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All members named themselves by playing cards suits symbols since mid-1974:
♥ (Hearts, aka Gracie Lyn Plant): lead vocal and occasionally harmonica. Major lyricist of the band, as well as its frontwoman.
♣ (Clovers, aka James Patrick Balin): lead electric and accoustic guitars, occasionally other string instruments such as sitar, mandolin and portuguese guitar among many others. Major music composer of the band, co-leader of the band.
♠ (Spades, aka Paul Lorin Jones): bass, violin and backing vocals. Live he would usually alternate between the two instruments, depending on whichever one was more necessary; live musician Rhoberth Martinez would contribute bass whenever Jones was busy with the violin.
♦ (Diamonds, aka John Henry Spence): drums and assorted percussion.
☆ (The Joker, aka Jimmy Casady): rhythm guitar and occasionally acoustic guitar and live bass. Also backing vocals. As the fifth member to join the band he picked a five-pointed star symbol, representing The Joker playing card.
⚅ (Domino, aka John Paul Gorman): keyboards. Last member to join the band. Only member represented by a domino symbol.
John Paul Gorman participated in the band as a guest since 1974, playing keyboards both in studio and live. In the album The Hermit two members from Tyrean Yesman participated: Maelcun Calw played flute in the intro of Causeway to Eden track and John Anderson made a duet with Gracie Plant in The Battle of Five Armies track.
Balin, Jones and Spence already knew each other from highschool when they formed a blues band in 1969 initially called Dornburg Aeroplane, named after the Dornburg Disaster. They started to look for a vocalist as none of them seem to be good singer enough. Spence introduced to the band a girl who was known at school as an ostracised shy person, Gracie Lyn Plant. No one was initially fascinated but they gave her a chance, not because they really liked her nearly male voice but because they hadn’t any other candidate.
First two concerts were complete fiascos. Gracie Plant felt stage fear and wasn’t able to sing. Most of the band wanted to get rid of Gracie Plant while Balin (who possibly had a crush on her at the time) defended her. Under his suggestion she should drink alcohol or eat peyote before performing. Such worked well. In their third concert Gracie Plant seemed a totally different person leaving both the audience and the band astonished by her performance. A fifth element joined the band early 1970, Jimmy Casady at rythm guitar.
In time, after several concerts in the region, Dornburg Aeroplane became a well known band and audiences started to grow. After performing others’ compositions in night clubs the band tried their luck with original songs which they sent in a demo to an independent record label (Atlantis), in 1970.
The blues period
The record label found interest in Dornburg Aeroplane blues sound and the band signed a contract to record an album with the condition of they dropping the band’s name, afraid of future troubles with relatives from Dornburg Disaster victims. After plenty of discussion Lead Aeroplane was chosen as sugested by Spence.
Early 1971 the now called Lead Aeroplane launched a self titled album which was well received by the critics and sold reasonabily well. Its sleeve showed the famous crash of the Dornburg Db-VI in 1938, taken from brazilian Jornal do Brasil newspaper. A musical magazine referred Gracie Plant performance just like she was giving birth of a son trough her heart. Such critic would be the origin of her future nickname.
Lead Aeroplane toured then accross England increasing the number of fans, especially among the Zonees. They soon became famous by the Balin’s aggressive guitar sound (sometimes played with a violin bow) with long improvisations, Spence’s powerful drumming and Gracie Plant’s voice and increasingly flamboyant performances under absinthe effect. Some musical press called them the English Thankful Dead due to long guitar jams. Once Lead Aeroplane opened a The Rockmen concert, after improvising too longly, they were warned they could only play a last song. And so they did, stretching to half a hour a song which was originally five minutes long. Such became usual in Lead Aeroplane concerts.
Lead Aeroplane II and III were launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively. These were still deeply blues rooted albums which were well received by the critics so as sold well. Such called attention to major record labels while Lead Aeroplane was now quite a well known name from English rock scene. Lead Aeroplane III included some of their most well known singles, notably White Rabbit (which introduced Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Zone Rock movement) and It’s Been A Long Time (a classic rock song parodying Elvis Pressler). It was followed by Lead Aroplane IV, early 1974, which according contemporary critics was the maturation of Lead Aeroplane’s sound.
The folk period
Intending to reform the band’s sound Lead Aeroplane started to change its style, shifting to folk roots, during 1973-74 as an influence from other folk influenced zone rock bands, notably Jethro’s Tool and Exodus. During these years performances included several folk influenced songs themed around fantasy worlds which differed often from concert to concert, they were provisional versions of some of their future successes and now only preserved in bootlegs.
In mid-1974 Lead Aeroplane left Atlantis Records and signed a contract with American Phonograph Company (a major record label and subsidiary to American Broadcasting Corporation) in a time music industry could no longer ignore the potential of zone rock market. The band launched then the final versions of some of the songs on which the band was working during the previous two years. With the change of style The Hermit took critics by surprise as it was an anonymous record released just three months after Lead Aeroplane IV. It received extremely good reviews and was a great commercial success, rivalising NoMoreEagleZ self-titled debut album as best album of the year 1974. Such secured Lead Aeroplane position as one of the frontline zone rock bands in the world.
No member of the band had the name on anywhere of the record, from then on each member was referred by a palying card suit symbol as all members enjoyed playing cards. Even the band’s name was hidden, not appearing in any place of the record or its cover just like it was a brand new band. Among the songs there was the anthemic Causeway to Eden, a crescendo song which became the most famous Lead Aerplane’s song and one of the defining songs of Zone Rock.
First world tour soon followed full of sold out concerts across FK, continental Europe and North America. On their return they started to work in their next album while in refuge in a cottage turned into a recording studio in deep rural England. As result sixth album came out in early 1976, called House of Cards. As too many songs were recorded it turned into a double album. Its cover depicted a high castle of cards with some of them falling, a metaphore to social and economical fragility of society. The album was crowned by a raga influenced long track, Bombay, which had the participation of a group of ten sarangi Indian players.
Despite not being as much well received as The Hermit by the critics it was a comercial success. Another world tour promoted the new work for nearly a year, ending in mid-1977. On their return Gracie Plant’s health had deteriorated due to continuous consumption of absinthe. Meanwhile a live album being the soundtrack of a homonymous movie, Bleed Aeroplane, was released during late 1977.
The electronic period
In late 1977, a new member joined Lead Aeroplane. Keyboard player John Paul Gorman, who picked the symbol ⚅ as sixth member of the band, had already participate in recording albums since 1974 and followed the band as live musician during the 1976-77 world tour. With him once again Lead Aeroplane’s sound changed, now adding synthesizers to their aggressive style. Due to Gracie Plant’s health new record was delayed until early 1978. Seventh album, called ObeliZk, received mixed, although in general warm, critics. At the time critics saw ObeliZk as an approach to NoMoreEagleZ or Pink Frojt style due to the use of synthsizers but without the proper playing skills. Also fans felt divided about this unusually softer approach to rock by the band. One of the tracks, Slush, also included an orchestra.
A new world tour was programmed for 1979-80 ending at the upcoming Canterbury Rock Festival, where second day should be headlined by Lead Aeroplane, but Gracie Plant’s health continued to deteriorate.
The band was forced to cancel their world tour and finally on the 25th August 1979 Gracie Plant died of cirrhosis. Her death was communicated by the band and left in shock the fans and the zonees in general. During next week Lead Aeroplane announced their dissolution argueeing there was no reason to continue without the voice of the band, no one was able to replace The Hearts.
At the Canterbury Rock Festival Lead Aeroplane was replaced by Pink Frojt as second day headliner. But somehow Lead Aeroplane’s music was present, several of the most aknowledge Zone rock characters gathered in a tribute superband called The AeroplaneZ and played some of the most famous songs during a hour long concert. Tyrean Yesman’s John Anderson (the man with an almost female voice replaced the woman with an almost male voice). The AeroplaneZ included also members from Pink Frojt, NoNoreEagleZ, Tezla Generator and Jethro’s Tool.
Last Lead Aeroplane album, Epitaph, was released in 1981 and included outtake songs from the last four records. Lead Aeroplane gathered again only once for an one-off reunion (in 1984). The band played the music and an enthusiastic audience replaced the Hearts. Some of the songs were played by its members in their following solo careers over the years.
Lead Aeroplane are widely considered as one of the most successful, innovative and influential zone rock bands. They were a major (if not the major) influence in the birth of Hair Metal during early 1980’s.
They were the fourth best selling zone rock band, after NoMoreEagleZ, Los Muartos Agrayeçyos and Pink Frojt. Several musical magazines ranked Gracie Plant as best zone rock female vocalist, James Balin as best guitar player and John Spence as best drummer. Paul Lorin Jones is considered one of the best bassists of zone rock scene. No other zone rock band has so many number ones. In 2016, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book Zones Old and New, musical magazine Skweee! ranked the 100 best zone rock albums. All studio albums, except ObeliZk and Epitaph, were among them. Only NoMoreEagleZ had more albums in the list.