The original leader of the Airplane and primary songwriter, Marty Balin first encountered Paul Kantner in the spring of 1965. Influenced by the folk-rock sound of groups like the Byrds, the duo set about assembling the group that became Jefferson Airplane.
“I first got in front of an audience during the folk days with a folk group,” Balin recalled in an old interview before performing on Maui. “When I went to San Francisco and started my own club the Matrix, which kind of started the scene, the fist people I picked were some of the greats like Lightning Hopkins and Furry Lewis. I didn’t know anybody wanted to see the Airplane or the Dead and the Santana Blues Band, we had to have a name to draw people.”
Naming themselves after a dog called Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (from the old blues singer), the group’s meteoric rise was fueled by the replacement of their original female lead singer with Grace Slick. Slick possessed an amazingly powerful voice, and added her gift for songwriting to those of Balin and Kantner, delivering the group’s first two hits, the psychedelic anthem, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love.”
Their evolution from folk to acid rockers was inspired by a desire to create original music and the cultural freedom San Francisco nurtured. “When I was in high school at night I’d see people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; and I’d see (comic) Lenny Bruce and (poets) Kerouac and Corso read,” Balin recalled.
“It was very experimental. And the main thing was we wanted to be original. Once in a while we’d get a job and they’d say, ‘will you play these hits,’ and we’d say yes, and play all original stuff and after the first set they’d fire us. Eventually everything turned around.”
When Jefferson Airplane disbanded in 1972, Kantner and then girlfriend Grace Slick re-tooled the group into Jefferson Starship. The more smoothly polished Starship ensemble rapidly soared, achieving a level of commercial success never attained by the Airplane. Hits such as “Caroline” and “Miracles” made the group one of the nation’s top rock acts in the ’70s.
“By that time the industry was different,” said Balin. “When ‘Miracles’ became a big hit I had asked for the whole (record label) machine to get behind that song, and it was amazing to see them do that. It was funny, when I recorded it everybody said, ‘that song’s weird, I don’t know if it fits.’ I heard this for weeks. But I liked it, and the world liked it, and it brought them back to the top.”
Dissatisfaction led Balin to leave Jefferson Starship after a few years. “It was the same old hassles,” he says. “I had no power, the money was controlled by other people, and there was a lot of craziness, cocaine and drugs. So I didn’t stay very long.”
When the Airplane reformed in 1989, many hoped this influential band would soar again, but a disappointing album resulted and the group separated. A couple of years later Kantner launched the acoustic trio Wooden Ships, and then expanded into a new version of Jefferson Starship, eventually recruiting his fellow Airplane co-founder back into the fold. In 1995, the group released the album “Deep Space/Virgin Sky.”
Based in Miami, Balin balanced touring with Jefferson Starship with a solo career which will include some new recording projects.
“Jefferson Starship has their own web site and they want to put out recordings so I’m putting together a bunch of things I recorded in the past,” he explained. “I’m also going to Nashville to finish a project I started there.
“I write all kinds of songs that the Airplane or the Jefferson Starship wouldn’t use because they would be dance grooves or country songs. I had some real good dance grooves I played in bands of my own between the Airplane and Starship, and every time I’d take them to the Airplane or Starship they’d say, ‘that’s not exactly our kind of material, we do more esoteric things.’ I’m always writing, so I have a backlog of material to draw from.”
“We still have a good time and it’s exciting,” he said. “In a sense we’re still outlaws because in this day and age no one wants us except our fans. It’s a different world now. As long as everyone’s having a good time I feel good.”