One of the strangest and most telling interviews of the 1960s occurred in less than two minutes. It happened in June of 1967, on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” at the start of the Summer of Love. The occasion for the interview was the appearance of the Jefferson Airplane, the most famous psychedelic band in the U.S. at the time.
Some background. Dick Clark was first and foremost a businessman. He received his college degree in advertising and made his big money as a producer. He wasn’t even a rock “n” roll fan when he started hosting “American Bandstand,” as he acknowledged in his autobiography. “When I took over [American Bandstand]…I don’t think I knew more than one or two tunes on the music list that afternoon.” (Cited by Matthew Delmont here.)* Clark did recognize a good market when he saw one. Adults typically found the world of rock “n” roll alien and scary. They feared that the music would corrupt their kids. Enter “American Bandstand,” a show whose audience seemed filled with extras from “Leave It To Beaver.” All American kids, as wholesome as whole milk.** And Clark, he dressed as if he were an executive on Madison Avenue, jelled hair, suit, tie, etc. Nothing to fear here, folks. Voilà! He ends up cornering the market on how “youth music” appears on TV.
But by 1967 there was a problem. Some of the most important bands were starting to look like, well, like hippies. Bad news for sanitized TV. And the Jefferson Airplane were among the worst offenders. Not only did they look like hippies, their lyrics were weird, at times explicitly referring to activism and drugs. The Airplane was clearly a threat to the packaging. Or as we would say today, to the brand. (American Brandstand? Ouch.) Yet Clark couldn’t ignore the Airplane. The businessman in Clark knew that they were not only popular. They were at the forefront of a whole new wave of music. What to do? Invite the Airplane and try to limit the damage.
When first introducing the band, Clark managed to mispronounce the name of their album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which included two of the band’s ultimately signature songs, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” After the band lip synced these songs, he went on to tell them that he only had a minute and a half to interview them. Not much time for a band that was becoming one of the best known in America. Their song, “Somebody to Love,” had been released in April of ’67, and “Surrealistic Pillow” that February. Both the song and the album had climbed close to the top of the Billboard album chart. Clark himself had made reference to the popularity of “Somebody to Love” before the band lip synced away, calling it “one of the biggest sellers everywhere in the country.”
In his minute and a half, actually closer to two, Clark asked a string of questions, often insulting, that were intended to diminish the fears of America’s older generations. They backfired. Among them was the often heard query to hippies and counterculture types: if we gave you lots of money, would you wear a tie and jacket, cut your hair, and go to work five days a week, that is, become normal? (Yes, Dick, just what rock ‘n’ roll artists should be, “normal.”) He also asked if parents had anything to worry about from the band’s dress and music. God only knows what he was expecting as an answer, but certainly not the one he received from Paul Kantner, “Yes, I think so…,” followed by a short an explanation. (At this juncture, an obligatory reference to “The Times They Are a-Changin” is probably in order.)
For those accustomed to all manner of dress and talk about alternative lifestyles, which includes a pretty large swathe of contemporary America, the band seems pretty tame in the interview. The musicians are polite and friendly (perhaps also a little stoned). But in 1967, they were a threat. It’s palpable in the way that Clark is handling them. He wants to make sure that there is light between him and the band, that no one dare think that because he runs a rock ‘n’ roll show, he supports these freaks and their music. Yes, let’s rock “n” roll, but not too loudly.
Two years later the band appeared on the Dick Cavett Show. This is was right after Woodstock. In contrast to Clark, Cavett was at ease and enjoying himself. (Joni Mitchell first stood and then sat next to him during the band’s set.) The second number is a live version of “Somebody to Love.” It’s worth watching. The Airplane goes into one of its renowned breaks about 3 minutes into the video, and at the end of the show they are still jamming. Really just getting started.
I have never heard or seen a recording of the Airplane that matches what they could do live, in part because of the long jams. But at the very end of this video, you can get some idea about how they kept the music rolling. Also, notice who’s on stage.
* See, Matthew Delmont’s, The Nicest Kids in Town, University of California Press, 2012. There is a digital companion project, here, in which you can read and find images about “American Bandstand.”
** Clark did introduce America to many important Black artists, but the audience and dancers were very white during the show’s first years. From advertising copy for Delmont’s book, “Counter to host Dick Clark’s claims that he integrated American Bandstand, this book reveals how the first national television program directed at teens discriminated against black youth during its early years and how black teens and civil rights advocates protested this discrimination.”