When Jefferson Airplane Sang From a NYC Rooftop

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Jefferson Airplane on the Schuyler Hotel rooftop, Nov. 1968

Every rock fan knows that the Beatles’ final live public performance was their famed rooftop concert at the Apple Records headquarters in London on Jan. 30, 1969. But as great as it was, the Brits were not the first major rock band to stage a guerrilla-style, impromptu, big-city performance for the day workers below. Jefferson Airplane beat them to it by several weeks.

It took place in New York City on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1968. The Airplane had agreed to participate in a work-in-progress by the radical French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, tentatively titled One A.M. (for One American Movie). His previous works had included Breathless, La Chinoise and Weekend and Godard had also made a film titled One Plus One (a.k.a. Sympathy for the Devil), featuring the Rolling Stones.

But for this new one he wanted an American group associated with the burgeoning radicalism mobilizing youth in the wake of the assassinations of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as the escalation of the Vietnam War. What he wanted was Jefferson Airplane.

Grace Sick on the rooftop

The band members were certainly agreeable but now the question was how to best represent them in the film, which included lengthy interviews with political revolutionaries such as Eldridge Cleaver and Tom Hayden. As they’d often staged free concerts in their hometown of San Francisco, as well as in New York, the Airplane and Godard decided to set up their equipment on the roof of the condemned, nine-story Schuyler Hotel, at 57 W. 45th Street in bustling Midtown near Times Square, and play for the folks below.

Godard called upon the documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop) to help out with the filming and editing and on that chilly morning the Airplane—with the help of roadies Bill Laudner and Chick Casady and surrounded by various friends and hangers-on—ascended to the roof and plugged in. From the Leacock-Pennebaker company’s office directly across the street, Godard positioned one camera while others filmed the band from the rooftop. Needless to say, they didn’t bother securing a film permit.

Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden and Jorma Kaukonen (l. to r.) rockin’ on the rooftop, November ’68

Dressed in their winter finery, the Airplane launch into a particularly stomping version of “House at Pooneil Corners,” a post-apocalyptic song from their recently released fourth studio album, Crown of Creation. As seen and heard in the footage, the song, co-written by singer Marty Balin and rhythm guitarist/vocalist Paul Kantner as a sequel of sorts to the earlier “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” reveals the Airplane at their performing peak. Each of the singers—Grace Slick, Balin and Kantner—demonstrates both their comfort with improvisation and their special knack for close interaction. The instrumentalists—lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden, with Kantner on rhythm guitar—are fierce and furious on this cold day, one of rock’s tightest and most progressively inclined units, slipping from one time signature to another like child’s play.

Related: Our obituary of Balin, who died on September 27, 2018

More so, perhaps, than any other live Airplane clip, even those from Monterey and Woodstock, the all-too-brief Schuyler surprise attack capsulizes what made Jefferson Airplane one of the most incendiary, creative and unique rock bands of the day.

Some hotel guests were pleased with the wakeup call

There are several highlights to look for, including the startled and, in some cases, befuddled looks on the faces of hotel employees and guests—and of course those on the street—when they are unexpectedly serenaded at 7:45 a.m. by one of the world’s most famous bands. From across the street, the camera alternately zooms and pans, at one point taking in the façade of the RCA building, home of the Airplane’s record label. We see their manager, Bill Thompson, and road crew member Chick Casady (brother of Jack) dancing to the music. Godard himself can also be seen, wearing shades and standing next to a camera, early in the video, waving to a cameraman filming him to stop doing so.

As the band finishes, curious to see whether they’ve gathered a crowd, they sprint over to the chain link fence at the edge of the roof. A couple of them climb it a few feet to peer to the ground. Grace Slick does a little jig.

Others not so much

And then came the cops. Of course, the cops. No free music, you hippies! “If they continue the music, lock ’em up!” says one. The camera pans to the street, where we see actor Rip Torn, a friend of the band, being loaded into a police car for harassing the officers. Balin smiles, pleased with the band’s early-morning rebellious act.

Filming was never completed by Godard on One A.M. but Pennebaker finished it himself, retitling it One P.M. (either One Perfect Movie or One Pennebaker Movie, depending who’s telling the tale), and it opened a year later, bombing instantly. The political rhetoric that comprised the bulk of the film today seems dated and pompous, even if some of the issues are very much still in the news.

Jefferson Airplane’s rooftop romp, however, has more than two million views on YouTube.

Watch it here

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. gordoflaco
    #1 gordoflaco 16 January, 2018, 16:51

    Loved the “Airplane” still do and still play them Progressive is an accurate description.Saw them many times , once with the cops between us. R.I.P. Paul , Spencer , Joey . Jorma & Jack still amaze.

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