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The Airplane Flies Again : With Rancor Behind Them, Reunited '60s Band Cuts a New Album

June 22, 1989|STEVE HOCHMAN

Paul Kantner held up a headline from the Weekly World News tabloid for his fellow members of the just re-formed Jefferson Airplane: "1960s Hippies and Radicals Were UFO Aliens."

The five ex-hippies, gathered at a Canoga Park recording studio, had a good laugh.

Twenty years ago, the Airplane--perhaps the most overtly political of the San Francisco hippie bands, and certainly the most commercially successful--probably did seem like a bunch of aliens to Middle America.

"We are your parents' worst nightmare," provocative singer Grace Slick quipped at the time.

But times have changed.

With the Airplane--Kantner, Slick, singer Marty Balin, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady--all working together again for the first time since 1971, Slick has updated her warning:

"We are your parents' worst nightmare . . . because we are your parents!" said Slick, who will turn 50 in October.

But also changed is the level of cynicism in American society. And with the Airplane joining a UFO-ful of other '60s acts re-emerging on a wave of nostalgia, it's understandable if some view this new venture as a crass cashing-in on memories.

After all, this crew was always known for internal rancor. Balin left and rejoined forces with Kantner and/or Slick numerous times over the years, with word of personality clashes accompanying each move. A few years ago, Kantner broke from the Jefferson Starship--the hit-making descendant of the Airplane--and took the Jefferson with him, getting a court order supporting his right to the name.

Kantner, Balin and Casady gave it a go in 1987 as the KBC Band, but the group failed to make any commercial impact with its one album. Save for Slick, who until last year continued with Starship, none of them were particularly burning up the pop charts.

Even today it would be hard to get five more different people together--from Slick, conservatively dressed in a stylish black pants suit and driving a rented red Jaguar, to scruffy, tattooed Kaukonen, who arrived on his Harley.

It would also be easy to view with some skepticism the group's press conference today in Chinatown. The intent, a press release says, is to "express their solidarity with the brave and courageous students of China." Some might say that's using a tragedy to draw attention to the band.

Slick scoffed at the suggestion.

Two songs on their upcoming album, she said, address the subject of political changes in China. But she insisted that both her "Harbor in Hong Kong" and Kantner's "Wheels" were written long before the recent events in Tien An Men Square, and even before the Airplane had re-formed.

Other subjects will be Slick's involvement with the World Wildlife Fund, which inspired her song "Panda," the shrinking of the world in Balin's "Solidarity" (with words adapted from Bertolt Brecht), and "Planes," furthering Kantner's fascination with flying that gave the group its name in the first place.

"I can give you carbon-dated copies of the lyrics," the loquacious Slick said.

And any evidence that the regrouping was a business move rather than musical and personal was absent as the five joked and chided one another in the studio lounge on Tuesday.

In fact, Slick noted, the venture itself started as something of a joke about a year and a half ago.

"Paul and I had been suing each other over Starship business," she said. "It was ugly for a while. We're both real good at arguing and like it. Paul was doing shows with Jack and Jorma. One was going to be at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Jack called and said, 'Let's play a joke on Paul. Why don't you come out on stage in the middle of the show? We'll play "White Rabbit" and see what he does.' "

As it turned out, the reunion actually took place at a rehearsal, but it worked fine.

"Then we started thinking, 'The four of us--let's make a record,' " Slick recalled. "Then it was, 'What about Marty?' So it just fell together."

Said Kantner: "It was nice. We had good reasons to fight and good reasons to get back together. A little friction makes for great sparks."

Casady, the youngest of the bunch at 45, said that there was some trepidation about the motivations and mechanics of the reunion.

"It was like getting in a room with five former wives, and then having to create," he said. "But it worked. All the elements of our style are represented in what we're doing now."

That means the album will feature Kaukonen's wiry, distorted, blues-based guitar, Casady's bone-rattling bass and, most recognizably, the soaring harmonies of Slick, Kantner and Balin. But all insisted that no attempt is being made to overtly refer to past glories. (Kantner said, though, that the band's concerts, including a scheduled Sept. 24 show at the Pacific Amphitheatre, will likely include as many as 10 old songs.)

With that in mind, the band hired two producers to oversee the record, which will be the Airplane's first for Epic Records. Ron Nevison, who worked with the Starship as well as Heart and many others, was brought in to give pop polish to the project. But also on hand is Greg Edward, known for his work with such rawer alternative acts as the dBs.

Can the new Airplane fly in these times?

"Who knows if it's right for 1989?" Kantner asked. "It just came together as an adventure, basically."

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