Playing the Band: Jefferson Airplane, “Other Side Of This Life” (1969)

Music by a band conveys the joy of the players banding together. This is what I would think of first if I were asked to explain the inherent musical appeal of the very idea of a band or the sheer event of hearing a band play. Successful collaboration—you can’t take it for granted, and you can’t beat it with a stick.

But players wouldn’t be able to band together in performance if their sounds didn’t band together melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. Banding in this second sense is the strength of the music itself, which notoriously can be great even when band members’ relationships are fraying. The unfolding piece holds on to its many elements stubbornly yet flexibly, kind of like a big high-grade rubber band that eventually brings every outward thrust into a rebound and new balance.

The rhythm section of bass and drums is constantly concerned with music’s banding at this level, but they are usually in the background of our attention. The pulse they maintain is one organic function among others in the music’s living body. But the dynamic expressive integrity of the whole body can also become a featured theme of a piece. I think this is often part of what is happening when any vocal or instrumental part sounds especially cogent. Who, though, would be better suited to bring this aspect to the fore than the one who almost literally plays a big rubber band, the bassist?

Some rock bassists are renowned for their tone or style (Paul McCartney) or virtuosity (Tony Levin) or magical supportiveness (John McVie), and some have played spectacularly as rock stars on bass (Jack Bruce), but the only one who is commonly regarded as a great band’s instrumental MVP is Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane.[1] The reason he’s preeminent is that his bass so often projects into the foreground and articulates the flexing, thrumming, something-like-a-rubber-band main muscle of his band’s music. He captures our imagination by playing that band in his own unusual way.

One of the best places to hear him doing this is on the live track “Other Side Of This Life” on Bless Its Pointed Little Head.

“Other Side Of This Life”

In comparison with the conventional bass line that lands purposefully on beats, Casady’s way of carrying us is more chatty and syncopated—his notes jump in ahead of their corresponding beats or trail behind them—and dramatic. It’s a matter of changing attack and timbre as well as note placement, but at least I can chart the note placement and to some extent the accents. So here goes. A bass part’s relation to the beat would normally look something like this (accented beats and notes in bold):

[Spacing is correct on homepage]

Beats:……………1…..2…..3…..4…..1…..2…..3…..4…..1…..2
Bass notes:……G…………B…..G…..F……..F..C…..F….G

But Casady’s part goes like this (starting around 0:07):

Beats:……………1…..2…..3…..4…….1…….2…….3…….4…..1……2
Bass notes: G………..Bb….B.G.Gb.F.Cb…..C.C.Db.D..F…Gb.G.Bb

And he constantly varies this pattern to keep us on our toes. You can see that he is playing more busily than we expect and thrusting forward more accented notes. I would have guessed he is playing very rubato, expressively hurrying and slowing the rhythm, but when I line up his notes on a metric grid I find he actually holds time almost as precisely as a drummer and thus gives us the best of both worlds, the rock-solid and the gesture-fluid. Without any loss of pulse or forward motion we feel a delightful stretching of the musical body we’re living in, as though we were pulling off new dance moves, as though our own spines could flex and bounce like that.

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[1] I admit a good case could be made for John Entwistle of The Who; and while I don’t rank Primus with Jefferson Airplane and The Who, I imagine anyone who loves Primus would regard Les Claypool as a rock MVP.
Then there’s the special case of James Jamerson, renowned for his power to ignite tracks by all the different groups in the Motown shop.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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