The Great Society

The Great Society
Authored By John Nicholson

For all aficionados of west coast rock of the mid to late 60s, The Great Society are an interesting San Francisco band who played an important part of the development of the scene. Formed in the summer of ‘65 in Frisco by Grace Slick, brother Darby and then-husband Jerry with David Miner on vocals and guitar, Bard DuPont on bass, and Peter van Gelder on flute, bass, and saxophone.

Grace, of course, had been a model and was very much the focal point of the group both visually and vocally. They began playing around the North Beach area of the city, debuting at  the Coffee Gallery on 15 October ‘65. The area had very much been beatnik central in the late 50s and early 60s, based around the legendary City Lights bookstore on Columbus Ave, owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and today still one of the most important cultural forces.

Their music was an early blend of folk rock and psychedelia. Their version of the Jaynetts #2 hit, Sally Go Round The Roses was especially striking, turning it from a pop song into something that sounded more like an English folk song in the John Barleycorn tradition, very folky and haunting. It was posthumously released as a single but failed to chart. In ‘69 UK folk band The Pentangle would also record a wonderful version of the song. 

This was cutting edge stuff for the time but the band released only one single during its lifetime, the Darby Slick-penned "Someone to Love" (b/w "Free Advice"). The single was issued in February 1966 on Northbeach Records' a tiny North Beach subsidiary (I think) of Autumn Records label and made little impact outside of the Bay Area. It was credited, for some reason, to The Great !! Society !! Very strange spacing between the words and exclamation points. 

I’ll write a blog sometime soon about Autumn Records because they’re an important indie label, headed by Tom Donahue, who you’ll doubtless know was a San Francisco DJ who worked for KSAN radio and pretty much invented FM rock radio. They also released a lot of very good records by obscure psychedelic acts and even a 7” by Sonny & Cher. But that’s for another day. 

Their producer was initially Sly Stone, who had yet to put together Sly and the Family Stone. Columbia offered them a contract on the back of some prominent support gigs in the Bay Area. But by the time it flopped on their doormat, Grace was offski to replace Signe Toly Anderson (weirdly she was later to die on the very same day as fellow Airplaner, Paul Kantner. And also strangely, her last gig with Airplane was exactly 1 year after The Great Society's first gig) in Jefferson Airplane much to husband Jerry’s chagrin. They got divorced and the band split up. She was so integral to their sound and look, there was no going on without her. 

She took her song White Rabbit with her along with Someone To Love, reworked as Somebody to Love, both top 10 hits for Airplane which became sonic emblems of the acid rock glory days.

In 1968 a recording of the Great Society at The Matrix club in SF was released called Conspicuous Only In Its Absence - one of the great psychedelic album titles - and it made #166 though it deserved to sell a lot more. 

Obviously, Grace went on to fame and fortune but everyone else in the band seemed to fade out of the scene and not pursue a musical career.  Darby’s 1991 autobiog is worth reading, Don’t You Want Somebody to Love, and he seems to have spent a lot of time in India. 

So the band existed for little more than a year, but you do see their name on a lot of psychedelic posters of the time and for a while they were locally very well known and well loved. If you have a copy of their only single on Northbeach Record it is VERY rare and sells for up to £350 ($400)

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