Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
In the Summer of 1967, San Francisco found itself in the midst of a cultural revolution – the Summer of Love – as thousands of young people with similar social, cultural, and artistic values all gathered together in the city. The artistic center for this hippie revolution was the famous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. 1967 was the pinnacle of the city’s growing movement of artists like The Charlatans, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and, of course, Jefferson Airplane. Fueled by psychedelic drugs and a desire to open their minds to new experiences, these bands were famous for playing long, improvisational shows which allowed them to explore diverse musical sounds and influences. As the industry tried to capitalize on this incredible artist movement, these bands often struggled to translate the psychedelic experience onto tape.
But in 1967, Jefferson Airplane was able to do just that with an unusual song filled with hallucinogenic, literary, and cultural references; as well as musical influences of early 20th century classical music, Spanish bolero, and Indian raga. That song was “White Rabbit.”
Jefferson Airplane formed in 1965 and was one of San Francisco’s foundational psychedelic bands. Singer Marty Balin and guitarist Paul Kantner brought together the original lineup which included bassist Bob Harvey, singer Signe Anderson, drummer Jerry Peloquin, and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.
Their first gig was on August 13, 1965 – opening night at the Matrix nightclub in San Francisco. From these early performances, the band received positive reviews from critics like the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wasserman and Ralph Gleason. After their first concert, Wasserman wrote that the band…“didn’t play folk music, nor blues, nor rock and roll, yet there is something of all these forms in the Airplane’s sound” and concluded, “although there are but hints at this time, it is entirely possible that this will be the new direction of contemporary pop music.” As for Gleason, he would go on to become one of Jefferson Airplane’s biggest early supporters, putting that encouragement into print, and predicting that they would be signed to a record label very quickly.
Peloquin left the group not long after their debut and was replaced by Alexander “Skip” Spence on drums. They became regulars in the live music scene of the Haight-Ashbury and surrounding areas. They were regulars at the Matrix, of course, but they also played events like the Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco on October 16, 1965, and Bill Graham’s Nov 6 promotion concert for San Fransisco’s Mime troupe (one of the events which inspired Graham to pursue his famous psychedelic dances at the Fillmore soon after), and sure enough, the band performed at Graham’s first Fillmore Concert on December 10, 1965. The band quickly landed a record deal with RCA.
Before recording their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, Jack Casady replaced Harvey on bass. Although the album was recorded in 1965, it wasn’t released until August of 1966. By the time of the debut’s release, Spencer Dryden had replaced Skip Spence on drums.
While the first album sold only modestly well, it was popular within the burgeoning hippie scene in San Francisco, and it seemed that Jefferson Airplane was well on their way. They continued to be one of the most important live performance groups of this time. Some of the important live shows that they performed at in 1966 were the Berkeley Folk Festival and the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Although the band was doing well, Anderson announced her departure from the band, and performed her last concert with them at the Fillmore on October 15, 1966. The others immediately invited vocalists Grace Slick (the lead singer of The Great Society) to front Jefferson Airplane. The Great Society had performed with Jefferson Airplane at many bay area shows between 1965 and 1966, and so the members of both bands knew each other well.
Jack Casady was especially enthusiastic about bringing Grace onboard: “I liked Grace’s singing because we wanted a good, aggressive singer for the band. She had a unique timbre and sound to her voice; Signe, who was our first singer, came out of a folk background and had a contralto voice with smooth harmonies. What I like about Grace was the fact she stood right at the end of the stage and made good contact with the audience. Paul had put the vocal sound together for the first year of Jefferson Airplane, where it had the smoothness of his influences in folk music. I liked the individual sound to Grace’s voice, so I asked her to be in the band. This was the girl. Also, her attitude was very different. She didn’t have a submissive attitude at all, which is what we wanted. We wanted an equal in the band, someone you could work off, someone with fire in their eyes.”
With her departure from the Great Society, Grace Slick brought two songs with her to Jefferson Airplane – “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” “Somebody to Love” was written by Grace’s brother-in-law and Darby Slick. The next song was her own composition, “White Rabbit.”
“White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” both became hits for Jefferson Airplane, and showcase methods for condensing long-form psychedelic music into a 3-minute, pop-song format. “White Rabbit,” in particular, left a legacy for its ability to take the psychedelic ‘culture’ and ‘experience’ found in this historical moment and translate it into the recorded medium.
“White Rabbit” broke into the spotlight the same time that the underground brewing of psychedelia came into mainstream consciousness in 1967 – the Summer of Love, in San Francisco. There are several key components to understanding psychedelia in this particular moment, not the least of which was the desire of these young people to come together and seek out knowledge and experiences outside of the mainstream institutions in which they were raised. It was a pushback against the idea of normalcy that was promoted in the 50s, and influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. Rather than placing trust in the long-standing institutions of their parents’ generation, they sought out new experiences and ways to expand their minds.
One of these ways was, of course, experimentation with drugs – specifically marijuana and LSD. Ex-Harvard professor Timothy Leary argued that these drugs would open your mind to perceptions and ideas you would otherwise never have been able to access. Author Ken Kesey agreed, and in 1964 took a group of LSD proponents on tour in a psychedelic painted school bus to bring the drug and hallucinogenic experiences to as many people as they could. To heighten the experience, they would put on shows with light and visual effects, accompanied by sound effects and rock music. They became known as the acid tests.
Kesey brought his acid tests to San Francisco in 1965, around the same time that a group of like-minded young people who called themselves The Family Dog, began hosting dances in the city. The rock music coming from local bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans, and the Grateful Dead became the accompaniment soundtrack to the psychedelic trip, and paralleled the experience of taking these drugs through long, improvisatory musical performances. The music mirrored the psychedelic trip, in addition to being used to enhance the experience.
However, as the music industry attempted to capitalize on the popularity of psychedelia, and began signing San Francisco bands to produce records, they ran into the challenge of translating this expansive music into the expectations of popular song…music which had largely been centered in the sixties on standard song forms and limited to about 3 minutes in length.
The standard format did not match the psychedelic songs as they were being performed live at these dances.
“White Rabbit” also began with this challenge…the original version was about three times longer, with a meditative introduction that was over 4 minutes long – perfect for setting the scene in a live performance. But when Grace Slick brough the song to Jefferson Airplane, and they rearranged it for the record, the band focused more on the quality of the Spanish Bolero.
Grace has said that she wrote the song after a psychedelic trip in which she listened to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain for 24 hours straight, but it is French Composer Maurice Ravel’s 1928 orchestral piece Boléro which has the most clear references for the listener. It is not simply a Spanish rhythm that sparks this connection but the entire structure of the song which is constructed as a slow building crescendo. Ravel’s Bolero begins very softly and builds very slowly over the course of the piece. Likewise, Jefferson Airplane’s song begins quietly, almost hauntingly with its percussive and bass start.
And both pieces grow to a powerful conclusion.
Grace Slick ends her performance and the song with a loud, energetic climax singing “Feed Your Head.” She told the Guardian in 2021: “The line in the song “feed your head” is both about reading and psychedelics. I was talking about feeding your head by paying attention: read some books, pay attention.” And it was that idea of fusing together deep out-side-of the box thinking (and in this case, literary references) with eclectic musical concepts that creates the atmosphere of the psychedelic experience in the song. With “White Rabbit” Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane were able to bring that late sixties, Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco atmosphere into the confines of a 2 and a half minute song, in a way that maintained the expansive experience of what psychedelia was all about.
The rhythm guitar on the track was played by Paul Kantner, and is influenced by the rhythm of Spanish bolero. It’s in the key of F#, which can be a challenging key for guitarists. However, this may be due to the fact that Grace originally wrote the song on a piano that was missing several keys. She said: “I wrote White Rabbit on a red upright piano that cost me about $50. It had eight or 10 keys missing, but that was OK because I could hear in my head the notes that weren’t there.”
The lead guitar was played by Jorma Kaukonen and has an obvious Spanish influence, but we can also hear influences of the modal jazz of Coltrane, as well as the melodic framework of Indian raga and the vibrato sound heard in the performance of this music. Kauoken also remembers that the mic was likely placed very close to the guitar. He explained to The Harvard Crimson that in-house RCA producer Rick Jarrard was trained in all the standard practices of the day.
“…recording guys like Rick, these guys were masters of mic placement. RCA had two books out in the ‘50s about mic placement, more about recording classical music and orchestras, that are still kind of the Bibles for guys that are interested in that kind of stuff. And those guys, back in the old days, they had that stuff down.” Bass was played by Jack Casdy, and drums were played by Spencer Dryden.
Grace Slick’s vocals draw out the mystery and fantasy of the lyrics. She adds lots of little vocal turns, and adds vibrato, especially at the end of phrases. The lyrics, of course, are full of references to Lewis Carrol’s “Alice and Wonderland,” focusing largely on the drug references that parallel the psychedelic experience of the time. The song begins:
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
Other references include the “hookah smoking caterpillar” and mushrooms, as well as character references to “men on the chess board,” “the white king,” the “red queen,” and the “door mouse.” The band was actually concerned that it wouldn’t pass censorship because the lyrics were so obvious. Casady explained: “Grace had two songs she brought with her from the Great Society. But White Rabbit was the song we were going to leave off the album because we thought it would never get released, we thought it was going to be censored. It eventually became a big deal because it made it onto the album, then got dispersed into the crowd whenever we played live.”
The song and the rest of the band’s second album Surrealistic Pillow, were recorded at RCA Studio in Hollywood and produced by RCA staff producer Rick Jarrard. He played an active role in taking the band’s live psychedelic music experiences and adapting them for the recorded medium. Although the band sometimes struggled to blend their creative visions with Jarrard, Kauokonen explained that “We sort of bristled against some stuff, just ‘cause we liked to think we came up with everything ourselves. But at the same time, I think that everybody in the band, even Paul, Grace, and Marty recognized that we were in uncharted waters. When you go into the studio and record something, it’s a different ballgame from playing a live show. I don’t think the album would have had the same sonic quality had the members of the Airplane, myself included, been able to drive the bus more. So, did Rick make us do stuff that we probably wouldn’t have done if left on our own? The answer is yes, and after the fact, my personal opinion is that this was a good thing.” The recording sessions also had the influence of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who Kauokonen credits with helping the band in their arrangements and dynamics.
The setup and recording process was largely live. Casady recalled: “We recorded it out at Sunset and Ivar, in a huge room at RCA where they used to record A Hundred And One Strings. The room was massive, so we basically set up the instrumentation in the middle of this room and played it live onto four-track. It was very simple to record. I just led the song out as a bass part like Bolero, ripping off Ravel. It was all slow and slinky, it gave us the atmosphere we wanted.”
The recording sessions took place in the fall of 1966 and the Surrealistic Pillow album was released in early 1967.
“White Rabbit”was released as the third single from the album on June 24, 1967, simultaneously with San Francisco’s famed Summer of Love, and hit number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It is a song that is incredibly representative of the psychedelic era. It remarkably takes the psychedelia of San Francisco’s live music scene at the end of the sixties, and translates it into a successful pop-song experience. It has held a lasting legacy too, as one of the go-to pieces in television and film for representing not only the historical time, but also moments of enigmatic fantasy, mystery, and, more specifically, hallucinogenic drug use. With “White Rabbit”, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane successfully captured the experience of psychedelia and recorded it- through song-for generations of listeners to experience since.