Top 10 Marty Balin Songs
Marty Balin wrote and sang some of the best-loved songs of both Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. In memory of the singer, who passed away on Sept. 27, 2018, we're counting down our 10 favorite below.
Balin started his musical journey as a pop singer in the style of Gene Pitney or Paul Anka. In 1962 he signed to Challenge Records, releasing two singles that went nowhere. He then immersed himself in the folk music scene, fronting a group called the Town Criers, which also failed to ignite. While Balin rethought his musical path, a business opportunity opened up that would tie this all together. He and friend Elliot Sazer took over a failing pizza shop called the Syndicate, and relaunched it as the Matrix, which would become a new music venue for San Francisco’s up-and-coming rock and rollers.
It was during this that he connected with like-minded guitarist Paul Kantner. The two would soon form what would become one of the most important bands of the '60s. Jefferson Airplane would break every rule in the book, and be all the better for it. "One night we were playing this gig and Jorma [Kaukonen] just suddenly took off, you know," Ballin recalled in the documentary Fly Jefferson Airplane. "He just flew away and played the hell out of this song. We never heard that before. So the next night, Jack [Casady] and Jorma took off, you know, and it was just great. So the next night, we all just took off and we played the song however we wanted, whatever we thought. So that became our approach."
Balin, along with Signe Toly Anderson, would share lead vocals in the original lineup. Balin wrote and or co-wrote most of the songs on their stunning 1966 debut, Takes Off. Within the year, Anderson left the band to raise a family, leaving the door open for Grace Slick who would take the band up the charts with "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love." It would be, however, Balin who remained the heart and soul of the band over their often tumultuous life span.
As Kantner and Slick would get farther out in their concepts, Balin would remain the more grounded voice in the band, but would often be out-voted by the others. His input into the band became less and less, but still potent with songs like "Volunteers" and "Share a Little Joke." Though he left in 1971, he would once again hook up with Slick and Kantner in Jefferson Starship in 1974, writing the band's biggest hit "Miracles" in 1975.
"Marty and I are like totally different creatures, we make different kinds of music," said Kantner in Fly Jefferson Airplane. "Marty is extraordinarily good, particularly at writing simple songs that connect and touch you. I can't write a simple song to save my life."
Balin had a warm, pure and honest voice, which worked as a perfect counterpart to Grace's more brash style. He took part in various reconfigurations of the group over the years, never really receiving the respect he was due for starting and steering the band at the start.
So here, we give you but a mere handful of Balin's finest moments here to enjoy. There will never be another band like Jefferson Airplane.
Issued as the band's debut single, "It's No Secret" was the sound of Jefferson Airplane circa 1966. Balin at the front with backing from Signe Toly Anderson and Paul Kantner and a straight-ahead folk-rock track. Still, despite being on similar ground to bands like the Byrds, they couldn't help but sound like anyone but the Jefferson Airplane. It was an understated start to an amazing catalog of music.
Most of the band's third album, After Bathing At Baxters, was under the hands of Kantner and Slick, but Balin got this one gem into the mix. A stomping rocker co-written with Kantner, its style slots in between the more psychedelic start and end of side one of the album. Balin was a brilliant balladeer but could deliver on a rocker as well.
Balin wrote and sings solo on this incredible, haunting ballad. Perhaps more than any other song on our list of the Top 10 Marty Balin Songs, this captures him at his truest. The timber and tone of his voice fully in force is a thing of beauty. This song sounds even more striking today than it did in 1967.
The album closer on the classic Surrealistic Pillow, "Plastic Fantastic Lover" is a "pounding rant inspired by the most pervasive American addiction of all, television" according to the Jeff Tamakin bio Got a Revolution. While the studio version is a concise rocker clocking in under three minutes, the version the band let loose at Woodstock is an amphetamine-fueled juggernaut of rock and roll fire. They could be so fierce live.
By 1975 the Airplane were long gone and the Jefferson Starship had taken on a life of its own. Though Balin first connected with them in a somewhat tentative fashion, he soon slid right into place, providing them with their biggest hit as Jefferson Starship. "Miracles," a three-minute edit of the seven-minute album track, hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1975 thanks to Balin's beautiful lyric and vocal.
Though never released as a single, "Come Up The Years" still sounds like a hit, on which Balin and Kantner harmonize on this tale of new love. Like so much of the band's early material, its simplicity is the key to its success. Throw in a glockenspiel for the solo and we have a song that, like so many of theirs, defines the era from whence it came.
This rocker opens side two of the 1967 classic Surrealistic Pillow. As strong lyrically as musically, "3/5 of a Mile In 10 Seconds" was all Balin. With lines like "Do away with people laughin' at my hair / Do away with people frownin' on my precious cares / Take me to a circus tent where I can easily pay my rent / And all the other freaks will share my cares." Though that may seem rooted in '67, it sounds just as applicable well after the end of the Flower Power movement.
Arguably one of the greatest opening tracks to an album, "She Has Funny Cars" was co-written with lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and still packs a punch like no other. The galloping drums give way to a monster guitar riff before Balin sails in on lead vocal. Soon joined by Grace Slick, this song pretty much defines Jefferson Aiplane stylistically.
The 1969 album Volunteers certainly ranks right up there with the band's finest material. From the opening call to arms of "We Can Be Together" through the title cut that closes the LP, it's one hell of a ride. The song "Volunteers" was supposedly first inspired by Balin hearing a Volunteers of America donation truck out in the street. He jotted down some lyrics and, with the powerhouse guitar riff from Kantner, created a genuine anthem for the end of the '60s.
“Today” stands as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. A simple guitar riff dripping with haze and minimal percussion are all that is needed to accompany Balin here. Marty's voice is so pure and bare. Eventually Slick comes in to harmonize, making it all the more beautiful. Like most of the album, it is drenched in reverb, which only adds to the ethereal nature of the songs.