Blows Against the Empire

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Blows Against the Empire
Studio album by Paul Kantner
and Jefferson Starship
Released November 1970
Recorded Fall 1970 at Pacific High Recording and Wally Heider Studios, San Francisco
Genre Rock, Folk rock, Psychedelic rock
Length 41:41
Label RCA Victor
Producer Paul Kantner
Paul Kantner chronology
Blows Against the Empire
(1970)
Sunfighter
(1971)
Jefferson Starship chronology
Blows Against the Empire
(1970)
Dragon Fly
(1974)
Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Allmusic 4/5 stars[1]
Robert Christgau C+[2]

Blows Against the Empire is a concept album by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, released under the name Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, the first album to use the "Starship" name, although the personnel line-up was not the same as would appear on the first actual Jefferson Starship album. It was released in 1970 as RCA Victor LSP-4448.

Overview[edit]

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 Balin's departure in 1971.[3]

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 and Jefferson Starship. This marks the debut of the Jefferson Starship moniker, though not of the band of that name itself, since Blows predates the actual formation of the band Jefferson Starship by four years.[4]

The album was recorded at Pacific High Recording Studios and Wally Heider Recording Studios in San Francisco by Kantner and Slick with a collection of musician friends that included members of Jefferson Airplane (Jack Casady and Joey Covington), The Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (David Crosby and Graham Nash), David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Harvey Brooks of Electric Flag. Also appearing was Jorma Kaukonen's brother Peter Kaukonen, and Phill Sawyer,[5] the engineer at Pacific High Recording studios. The credit to Jefferson Starship reflected many things – the ad-hoc all-star line-up, the album being an evolutionary progression from Jefferson Airplane, and finally 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 "Home" 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 representative of the Bay Area bands of the day. Lyrically, the album celebrates countercultural idealism; it is set in a future where the counterculture is able to unite and decide their own fate far away from planet Earth. Written in 1970, Kantner describes in "Hijack" the construction of a starship beginning in 1980, which "ought to be ready by 1990."

Concept[edit]

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 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, and make one of the earliest references to Ronald Reagan in popular music in the line, "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 Sorrels, 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.[citation needed] The allegory of "Let's Go Together" and "A Child Is Coming" symbolizes Paul Kantner and Grace Slick's romantic relationship and Slick's pregnancy by Kantner, which would result in the birth of their daughter, China Kantner, the following year.

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with "Sunrise", Grace Slick's allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. "Sunrise" leads directly into "Hijack," in which 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. 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.[6] Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation.[7] In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to "No Award", which received the most votes.[8]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. "Mau Mau (Amerikon)"   Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Joey Covington 6:33
2. "The Baby Tree"   Rosalie Sorrels 1:42
3. "Let's Go TogetherA"   Kantner 4:11
4. "A Child Is Coming"   Kantner, Slick, David Crosby 6:15
Side two: Blows Against the Empire
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. "Sunrise"   Slick 1:54
2. "Hijack"   Kantner, Slick, Marty Balin, Gary Blackman 8:18
3. "Home"   Kantner, Phill Sawyer, Graham Nash 0:37
4. "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?"   Kantner, Crosby 3:42
5. "XM"   Kantner, Sawyer, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart 1:22
6. "Starship"   Kantner, Slick, Balin, Blackman 7:07
Remastered CD bonus tracks
No. Title Writer(s) Length
11. "Let's Go TogetherB" (alternate lyrics) Paul Kantner 4:22
12. "Sunrise" (acoustic demo) Grace Slick 1:21
13. "Hijack" (acoustic demo) Paul Kantner 7:02
14. "SFX" (raw sound effects for XM) Paul Kantner, Sawyer,Jerry Garcia,Mickey Hart 2:04
15. "Starship" (Jefferson Airplane live, recorded September 14, 1970 at Fillmore West) Paul Kantner,Grace Slick,Marty Balin, Blackman 10:07
16. "Radio Spots" (hidden track)   2:57
Notes

^A ^B The original cassette and CD releases contained alternate lyrics for :Let's Go Together" that differed from the vinyl version. The remastered CD restored the original lyrics as track 3 and included the alternate lyric version as a bonus track

Personnel[edit]

  • Paul Kantner – vocals, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, banjo, bass machine
  • Grace Slick – piano, vocals
  • Jerry Garcia – banjo on "Let's Go Together", pedal steel guitar on "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite", sound effects and vocals on "XM", lead guitar on "Starship"
  • Bill Kreutzmann – drums on "Let's Go Together"
  • Mickey Hart – percussion on "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite", sound effects and vocals on "XM"
  • Joey Covington – drums and vocals on "Mau Mau", congas on "Hijack"
  • Jack Casady – bass on "A Child Is Coming" and "Sunrise"
  • David Crosby – vocals and guitar on "A Child Is Coming" and "Have You Seen the Stars Tonite", background vocals on "Starship"
  • Graham Nash – congas on "Hijack", sound effects on "Home", background vocals on "Starship"
  • David Freiberg – background vocals on "Starship"
  • Harvey Brooks – bass on "Starship"
  • Peter Kaukonen – lead guitar on "Mau Mau"
  • Phill Sawyer[9] – sound effects on "Home" and "XM"

Production[edit]

Arrangements and instrumentation[edit]

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 12-string guitar,[10] 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 side 2 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 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[edit]

Original Vinyl[edit]

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[edit]

The original compact disc release had mildly dull, slightly under-volume sound quality[citation needed], and reproduced the gatefold cover art and parts of the inner gatefold, neglecting the booklet and dust jacket art entirely. The remastered CD release has 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.

Charts[edit]

Album

Year Chart Position
1971 The Billboard 200 20

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ "Blows Against the Empire Overview". Allmusic. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  2. ^ "Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship Reviews". Robert Christgau. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  3. ^ Tamarakin, Jeff (2003). Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-03403-0. 
  4. ^ George-Warren, Holly, Romanowski, Patricia, and Pareles, Jon (2001). The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Revised and Updated for the 21st Century). Fireside. ISBN 0-7432-0120-5. 
  5. ^ "Phill Sawyer official site". Retrieved 3 May 2011. [verification needed]
  6. ^ Cost, Jud (2005). Blows Against the Empire (CD liner). Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship. RCA/Legacy. 82876 67974 2. 
  7. ^ "Hugo Award Index". locusmag.com. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  8. ^ Glyer, Mike (2009-03-25). "1971 BDP: No Award Really Did "Win"". File 770. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  9. ^ "Phill Sawyer discography". Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  10. ^ Guitar Player June 1977
Bibliography
  • Blows Against the Empire (Vinyl inside cover and libretto booklet). Paul Kantner. New York City: RCA. 1970. LSP-4448. 
  • Cost, Jud.  :"Blows Against the Empire" liner notes, remaster CD, 2005
  • Mamarkin, Jeff Tamarkin. ;;Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, 2003
  • Miller, Jim. (ed.), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1980 (Jefferson Airplane Discography, p 274)

External links[edit]