The eleven minute "Ballad of You..." on J.A. Loves You perfectly displays the Airplane at their best. Not their diffuse and disembling jams, but vicious and driven drumming by Spencer, incredible riffing and double rhythm by Jorma, the full mountain thunder by Jack...
but then it gets REAL interesting. First, Paul (next to Bob Weir) was absolutely the finest rhythm guitar player I've ever heard. Does it matter? Like butter in a good croissant. He permeates! An intense understanding of chords from his folkie days, and an impeccable sense of timing. Later w/ early versions of the Starship, he'd just DRIVE that band onstage w/ his chording, and they needed it. But w/ the Airplane, his touch was a lot more subtle. Secondly, he never, ever missed the mic. The others, for all their brilliance, would occasionally come in late on the ensemble harmonies.
The harmonies. Well, for me, THIS is what makes the Airplane-cause they were HARMONY singers. Just like nobody else, though. This wasn't lush Byrds, Beach Boys, Poco, Eagle, multi-layed harmonies. No no. Counter-points interweaving throughout between Marty and Grace. Grace, for me, was her best as a counterpoint harmony singer to Marty or Paul. Listen to "In Time", "Young Girl Sunday Blues", or "The Other Side of This Life". Hint to you youngsters- Buy the Fred Neil compilation and LEARN where a major folk inspiration of Kantner (Weavers too), Crosby, and John Sebastian comes from. A VERY cool post-Kerouac early 60s beat folkie.
Marty brought the really high end to their harmonies, for one thing. Not Grace, unless Marty was singing the melody line. In itself, that was unusual. Not that any of the three would stay at one level while singing. The soaring and looping... Still Marty by himself on "Today", "Comin' Back to Me", "Share a Little Joke" (WHAT A SONG), "Things Are Better In the East", could break my heart. Hearing "Comin' Back to Me" at 16 years old in 1972 drew the lonely, dark, quiet romance of San Francisco. A guy looking out of his second story window at a girl on a wet street walking toward his house. The winter rain hitting the street and beating/beading against the window. The empty beaches of winter, clouds, wind, and rain... THAT was the San Francisco I wanted to know. Marty knew it, and it showed in that song.
It was that DAMN strange ensemble singing that capped it for me, though. These guys just thought differently about sounds than any band I've ever heard, including the Beatles. I noticed it immediately on BARK w/ the vocals, and really felt it thereafter until he rejoined starting with "Caroline".
Plus his leaving changed the dynamics of, not only the sound, but the songwriting. Neither Grace nor Paul could hide their bents once Marty was gone. Modifying influences were finally gone, and they went hell-bent into overburdensome and (for me) tiresome stuff. Personally, I found LJS barely listenable- only because of Jorma and Jack. Didn't like Marty's high voice? I COULDN'T stand Papa John (s)Creach. Painful.
Sorry for the muse...
"Go Ride the Music"