The Other Rooftop Concert: Jefferson Airplane Aims High in ’68

by Peter Wendel
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JeffersonAirplanePromoPhoto SongMango.comJefferson Airplane did it before The Beatles – and it’s been rumored that the Fab Four may have ripped off the idea.

Jefferson Airplane played a free rooftop concert in New York City roughly two months before The Beatles did their publicity-grabbing gig atop Apple Record headquarters in London on January 30, 1969. It would be The Beatles’ last-ever public performance. They ran through a 42-minute set before the police demanded they turn down the volume. Film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who also worked with The Rolling Stones) captured the performance as well as the reactions of people on the street.

BeatlesOnTheRoof SongMango.comBy comparison, the Airplane’s rooftop concert on December 7, 1968, was tragically brief. It was more symbolic than anything else – during those glory days when rock-n-roll was breaking down barriers as it pushed society toward a more liberated, more creative way of experiencing life.

Although the trajectory of the Jefferson Airplane was straight up toward the heavens in the winter of 1968 – releasing their fourth studio album, Crown of Creation, and making the cover of LIFE magazinetheir rooftop gig barely got off the ground. The band played just one song, “The House at Pooneil Corners,” before the NYPD shut it all down (see footage below).

GraceSlick SongMango.comThe brevity of the Airplane performance, of course, is one of the reasons The Beatles’ rooftop concert is much more widely known.

The Airplane didn’t have a permit and the volume was high enough to be heard blocks away. According to lead singer Grace Slick: “We did it, deciding that the cost of getting out of jail would be less than hiring a publicist…”

The Airplane in the winter of ’68 – Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin and Spencer Dryden – played their impromptu (albeit short) concert on the roof of the nine-story Schuyler Hotel at West 45th Street in midtown Manhattan. The good news is the magical moment in rock history was captured on film by cinematic geniuses Jean-Luc Godard and D.A. Pennebaker.

D.A.PennebakerbyDavidShankbone SongMango.com

Pennebaker [photo: David Shankbone]

Godard – a 1960′s French-Swiss film director, screenwriter and film critic – is world renowned for French New Wave works like Breathless and Pierrot le Fou. Pennebaker – an American documentary filmmaker with a specific focus on rock artists, like Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin – is critically acclaimed for his footage from Woodstock and 1967′s Monterey Pop Festival.

The footage – from two cinematic giants – gives us a unique glimpse back inside the headiest days of rock music. The raucous free-spiritedness of the band (check out Jack Casady’s hat) and the reactions of the surprised New Yorkers make this a priceless 7-minute piece of music history. Enjoy!

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach Mountain Jam, The All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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