The Meaning Behind “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane and Why They Weren’t the First to Perform It

“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane combined ’60s psychedelia in the music with a genuine emotional plea in the lyrics on its way to becoming one of the decade’s most unforgettable songs. But did you know the Airplane weren’t the first to perform it? (And no, we’re not thinking of Jim Carrey’s crazed version in The Cable Guy.)

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What is this song about? Who wrote it? And how did it make its way from one group to the next to become a big hit? Let’s follow the winding path of “Somebody to Love.”

Slick Dealings

San Francisco acted as a major breeding ground for top American rock bands of the ’60s. The Great Society seemed poised to be another in that line. Their creative brain trust was very much a family affair, with Grace Slick singing lead, her husband Jerry on drums, and Jerry’s brother Darby on guitar.

The band built up a solid following around the Bay Area when they started playing in 1965, at one time even opening for Jefferson Airplane. It looked like a record deal was forthcoming any time soon. They were given the chance to record a single on a smaller label, and they chose a track called “Somebody to Love,” that Darby Slick had written after going through a breakup.

The fortunes of The Great Society then changed through circumstances beyond their control. Signe Toly Anderson, who had served as lead singer for Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, the band’s 1966 debut album, chose to leave that same year when she became pregnant with her first child. That left this promising group scrambling, at least until they remembered the fiery lead singer for one of their opening acts.

Boarding the Airplane

Grace Slick had been in awe of Jefferson Airplane while watching them from the wings after opening for them with her band. When she was approached to join, she jumped at the chance. That essentially ended The Great Society, but their legacy was about to get a major boost.

As Jefferson Airplane started to gather material for their 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow, they looked to their new lead singer. Slick brought “White Rabbit,” which she had written and performed with The Great Society and would become a major smash. And she also suggested “Somebody to Love.”

If you hear The Great Society’s version of “Somebody to Love,” the tempo might seem a bit stilted and the rhythm overly syncopated. The Airplane juiced up the tempo, loosened up the rhythm, and cut loose both Slick on vocals and Jorma Kaukonen on lead guitar to take the song wherever it led them. The end result was a Top 5 Billboard smash.

What is the Meaning of “Somebody to Love”?

“Somebody to Love” offers a prime example of how a change in musical backing can almost alter the meaning of the song. The slower version by The Great Society renders the entire vibe somewhat woeful and defeated. When Jefferson Airplane ratcheted up the pace, it lent the song a hit of anger and revenge.

The verses talk about how loneliness can manifest itself both physically and mentally, with the opening lines setting the tone: When the truth is found to be lies / And all the joy within you dies. Dead flowers and blinding anger are on the menu in the second verse. And then the final verse offers a flood of tears and complete isolation: And your friends, baby / Treat you like a guest.

When Grace Slick sings the chorus, notes of sympathy and fury in her voice, it makes clear the import of finding “Somebody to Love” pronto. Speedier and more urgent, Jefferson Airplane took The Great Society’s more genteel original and turned it into high musical drama.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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