1966: Jefferson Airplane Lands in Grinnell

Grinnell College has a reputation for bringing big-name artists and performers to campus on a regular basis, but 45 years ago this week, many students attended a concert by a group whose name was by no means well-known outside the Bay Area, yet just months later their newest album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts. Jefferson Airplane, one of the key bands in the San Francisco music scene, performed at the homecoming dance in Darby Gymnasium, when it stood on the present-day site of the JRC, on the night of Oct. 22, 1966, billed as a “folk-rock group.”

Vocalist Grace Slick, the face of Jefferson Airplane for many fans, had not yet been in the band for a week.  Their first female singer, Signe Anderson, gave her final performance with the group on Oct. 15 and Grace joined and made her debut the following day. After a handful of concerts in San Francisco, the band packed their bags for Iowa, their first gig east of the Rockies. Accompanying them was Tony Martin of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, who was renowned for his liquid light shows in which he projected colored oils in constant motion behind the performing band.

An S&B article from Oct. 14, 1966, boasted that “movies, slides, and moving color abstracts will cover large screens measuring 80 feet by 17 feet placed along the walls of the gym, to create an exciting mood in tune with the music.” Interviewed in the same article, social coordinator Bob Johnston ‘67 said, “We are attempting to create an excitement of the mind”. Unfortunately, there is no known recording of the performance and very few photographs, but by all accounts, it must have rivaled even the best of Gardner raves for a sheer multi-sensory experience.

In the Oct. 14  the S&B’s Bob Johnston described the upcoming performance as “totally unlike anything that’s ever been here before,” which seems like an understatement. Parents’ Weekend coincided with the concert, so the bleachers must have been lined with mothers, fathers and siblings wondering what on earth they were witnessing. But with each set, the students got more loosened up and more parents trickled out of the gym, so that by the end the Grinnellians had taken off their jackets and heels and given themselves up to the lights and music.

The group’s manager Bill Thompson has said that it was at Grinnell that he first saw Jefferson Airplane had the power to transform their listeners. Certainly by the next year, fueled to a great extent by the countercultural and anti-Vietnam War movements, many students at Grinnell took up the causes of social and political reform and exercised their rights to demonstrate, culminating in the temporary closure of the College and cancellation of graduation in May 1970. Jefferson Airplane would go on play at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and record many more albums. The group still performs, in one form or another, and has an international fan base.  The 1966 homecoming concert then represents a period of transition both in the band’s career and in the history of Grinnell College.

Image of concert poster by an anonymous artist published in the Oct. 11, 1966, issue of the S&B courtesy of Chris Jones of the Grinnell College Archives and Special Collections.