The Hook Nobody Expects: Jefferson Airplane, “The Last Wall of the Castle” (1967)

Scream, Munch
Life feeds on novelty, so we’re constantly threatened with deadening repetition and disappointment.  One can be given a jolt and temporarily enlivened; but over time one gets jaded with jolts.  Unless there’s an ultimate jolt, a sovereign turn-on?

I don’t know about that, but a really great jolt is the ungodly distorted-guitars scream at 1:15 in Jefferson Airplane’s “Last Wall of the Castle” (Jorma Kaukonen’s song on After Bathing at Baxter’s), unprecedented and unmotivated, a gash in the track, a rupture in consciousness.  Like the Spanish Inquisition, it’s what nobody expects:  its chief weapon is surprise.

“The Last Wall Of The Castle” verse, chorus, scream

Besides being inordinately loud, the scream is very hard to interpret sonically—I’m just guessing when I say it’s done with guitars.  (“Sounds like when you drop a red-hot piece of metal into water,” according to one commenter on the youtube.)  Its ever-fresh rough edges bring out the ravening quality of our hunger for novelty, putting us (if we choose) at a momentary remove from it to view it in wild surmise, perhaps to gain new life-energy in pushing off from it.

As a blatant Novelty, the scream embodies what the preceding track on Baxter’s, “Wild Tyme,” went on and on about:

It’s a wild time
I see people all around me changing faces
It’s a wild time
I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet . . .
And it’s new, and it’s new, and it’s all so new
I see changes, changes—all around me are changes

Superficially, the pursuit of novelty looks random and merely restless; deeper down, there’s that driving hunger we can’t escape, and the roaring scratchy sound of the scream in “Last Wall” can be heard as its voice.

We desperately want the New because we’re fleeing from the possibly infinite weight and authority of the world’s being as it is; and (scariest possibility of all) the surprising scream could turn out to be just the roar of that same old being, as though irritably provoked—the same snarling face at the end of the last corridor we could try—the last wall, never to be surmounted.

The surprise hook of “Last Wall” is well and grimly prepared by Kaukonen’s razor-wire guitar fills played in the unique idiom he evolved for Baxter’s and by a rhythm scheme that isn’t propulsive so much as suspensive, a way of keeping the wheels turning till something happens.  The dominant figure established by Jack Casady’s bass is tonic to flat-third (B to D)


which holds you up through most of each measure in those three beats of DAHHH.  You’re being kept waiting for (1) the Scream (as you now realize), and otherwise (2) the sad static wisdom of the chorus, each of its chords struck on the one-beat.  There we find shelter.

Understanding is a virtue
Hard to come by


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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