We Should Be Together & Volunteers (1969)

Jefferson Airplane

Written by Paul Kantner (We Should Be Together)
Marty Balin and Paul Kantner (Volunteers)
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volunteers grace fingerIn mid-July of 1959, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle Of New Orleans” sat at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. It is a jolly recounting of the famed fight against “the bloody British” a few weeks after the truce that ended the War of 1812.

By the mid-’60s there was blood and fire in the streets of major cities because of race riots and their underlying causes. The Vietnam War created a crucible of radical thought for youth in America and countless other countries. Strikes shut down countries from France to Spain to Mexico to Japan. The youth movement became a youth quake.

The Jefferson Airplane 1969

Grace Slick and The Airplane, San Francisco, 1969

Exactly ten years after Horton’s light-hearted war song, the music that captured the sense of an impending social crack-up could be found on the Jefferson Airplane album Volunteers. In the heat of the moment and the aftermath, much of the musical excellence of two of the album’s songs (at least) has been overlooked. It is Rock-N-Roll at its defiant best, and it is Rock-N-Roll that draws on many fountains, the tapping-in always a gateway to better quality music.

Along came the Sixties generation’s “La Marseillaise.” Stirring, pompous, promising upheaval, loving the tumult. “We Can Be Together” blasts off the album Volunteers, while the eponymous song “Volunteers” closes the album. They belong to each other. They should be together. They are treated more or less as one song here because “Volunteers” is a reprise of “We Should Be Together.”

“We Should Be Together” – dreams of the 1960s

“Volunteers” – the anthem

“We Should Be Together” is introduced by a guitar solo that establishes the two musical and political themes that cross back and forth between the two separate titles joined by a neat segue. One is gentle and melodic, the other a sound like a howling junkyard dog. The former represents the gentle side of the “revolution,” an Age-of-Aquarius feeling skipping around it. The latter represents the raw wounds generated by daily death on the TV screen, repression of minorities, gays and women, as well as a general unease with the status quo.

Volunteers cover“We Should Be Together” begins almost as a mellow, Mamas And Popas-type song combined with the sentiments of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together.” (C’mon people, smile on your brother. Everybody get together; try to love one another right now.) The Airplane could have switched their opening lyrics around a little and created a Coke commercial out of the mood.

But, the song makes a quick left turn just as “We Should Be Together’s” sunny day is dawning. It’s America, but something is going terribly wrong:

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
In order to survive we steal cheat lie
forge fuck hide and deal

We are obscene lawless hideous
dangerous dirty violent and young
But we should be together

There is some self-aware, self-deprecating humor in the lines. But the specter of a ragtag nation within a nation was frightening to older people, who knew not what was going on around them.

The so-called Greatest Generation still thought of America as a kind of an incarnate Glenda The Good Witch spreading peace and joy around the globe. Many young people saw the country as engaging in genocidal mayhem in Vietnam not to mention in the streets of U.S. cities and towns. When Grace Slick sang “we should be together,” a chord was struck. There was much more. 

Volunteers 1967All your private property is
Target for your enemy
And your enemy is
We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are

The Airplane in full freak mode in 1967

Whoaaa. Wait just a darned minute. Private property? Enemies? Chaos and anarchy? About this time in the real world, the riot police would be putting on their helmets and waxing down their nightsticks. 

Of course, this was rhetoric of the most elastic sort. Members of Jefferson Airplane, having had four huge hit albums already were as laden with private property as the chief muckety-muck at your nearest munitions plant. Hey, mom and dad, this is about entertainment, not bombs.

Not so fast, kids… explain these lines: 

Up against the wall
Up against the wall motherfucker
Tear down the walls
Tear down the walls
Come on now together
Get it on together
Everybody together
We should be together
We should be together my friends
We can be together
We will be

Volunteers Columbia U 1968The flashpoint between old and young, parent and child, was often very, very personal and not always terribly political. Dropping words like “mother-fuckers’ in the late 1960s was a pretty potent jab. It was a term appropriated from the Black Panthers in Oakland across the bay from San Francisco and spoke volumes about how far apart the generations had moved. Everyone was digging in.

Strangely enough, there is something stirringly patriotic about “We Should Be Together.” Jorma Kaukonen’s heavy, acid-soaked lead guitar lines are among the best he ever executed for the Airplane and have a dollop of Duane Allman in them. Paul Kantner’s rhythm strumming and rhythm leads are rousing hybrids splitting the difference between folk and futuristic sonic sounds. The drum playing by Spencer Dryden (his last for the group that he had joined in 1966) is spectacular. It shifts from meditative to militaristic in the smoothest of transitions. Dryden would join the New Riders Of The Purple Sage shortly after his February, 1970 departure.

The lead vocals by Grace Slick are top-notch although her voice sounds (purposely?) a little strained as she becomes more vehement. Strong counter melodies in close harmony are sung well by Kantner and Marty Balin. In spite of the pungent lyrics, there is something innocently earnest about the work. It’s “California does the revolution” music. Tear down the walls, but please, please, be mellow about it and clean up after yourselves.

That is, until it switches to “Volunteers.”

It’s a big song spun out in two short minutes. There are loud, wild, psychedelia-inspired guitars; crashing drums and cymbals; and shouting, banshee vocals. “Volunteers” finally expands on the Airplane’s instrumental work on 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow and it is a delight to hear.

“Volunteers” is one of the few convincing calls for large-scale social change that came out of the late 1960s and early ’70s. It could be heard blaring from any college dorm at any hour of the day or night. America had reached a turning point.

Volunteers single jacketLook what’s happening up the streets
Got a revolution
Got to revolution
Hey I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution
Got to revolution
Ain’t it amazing all the people I meet
Got a revolution
Got to revolution
One generation got old
One generation got sold
This generation got no destination to hold
Pick up the cry

Life went on, of course, as in a Medieval village. Except now we lived in a global village. Come the following year when four students were gunned down at Kent State University and two at Jackson State University, it seemed as if something revolutionary might actually go down and not in song, not in high style, but on the dusty roads and hard-time streets from which the music first came.

Four dead in O-hi-o

Check out our enormous stockpile of Airplane albums, shirts and posters.

  • Jefferson Airplane appeared on The Dick Cavett Show only hours after the end of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. They played “We Should Be Together” uncensored.
  • It is thought to be the only utterance of the phrase “up against the wall, mother-fuckers” in live network TV history.

Also by Jefferson Airplane on SongMango.com:

  • She Has Funny CarsWe're left to contemplate what a "funny car" is to begin with. One of the songs that truly made the '60s the '60s.