Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

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  • This outstanding stereo copy of the band’s sophomore release boasts solid Double Plus (A++) from first note to last
  • It’s the rare copy of this ’60s Psych Classic that has this kind of freedom from distortion, as well as clarity, openness, and spaciousness
  • An incredibly difficult album to find with audiophile sound, but this copy has the goods and will beat whatever you throw at it
  • 5 stars: “Every song is a perfectly cut diamond … a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia that hit — literally — like a shot heard round the world…”

Check out the breathy vocals on Today — now THAT is what we call the magic of vintage analog!

This vintage pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What the best sides of Surrealistic Pillow have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1967
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the studio

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

Three Qualities to Listen For

The best copies of Surrealistic Pillow have three things in common.

1) Low Distortion, 2) Driving Rock and Roll Energy and 3) Plenty of Tubey Magic.

It’s the exceedingly rare copy that has all three. The more of each of these qualities any given pressing has, the higher the sonic grades we will award it.

In order to find these three qualities, you had better be using the real master tape for starters. At this point, we only buy the Black Label Original RCA pressings, preferably in stereo but occasionally in mono when they’re clean enough to take a chance on.

Next, you need a pressing with actual extension up top, to keep the midrange from getting congested and harsh.

Richness, Tubey Magic, weight, and warmth — the other end of the spectrum — are every bit as important, if not more so.

Add freedom from compression — the dynamic, lively sound that’s practically impossible to find on any modern reissue — and you should have yourself a very enjoyable, hopefully not-too-noisy pressing to throw on the table and enjoy for years — maybe even fifty years — to come.

What We’re Listening For on Surrealistic Pillow

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks for the guitars, keyboards and drums, not the smear and thickness common to most LPs.
  • Tight, note-like bass with clear fingering — which ties in with good transient information, as well as the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the players.
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The musicians aren’t “back there” somewhere, way behind the speakers. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt — David Hassinger in the case — would have put them.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

A Battle Worth Fighting

We know that the best pressings of this groundbreaking album, when played back on modern, high quality equipment, are every bit the thrill you remember — if you were around at the time — from fifty years ago. (Sgt. Pepper is turning fifty years old this year as well, how about that.)

TRACK LISTING

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

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

The second album by Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow was a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia, and it hit — literally — like a shot heard round the world; where the later efforts from bands like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and especially, the Charlatans, were initially not too much more than cult successes, Surrealistic Pillow rode the pop charts for most of 1967, soaring into that rarefied Top Five region occupied by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and so on, to which few American rock acts apart from the Byrds had been able to lay claim since 1964.

And decades later the album still comes off as strong as any of those artists’ best work. From the Top Ten singles “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” to the sublime “Embryonic Journey,” the sensibilities are fierce, the material manages to be both melodic and complex (and it rocks, too), and the performances, sparked by new member Grace Slick on most of the lead vocals, are inspired…

The Sundazed Mono on Heavy Vinyl

Back around 2000 I spent a fair amount of time comparing the Sundazed pressing with both an RCA 1S Black Label original, two different RCA Orange Label reissues, and the DCC 180 gram pressing. To make a long story short, if you’re willing to buy this record for the songs that really sound amazing on it, like “Today”, then you should try one.

The DCC on Heavy Vinyl

Sour and opaque, the DCC has to be seen as a major disappointment. You can do worse — we would give the DCC pressing a grade of “D” — but it isn’t easy.