Amazing Grace

❉ Blane Traynor offers an intimate appraisal of Grace Slick’s first fully fledged solo album, Dreams.

Honesty first – Grace Slick could belch the theme to Cagney and Lacey and I’d still proclaim it to be a work of genius.  However for this purposes of this review I’m examining her sophomore effort in the context of what went before, what was happening then and what was to come.

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In 1979 Grace had problems.

She’d just left Jefferson Starship for the first time after a series of disastrous gigs where she’d either (a) failed to actually go onstage at all causing fans to riot and destroy the bands equipment and (b) eventually actually gone onstage one night in Germany where she’d been so…uh…tired and emotional she spent most of the gig cracking jokes about the War to an unsurprisingly unimpressed audience.  Things weren’t helped when she decided to pick a fan’s nose towards the end of the set.  As she freely admits, she lost it all that night.  She quit the band the very next day.

They would soldier on without her of course, regrouping because that’s what they’d been doing since the Airplane days but Grace needed out of the machine.  So she went on a national game show and attacked the contestants instead.

In 1979 Grace had problems.

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Grace is she’s never been afraid to publicly admit her failings, indeed her autobiography sometimes reads like the sort of updates you see on Facebook from someone who’s just back from a heavy night at the pub.  So, in typical Grace style, she went back in the studio to record her second studio album (her first, Manhole, was released in 1974), and it was as self-confessional as anything you were likely to get from her.

Dreams is an album that’s always been around me.  Even before 1987 when I became a firm Airplaner, this album, with its stunningly evocative purple cover – Grace, with amazing hair, in a nightdress. Twice – had been sitting in my brother’s record collection.  He’d really just wanted to buy the single (the title track) but HMV didn’t have it in stock so he bought the album instead.  So I knew the album long before I knew that this laser eyed hippie temptress would become one of the most important figures in my life.

The music on the album is different to anything Grace released before or since.  For a start there’s an orchestra. Actually there’s a lot of orchestra.  This lends the album a sense of grandeur. The whole work feels like the Chrome Nun holding court – yelling her story to the wind or to anyone who’d listen, and a sense of unity where each track feels part of a greater whole.  In these days when albums are fighting a brave fight to remain relevant to the music buyers of today, this, and many other albums of the sixties and seventies proudly stands up and insists that you listen to it from start through to finish.

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Side One is a riot of styles, from the circus rock of the title track, to the flamenco of ‘El Diablo’. The only weak point on the album is Angel of Night – a straightforward, balls-to-the-wall, clichéd rock number, written by Scott Zito which only just manages to fit between the epic, soaring, confrontational Face to the Wind and the gloriously nutty Seasons, a song more trad Russian folk than The Dashing Troika, probably.

So where’s all the self-confessional stuff?

Side Two is where it’s at.  Four songs, each interconnecting with each other, with lines and refrains repeating through those songs, building towards a cohesive and stunning conclusion.  From Do it the Hard Way where the first line heard is “She’s been livin, too high.  Tryin to get to heaven at night”, you know Grace isn’t going to be hiding anything, nor is she going to be seeking repentance.  The four songs were written while she was in rehab (She did all this before Winehouse, people), and you can only assume they formed part of her therapy in some way.   Full Moon Man explores, well who knows?  It could be about Skip Johnson, her husband at the time, Paul Kantner, fellow Airplaner and father of her daughter, China, heck it could be about Jim Morrison or any of the various men shed spent quality time with.  It’s the most straight-forward song of the quartet but also the most immediately satisfying.  Just Grace, a piano and a flipping great big orchestra.   Let it Go is undeceptive. It’s about booze, drugs, fame, sex, adulation, anything that’s fun but not good for you in the long run.  Her take is simple, I did it, I enjoyed it, I have to let it go before it kills me

Garden of Man closes the cycle, it’s a return to the eastern style of music that Grace enjoyed playing around with back in the sixties.  Starts slow, hesitant almost, Grace’s vocals imploring the listener to join her before building to that ending, where lines from previous songs on the album rush back into play as Grace admits to herself that love goes on forever.

Aww.

Grace would, of course, return to Jefferson Starship the next year for a series of albums that saw them descend into straightforward corporate rock and American and UK Number One success, before leaving them due to chronic embarrassment in 1988 and then eventually retiring from the music business entirely in the early nineties.  She cut another two solo albums, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball in 1981 unfortunately took its lead from Angel of Night and was almost entirely written by the same songwriter, and Software from 1984 which, though hideously dated due to its reliance on synthesizers, has a digital charm of sorts.   She would never again return to the style of music she employed in Dreams, the closest she would come would be the track ‘Freedom’ on Jefferson Airplane’s self-titled 1989 reunion effort.  Significantly, the best track on that album.

I adore ‘Dreams’.  You’ve probably worked that out by now.  Sadly it’s very hard to come by and CD copies on Amazon are about £20 these days.  The whole things up on YouTube of course and, if you fancy an evening discovering something, I’d highly recommend you give it a go.

Just remember you have to let it go sometimes.

Grace Slick now spends her time as a professional artist.

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9 Comments

  1. You can never have too much Grace (reappraisal of the two Starship albums next perhaps?) I like Angel Of Night, but then Welcome To The Wrecking Ball is my favourite of her solo albums – it’s the most consistent and it rocks. Manhole was 1974 by the way.

    • Oh I am a fool to myself! You’re absolutely right Gillian, Manhole and January 74!

      Thanks for the commentings! As for the two Starship albums…I have a complicated relationship with them. They opened to the door to all things Jefferson for me so I can’t not like them. But, the older I get the less I get them so I”m not sure I’m the right person to reappraise them!

      Grace managed a cracker during her Starship years though: ‘Babylon’

  2. By the way Gillian, not sure if you’re aware but WTTWB & Software have finally been released on (one) CD and available in the usual places.

  3. What a wonderful review. This is just the most incredibly excellent website I am so happy. This album has a very very special memory for me as a young girl. The memories are actually embarrassing to recall so I’ll have to carefully listen to the album again. It was something I clung to it a very very hard time in my childhood. And I’ve never been back to revisit the music since. So I have always praised it. As you have. Thank you.

  4. I agree. Grace’s voice has got to be one of the best in the genre. Welcome To The Wrecking Ball is also on top of my list.

  5. Dreams was a breakthrough solo work that definitely showcased the amazing instrument of Grace Slick’s voice. I too was not overly impressed with Scott Zito’s compositions as well.. nor his production of the sound. On both Dreams & Wrecking Ball, the rhythm section sounds like they were in another room. There was no punch to the bass and drums. I think that we should appreciate Grace Slick, the artist , with the offering Software . Grace was always more adventurous than anything the Jefferson Starship was doing in 1984. The parallel is the same as it was in 1966, with her group The Great Society, which was , even in their amateur musicianship , far more experimental and “psychedelic” than the Jefferson Airplane was in that same year. Grace was simply embracing and producing the sound of her time. She has never been one to live in the past or definitely not repeat it, if she had her say. Software was a very notable effort for her at that time. She was taken to task by the older fans, for not being “Gracie Slick” of the milk train’ days. Grace has always been interested in the “now” and even though eighties music was not my thing, she did , however, entice me to listen to her interpretation of the “sound’ .. and I was impressed that she could be so creative within the eighties context and pull me in with her still strong and imaginative vocal “hooks”. Good stuff.. For real “Slick” fans , check out Paul Kalkbrenner’s “Feed Your Head” , a very interesting sampling of Grace’s White Rabbit with a techno re-do. Grace’s timeless voice , as in Software, fits the music ambience magically.

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