Wow. January 2016 really has been the pits for artists of a certain age bracket. What can I say other than I am relieved that Paul Kantner, one of the founders of music legends The Jefferson Airplane, is out of his suffering and onto another stage on his starship journey — word had been circulating for some time indicating that his health had been up and down.
While reflecting on his life this evening that his passing was announced, I thought I’d put some of that negative energy into something more positive and pull together a quick look at two early seminal Jefferson Airplane albums which I happen to own in both Mono and Stereo editions. And along the way I also toss in the variable of different turntables and a dedicated Mono cartridge I recently acquired (a Denon DL-102).
The Monaural pressings I own are both relatively recent reissues from the good folks over at Sundazed; original Mono pressings in good condition are difficult to find as these records came out just at that turning point where more albums were pressed in Stereo, and more and more people were listening in stereo.
I was very fortunate to get in early on Sundazed’s offerings of some very limited edition colored vinyl pressings (100 each, as I remember) when they were rolling out the Mono editions of two Jefferson Airplane albums which came out in 1967, the groundbreaking Surrealistic Pillow and the almost equally innovative follow-on, After Bathing At Baxter’s. Thus I have former on beautiful purple and pink swirl vinyl while the latter is pressed in a rich candy apple red color. Sundazed Records offers a lovely Mono reissue reportedly made off the master tapes and it sounds great on dead quiet, well centered 180-gram vinyl. You can still get the regular black vinyl pressings at the Sundazed Records website.
For my little retrospective, first I went back to Surrealistic Pillow, the band’s first with Grace Slick and their big breakthrough. I found both Mono and Stereo versions to have their charms. For the more rocking material, there was something to be said for the Mono versions which locks the drums and bass in louder and dead center between your ears. Tracks like the smash hit “Somebody To Love” and album opener “She Has Funny Cars” pop better in Mono. Album closer “Plastic Fantastic Love” rocks harder in Monaural. In addition to the tighter rhythm section these recordings sound tighter because they seem to have less reverb and other effects glossing over them.
However, the Stereo mixes had their charms particularly on the more acoustic oriented tracks like “Today” and Jorma Kaukonen’s gorgeous instrumental guitar piece “Embryonic Journey.” There, the stereo panning and rich reverb really help to take the song to another cosmic….. um… plane (if you’ll pardon the dated hippiesque terminology).
Switching over to the band’s third album, After Bathing At Baxters, the choice gets more difficult. Yes, indeed the impact of the rhythm section being more dead center in the mix is undeniable. But here the trade offs go deeper…
Now when you go to The Beatles and consider their 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Mono mix is often considered preferable not only because it sounds bigger and more together, but also because that was the mix in which the band was actively involved. That said, with regards to After Bathing At Baxters, I am leaning toward the Stereo mix over the Mono. Sure, the Mono is punchy. But the trippy ambiance and psychedelic feel on the Stereo mix is not something to be missed, especially those moments of extreme left-right panning. Truth be told, if you are a fan, you’ll want both as they each have their charms. Again, you can find these Mono version at Sundazed Records.
While you’re at it, if you really want a good snapshot of what Paul Kantner was all about, check out his 1970 semi-solo album called Blows Against The Empire. Featuring a an amazing cast of luminaries — including David Crosby and Jerry Garcia, the band eventually becoming the core of The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (aka PERRO) — Blows Against The Empire is a sprawling album of post-hippie psychedelic earth music with its eyes clearly set on the stars. Its also the birthplace of the band name that would become Jefferson Starship four years later. This is cool stuff that grows on you with repeat listens reminding you just what a unique and important talent Mr. Kantner was at the core of the 1960s San Francisco music scene.
RIP Paul Kantner. Peace on your interstellar journey. You no longer need a starship to reach for the stars. You are now one.