Original drummerAlexander 'Skip' Spence had left the band in mid-1966, replaced by Los Angelesjazz drummer Spencer Dryden, a nephew of Charlie Chaplin. New lead vocalist Slick, formerly with another San Francisco rock band the Great Society, joined the Airplane in the fall of 1966. Slick and Dryden in place on this album and its attendant singles completed the best-known line-up of the group, which would remain stable until Dryden's departure in early 1970.
Jefferson Airplane's fusion of folk rock and psychedelia was original at the time, in line with musical developments pioneered by The Byrds, The Mamas & the Papas, Bob Dylan, The Yardbirds, and The Beatles, amongst other mid-1960s rock bands. Surrealistic Pillow was the first blockbuster psychedelic album by a band from San Francisco, announcing to the world the active bohemian scene that had developed there starting with The Beats during the 1950s, extending and changing through the 1960s into the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. Subsequent exposure generated by the Airplane and others wrought great changes to that counterculture, and by 1968 the ensuing national media attention had precipitated a very different San Francisco scene than had existed in 1966. San Francisco photographer Herb Greene photographed the band for the album's cover art.
Some controversy exists as to the role of Grateful DeadguitaristJerry Garcia in the making of the album. His reputed presence on several tracks is denied by producer Rick Jarrard, but he is credited on the RCA label copy, as well as receiving credits on the Flight Log compilation and the Jefferson Airplane Loves You box set. In his sleeve notes for Early Flight - the 1974 compilation album of previously unreleased material - the band's sometime manager Bill Thompson writes only that Garcia was, "listed as 'spiritual advisor' on the album cover [and] played one of the guitars", on "In The Morning", a track recorded at the "Surrealistic Pillow" sessions, but first included on the album on the 2003 reissue.
Two singles released from the album later in the year, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," peaked respectively at #5 and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and are the band's only Top 40 hits on that chart. The album was mixed in both mono and stereo, and both mixes are available on two 2001 reissues, an RCA Gold CD edition and as part of the Ignition box set. Another stereo reissue appeared on August 19, 2003, with seven bonus tracks, including the mono A-sides of "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit." The 2003 reissue was produced by Bob Irwin. The original United Kingdom version of the LP was a mish-mash of the United States version and their first LP, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.