August 8, 1967
“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
#1 on the RPM Top Singles Chart (Canada), July 29 – August 11, 1967
Psychedelic rock is often thought of as a progressive, innovative type of music, helping to transform rock ‘n’ roll from a teenage fad into a mature artistic form. At the root of psychedelia, however, lies a fixation with the past.
Sometimes this nostalgia manifests in aesthetic choices borrowed from another era, such as music-hall song stylings or Victorian and Edwardian design. Other times, psychedelia seems an attempt to recapture lost time, whether it’s by immersing oneself in memories (such as the Beatles’ one-two punch of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”) or by retreating to a childlike frame of mind.
Childhood is a time of boundless imagination and playfulness when much of the world is unexplained and the difference between the possible and the impossible hasn’t yet been nailed down. LSD and other hallucinogens promise to switch on this inborn creativity that had been repressed by society and lost as part of the aging process. In keeping with this attempt to recapture a naïve outlook, many psychedelic songs of the era have a distinctly fairy tale or nursery rhyme spirit — think “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” or Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.”
But while the British psych rockers often adopted a whimsical spirit, their peers across the Atlantic tended to take a more mysterious, subversive tack. Maybe it’s because a country founded by puritans, which had experimented with prohibition only a few decades earlier, had long demonized mind-altering substances, in turn giving them a dark allure. Maybe it’s because the Americans considered dropping acid not just as a way to expand one’s mind, but as part of a larger rebellion against society. At any rate, while something like Sgt Pepper showed off the drug’s capacity for igniting the imagination, these American acts reveled in its more dangerous, darkly seductive aspects.
The epicenter for the American psych rock scene was the San Francisco Bay Area, and the biggest band (at least commercially) was Jefferson Airplane. Formed in 1965 by folkies Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, and eventually rounded out with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden, the band’s sound soon became harder and more experimental.
The final piece fell into place in late 1966, with the addition of frontwoman Grace Slick. In addition to contributing a powerful contralto voice and a magnetic stage presence, Slick also brought along two songs from her previous band, the Great Society: “Somebody to Love,” written by her brother-in-law, Darby Slick, and her own composition “White Rabbit.”
Released in April 1967, Jefferson Airplane’s version of “Somebody to Love” instantly propelled the band to stardom, and made San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district the Mecca for the burgeoning hippie movement. The record’s aggressive guitar attack and menacing vocals sounded like nothing else on pop radio, and Slick sounded like no other female pop singer. While “Somebody to Love” was, as its title indicates, a love song at heart, the band’s follow-up single made a more explicit connection to psychedelia.
The band had initially expected that “White Rabbit,” with its opening proclamation, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small,” would be too controversial to release as a single. Only a year earlier, RCA had forced Jefferson Airplane to drop a song from their debut album simply because it contained the word “trips.” But, after all, nearly every element of “White Rabbit” was drawn verbatim from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Many, many parents regularly read these books to their children — what could be more harmless than that?
By while the lyrics of “White Rabbit” may have had innocent origins, the context of the song made its true meaning unmistakable. Set in a repetitive, hypnotic bolero form, Slick’s ominous vocals — all the scarier for how tightly controlled they are — slice through the faint reverb with no hint of cuteness or whimsy. The tension is heightened by a taut military snare drum and vaguely exotic bassline as the song builds and builds until it explodes into the final cry of “feed your head!” — a line not taken from Carroll’s books.
Slick intended “White Rabbit” as a rebuke to a society that, on the one hand, encouraged flights of fancy in children, but punished adolescents and adults who tried to recapture that imaginative process. “Our parents read us stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz,” Slick was later quoted in Rolling Stone. “They all have a place where children get drugs and are able to fly or see an Emerald City or experience extraordinary animals or people…and our parents are suddenly saying, ‘Why are you taking drugs?’ Well, hello!”
In that way, “White Rabbit” differed from other psych rock songs that merely tried to recapture a more imaginative time. Instead, Slick and the Airplane pointed out the hypocrisy of a generation. The parents may have blamed the baby boomers for taking drugs and pursuing alternate lifestyles, but it was they who sowed the seeds by showing them how to expand their minds.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.