This was written by Grace Slick, who based the lyrics on Lewis Carroll's book Alice In Wonderland. Like many young musicians in San Francisco, Slick did a lot of drugs, and she saw a surfeit of drug references in Carroll's book, including the pills, the smoking caterpillar, the mushroom, and lots of other images that are pretty trippy. She noticed that many children's stories involve a substance of some kind that alters reality, and felt it was time to write a song about it.
Slick got the idea for this song after taking LSD and spending hours listening to the Miles Davis album Sketches Of Spain. The Spanish beat she came up with was also influenced by Ravel's "Bolero."
Slick wrote this song and performed it when she was in a band called The Great Society with her first husband, Jerry Slick. The Great Society made inroads in the San Francisco music scene, but released just one single, "Somebody To Love
" (written by their guitarist, Jerry's brother Darby Slick), before calling it quits in 1966. Grace moved on to Jefferson Airplane, and the group recorded both "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" for their first album with her, Surrealistic Pillow
. The songs were the breakout hits for the band, with "Somebody To Love" reaching #5 US and "White Rabbit" following at #8.
The Great Society Version of "White Rabbit" was released in 1968 on an album called Conspicuous Only In Its Absence
(credited to "The Great Society With Grace Slick"), a live recording of a show at The Matrix in San Francisco. This version runs 6:07 and meanders through four minutes of Indian stylings before Slick's vocals appear. The Airplane rendition is a tight 2:29 with a far more aggressive vocal from Slick.
This is used in the stage production The Blue Man Group, and appears on their 2003 album The Complex. Music is a big part of the show, which features three blue guys engaging the audience with a combination of comedy, percussion, and sloppy stunts. They got a lot of attention when they were used in ads for Intel.
This was used as the theme song for a 1973 movie called Go Ask Alice.
Slick claimed to Q that the song was aimed not at the young but their parents. She said: "They'd read us all these stories where you'd take some kind of chemical and have a great adventure. Alice in Wonderland is blatant; she gets literally high, too big for the room, while the caterpillar sits on a psychedelic mushroom smoking opium. In the Wizard of Oz, they land in a field of opium poppies, wake up and see this Emerald City. Peter Pan? Sprinkle some white dust-cocaine-on your head and you can fly."
This was one of the defining songs of the 1967 "Summer Of Love." As young Americans protested the Vietnam War and experimented with drugs, "White Rabbit" often played in the background.
Did the band ever get sick of this song? Grace Slick answered this question in a 1976 interview with Melody Maker when she replied: "I can play around with a song on stage without ruining it. We stopped doing 'White Rabbit' for a couple of years because we were getting bored with it. I like it again and we included it last year 'cause it was the year of the rabbit."
The Airplane was frequently found giving free concerts around the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. They shared a large house with several musicians during the psychedelic '60s, often applying for and receiving parade permits to walk the streets. Grace Slick was always a radical thinker, rejecting "daddy's money." She once appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour made up in blackface, causing a big controversy.
The line in this song, "go ask Alice," provided the title of a 1971 book published by an anonymous author. The book was a "diary" of a young girl in the 1960s who had a drug addiction and died. Her name is never given, and the diary is suspected to be fictional despite being promoted as true. The anonymous author is likely Beatrice Sparks, the book's editor.
This capped off Jefferson Airplane's set at Woodstock in 1969. They took the stage at 8 a.m. on the third day, following a performance by The Who that started at 3 a.m.
According to Grace Slick's autobiography, the album name came when bandmate Marty Balin played the finished studio tapes to Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whose first reaction was, "Sounds like a surrealistic pillow." Slick says that she loves the fact that the phrase Surrealistic Pillow "leaves the interpretation up to the beholder. Asleep or awake on the pillow? Dreaming? Making love? The adjective 'Surrealistic' leaves the picture wide open."
This song is heard multiple times in the movie The Game with Michael Douglas. It demonstrates the madness Douglas feels as he is being manipulated by forces he can't control. (thanks, Nathan - Brugge, Belgium)
In the film Fear and Lothing in Las Vegas, there is a scene where Dr. Gonzo is in a bathtub and this song is playing on a tape player. In an effort to end his life, Gonzo implores Raoul Duke to put the tape player in the tub "When White Rabbit peaks." Instead of doing as instructed, Duke throws a grapefruit at Gonzo and unplugs the tape player. (thanks, Justin - Durango, CO)
Grace Slick said in Q magazine that she wrote this song, "on a funny-looking upright piano with about eight keys missing." The singer added: "I took acid and listened to Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain album for 24 hours straight until it burned into my brain."
The UK version of the album didn't include this track.