Listening in Depth to Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

More Surrealistic Pillow

More Jefferson Airplane

Listening in Depth

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Before we get into the sound of Surrealistic Pillow, I’d like to point out that Hot Stampers for this title — and the shootouts that allow us to find them — are becoming increasingly rare. I’d be surprised if we can even find enough clean copies to play once a year nowadays. As unfortunate as it may be it is nevertheless a reality. With clean Led Zeppelin RL pressings frequently commanding $1000 and up on ebay, you can be pretty sure we won’t have many of those to sell you in the months and years to come either.

Same with this record. We love it but we just can’t find copies we can shootout, which are limited to those on the original label, in stereo, and neither heavily played or scratched.

On to the sound.

What’s amazing is how much the harmonic distortion in the choruses of She Has Funny Cars on side one changes from copy to copy, even ones that are tonally similiar and have the same stampers. I must confess it’s all a bit of a mystery to me. The distortion can’t all be on the tape if some copies of the record have so much less of it. When you get one with undistorted vocals, it’s almost shocking how much better it sounds than its competition.

In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

She Has Funny Cars

This one is almost always too bright and can often be quite aggressive. If this track sounds even halfway decent, you have a pretty darn good copy, better than average at the very least.

What’s amazing is how much the harmonic distortion in the choruses changes from copy to copy, even ones that are tonally very similiar and have the same stampers. I must confess it’s a bit of a mystery to me. The distortion can’t all be on the tape if some copies of the record have much less of it. When you get one with undistorted vocals, it’s almost shocking how much better it sounds than its competition.

As a rocker, this track needs good solid bass to anchor the sound. You can hear it right away in the guitars; they should have plenty of body. Too jangly or thin and you are in trouble.

Somebody to Love
My Best Friend
Today

This is the most important test track on side one. If the tambourine in the right channel sounds tonally correct, the whole side is likely to be correct from the mids on up. Most of the time that tambourine is sizzly and sparkly, which means the upper midrange is boosted, and that’s the last thing in the world you want on side one. It makes all the harmonic distortion in the vocals unlistenable.

Comin’ Back to Me

This is my favorite song on the album. Like most of the quieter cuts, it’s also one of the best sounding tracks. (Fewer bounces = better sound.)

Listen for the oh-so-subtle phrasing in the vocals. The transparency of the best copies allows the emotional quality of each line to come through clearly.

Side Two

3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds

Again, like the first track on side one, this one is almost always too bright and thin. If you have an LP with good body to the instruments, plenty of bass and no boost up top, this one can really rock.

D.C.B.A. – 25
How Do You Feel
Embryonic Journey

This instrumental guitar track shows just how good this album could have sounded if the engineers had had more tracks to play with. I believe the album was recorded on a three track machine, which means that when the three tracks were filled up they were bounced down to one track, so that two more tracks could be added. This process was repeated multiple times, which explains why there is so much harmonic distortion on the vocals: they were just bounced down too many times. (The same thing happened during the recording of The Mamas and The Papas’ albums.)

But a solo guitar recording like this one doesn’t need more than three tracks. Consequently it’s very low distortion and extremely DYNAMIC. I defy anyone to find me an acoustic guitar recording from this period that sounds more lively than this one.

With an eight track tape recorder at their disposal, this, the band’s MASTERPIECE, could have had the wonderful sound found on this track throughout the entire album.

White Rabbit

With a well-mastered dynamic pressing you can really hear Grace giving it her all at the end of this one. Many of the copies you come across are compressed, as a result of which her performance never comes to life they way it should. That girl had more than good looks going for her; she had a pretty serious set of pipes hidden under those hippie blouses and beads.

Plastic Fantastic Lover

This is the band’s Masterpiece in our opinion.

What qualifies a record to be a Masterpiece needs little in the way of explanation. We will make every effort to limit the list to one entry per artist or group, although some exceptions have already occurred to me, so that rule will no doubt be broken from time to time. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so famously wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”