkblot pair of marijuana leaves in the lower fold A mushroom on the left hemi-sphere pyramid on the right and the mountainous planetscape is nearly a mirror image.. The inner dust jacket was decorated with collages of musician photos, writings and doodles. Original pressings included a full-color booklet as well, with lyrics, poetry and drawings mostly done by Slick during the recording sessions and collected daily by Kantner. Subsequent pressings included a black & white version of the booklet.
Compact Disc Releases
The original compact disc release had mildly dull, slightly under-volume sound quality, and reproduced the gatefold cover art and parts of the inner gatefold, neglecting the booklet and dust jacket art entirely. Some or all of the CDs released had a noticeable "skip" in "Mau Mau (Amerikon)," obscuring part of the lyrics. The remastered CD release has, as expected, superior sound at improved volume levels. The fold-out CD booklet includes the cover art and provides much of the inner gatefold and dust jacket artwork by including it among the extensive liner notes. Also included is a CD-sized reproduction of the black & white booklet. Finally, the remaster includes bonus tracks of alternate takes, demos and a live recording of Starship
with radio promos appended.
- PERRO website - http://www.planetearthrockandroll.com
- Jefferson Starship website - http://www.jeffersonstarshipsf.com
- Jim Miller, Ed., The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 (Jefferson Airplane Discography, p 274)
- Jud Cost, Blows Against the Empire Remaster CD, 2005 (Liner Notes)
- Jeff Tamarkin, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, 2003