When the Airplane Landed at UBC

How Brock Hall came to host the international debut of one of the hottest bands of the Sixties.

What we now think of as “the Sixties” arguably didn’t appear at the UBC campus until the decade was half over. But by January 1966 it had definitely arrived, in the form of the “Camp Campus.”

“Camp” can be defined as “a social practice” that functions “as a style and performance identity for several types of entertainment…. Where high art necessarily incorporates beauty and value, camp necessarily needs to be lively, audacious and dynamic…. [It] opposes satisfaction and seeks to challenge.” (Wikipedia) – or, as more succinctly defined by The Ubyssey in its January 21 edition, “things so far out they’re in.”

What we now think of as “the Sixties” arguably didn’t appear at the UBC campus until the decade was half over. But by January 1966 it had definitely arrived, in the form of the “Camp Campus.”

The camp phenomenon at UBC was enabled by the Alma Mater Society’s Special Events Committee, which had a reputation in those days for innovative programming. “We’re special because we bring things which wouldn’t otherwise come to UBC,” committee chairman Murray Farr once boasted to The Ubyssey. “We appeal to only a segment of the campus with each event, but in a given year, everybody finds something to enjoy.”

During the Camp Campus craze, Special Events staged avant-garde performances and art exhibitions; movie nights featuring obscure cult films, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan of the Apes, and “the first Porky Pig cartoon ever made”; and a “Happening” in the Auditorium: “an allegorical and artistic atrocity” featuring free-style painting with audience participation. Perhaps Farr and the committee’s biggest coup, however, was bringing one of the top new bands of the burgeoning California popular music scene to UBC, not once but twice in one month: Jefferson Airplane.

The band had only formed the previous summer in San Francisco, yet were already one of the hottest groups in California. They were signed to record for RCA Victor, for which they received a substantial $25,000 advance. However, they had not yet released any recordings. They had also not played any concerts outside the San Francisco Bay area.

To attract out-of-town performers to UBC, Murray Farr had two standard procedures. One was to contact their management directly, book the show, and then contact other organizations and convince them to also book the act for either just before or after the UBC date. He would then arrange a package deal with the act’s management to lower costs. Alternatively, Farr would hear that an act was already booked elsewhere in Vancouver and make a deal either with the venue owner or the performer’s management for an additional show on campus. Based on surviving records, the latter is most likely what happened to bring Jefferson Airplane to campus. 

The band was booked to play three shows from January 14 to 16 at The Afterthought, one of the first psychedelic nightclubs in Vancouver, located at the Kitsilano Theatre on West 4th Avenue (now the Russian Community Hall). The opening act was to be local group The Tom Northcott Trio. These shows were intended to introduce the Airplane to the world outside San Francisco – their international debut.

It is likely that Murray Farr contacted the Airplane’s manager, Matthew Katz, to book additional shows either immediately before or after the concerts at The Afterthought. Their agreement was documented in the AMS minutes for January 20. The student council approved “the contract… between the Alma Mater Society and Mr. M. Katy [sic], representing the Jefferson Airplane, to provide entertainment at the Special Events Dance on January 22, 1966 at the U.B.C. Armouries at a cost of 50 percent of net.”

But that wasn’t the end of Farr’s deal-making. What exactly happened is unknown, but in the Friday, January 14 edition of The Ubyssey there appeared a small advertisement saying simply “The Jefferson Airplane Loves You.” Students thinking that the ad was plugging the group’s shows at The Afterthought were likely surprised to see a much larger one on page 12 that read: There’s Still Time Brother! – To Hear The Jefferson Airplane – Today – Brock 50¢ 12:30 – a special event. A note in the “Tween Classes” section confirmed it: The Jefferson Airplane lands today noon in Brock. Will Brock survive? Only for those who are out of their heads. 50 cents.

No records survive of whatever arrangement Farr had made for this last-minute show, but the band might have arrived early in Vancouver and had time to kill before their Afterthought shows, and it may have been a simple handshake deal between him and Katz. The write-up in UBC’s yearbook, The Totem, published later that year complained that the show “was a sudden decision and the promotion was virtually nil.” In the end, according to The Totem, Jefferson Airplane … scored a direct hit at a dance-concert in Brock. All flocked to the new kings of camp on campus – no one else on campus wore cord bell-bottoms, necklaces, a profusion of rings. Despite the loudness everyone assimilated all the fresh material the group presented.

“The Jefferson Airplane lands today noon in Brock. Will Brock survive? Only for those who are out of their heads. 50 cents.”

A note in the “Tween Classes” section of The Ubyssey, January 14, 1966.

The band’s membership at that time consisted of Signe Toly Anderson (vocals), Marty Balin (vocals), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar), Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar, vocals), Jack Casady (bass), and Skip Spence (drums). The show was a preview of their three-night stand at The Afterthought that weekend, which inspired a near-incoherent rave by The Ubyssey’s Ian Cameron published the following Tuesday:

Last weekend, in a small, dingy, smoke-filled, ill-lit hall, a new religion came to Vancouver.

The high priests at these initial rites were six young people who call themselves the Jefferson Airplane, and three even younger men who pass under the collective cognomen of The [Tom] Northcott Trio.

The scene outdid the most bacchanalian orgies of the long-gone but not forgotten Black Masses of the dark ages.

The parishioners writhed in convulsive spasms to the erotic pulsation of 5,000 torturedecibles [sic] being forced through spaces that were obviously never made to accommodate them….

The music itself was wild. The Jefferson Airplane, from Frisco, are a great, great group….

The dancing was something else. It combines the thrust and counterplay of flamenco with the motions of a sailor’s hornpipe gone berserk.

Wow. Between reviews like that, more substantial advertising in the following Friday’s Ubyssey, and likely word-of-mouth among the student population, the show at the Armouries on Saturday, January 22 was an even bigger hit. The student newspaper later reported that “600 turned up to writhe along with [the] mop-haired pop group.” The year-end financial report of the Special Events Committee recorded a profit on both shows: $71.70 (presumably Brock Hall) and $141.22.

The Afterthought concerts are today well-documented online with set-lists, copies of posters, and even bootleg recordings. The shows at UBC, not so much. In Jefferson Airplane’s semi-official biography Got a Revolution! they warrant only a passing mention as “a university gig also scheduled.” Inquiries made by this writer to the band’s official website for additional documentation were unsuccessful. However, fans of Sixties music, and in particular of Jefferson Airplane, should remember that UBC and the “Camp Campus” did indeed host the international debut of one of the top bands of the era.