If you ever wondered why the Dead needed two drummers, hear is your answer. Billy Kreutzmann played the straight man, jazz schooled, capable of thrills and fills but never far from the backbeat (for reference, listen to his performance on Jerry Garcia’s first solo album). Mickey Hart is a very different drummer; his is a cosmic journey to explore rhythm in all its various guises, from the natural to the supernatural. Rolling Thunder reveals that journey in its early going, although Dead fans will find plenty of familiar stops along the way, from jam sessions with Jerry Garcia (“The Chase,” “Deep, Wide And Frequent”) to actual rock songs (“Playing In The Band,” “Blind John”). If you have any expectations of what a Mickey Hart album would sound like, of course, you’ll need to leave those antiquated notions at the door. You weren’t expecting it to start with a howl and an Indian invocation. You weren’t expecting the Tower of Power horn section or the demented psychedelic pop of “Fletcher Carnaby.” While there is no such animal as a typical Mickey Hart album, his subsequent efforts have focused mostly on rhythms rather than traditional song structures. Thus, Rolling Thunder is, if not atypical of his later work, not representative of it either. It would seem that Hart was initially double minded as to whether he should make a proper solo album or use the opportunity to explore new musical realms, so he chose both paths. “Playing In The Band” and “Pump Song” will remind listeners of Bob Weir’s Ace, “Blind John” suggests a hippy-trippy Traffic featuring vocals from several key members of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship axis, and “The Chase (Progress)” points forward to future works such as Diga and Yamantaka. Ultimately, Rolling Thunder is a mixed bag featuring some famous buds, a few good songs and some interesting experiments interspersed.
Kronomyth 2.0: HELLO DALI. You’re standing at the gilded gateway to the psychedelic revolution, the twin spires of “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” beckoning you with open mind. The Airplane’s second trip stands as the first truly great achievement in the cultural exodus to San Francisco. You could call it a groundbreaking record, but it’s more of a sky-opening one: the potentialities of popular music were significantly expanded with Surrealistic Pillow. Much of its genius stems from the different personalities within the band, all of whom brought something unique into the mix (including departed drummer, Skip Spence). There are the fragile, unreal ballads from Balin (“Today,” “Comin’ Back To Me”), the ambitious adventures of Paul Kantner (“D.C.B.A.—25”), the combustible rockers (“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”) and even an acoustic oasis (Jorma’s “Embryonic Journey,” which served as a sort of template for countless guitar interludes from “Embryo” to “The Clap”). Truly, the bands that came before appeared as men on a chessboard, moving in predictable fashion. Surrealistic Pillow’s charm is its unpredictability; you simply don’t know what’s coming next. The same could be said for the Airplane itself, which was flying straight into heavy turbulence, but here it’s all part of a fantastic journey. In 2003, the album was remastered and expanded with six bonus tracks, including a second Skip Spence song (“J.P.P. McStep B. Blues”) and Kantner’s “Go To Her,” both of which had turned up earlier on the catchall compilation, Early Flight.
Starlog 10.0: A WOLF IN SHIP’S CLOTHING. Kaptain Kantner abandoned ‘Ship after Nuclear Furniture. David Freiberg freaked when it became clear that Peter Wolf was running the show. So what was left for the remaining members of the now-shortened Starship to do but stumble into a second miracle? Not since Red Octopus had the Starship brand enjoyed commercial success on this scale. Knee Deep In The Hoopla spawned two #1 singles: “We Built This City” and “Sara.” The first has often been cited as one of the worst songs from the 80s, but it really is an amazing piece of product. (Negative reaction likely has as much to do with the fact that MTV overplayed the video because of a general dearth of music videos. It’s a wonder people can still listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”) That the band relies almost completely on outside songwriters is a disappointment, but the songwriters themselves aren’t disappointing: Bernie Taupin, Michael Bolton, Kimberley Rew, Peter Wolf. With top-shelf material and a competent band to play them, Wolf set about adding layers of synthesizers to create an immaculate-sounding pop record. Yes, it has absolutely nothing to do with the psychedelic and groundbreaking work of Jefferson Airplane. Neither did Red Octopus, Spitfire or anything after. Jefferson Starship was always a commercial enterprise, and the wonder of Knee Deep In The Hoopla isn’t that the band has completely sold out, but that they waited so long to do it. Peter Wolf deserves a lot of credit for turning a recipe for rock disaster (a band without a leader, professionally penned songs) into a runaway success. The hoopla surrounding the album at the time likely turned a lot of people off, but there’s little denying that, song for song, this is one of the best albums that Starship (in any guise) has released. That is, by the way, what we in these parts call a back-handed compliment. I’ll pick Airplane over Starship every time, and would suggest you spend your Jeffersons accordingly.
Kronomyth 16.8: GREEDY HEART. This is where I rant about how Sony is just trying to rip people off with product, and how The Essential Jefferson Airplane covered all of this and then some, and how sugar bags and ice cream containers are getting smaller, or whatever it is that cranky old people complain about when they don’t really have anything to complain about. The Playlist compilations I’ve heard are actually pretty good. Granted, I think I’ve only other heard the Living Colour one, but of the two Playlist compilations I’ve played, they were both pretty good. Sony had released a Playlist compilation for Jefferson Starship just one year earlier (kind of weird that they’d do that one first); this Playlist focuses on the Jefferson Airplane from the beginning to Bark. Presented in chronological order, the selections are smartly picked, featuring all of the singles that charted and some of the ones that didn’t, plus half of Surrealistic Pillow. Anyone who buys this looking to hear Airplane in their original psychedelic setting will get an earful and an education. The packaging isn’t much to look at (I guess they were trying to save the environment or save money so they could spend it on saving the environment), but the sound quality is clean (bearing in mind that the original Airplane was always murky in intent) and, like I said, nice choices across their catalog. Super Hits; now that was a piece of crap.
Kronomyth 14.5: BE HIND, REWIND. Combining the pieces of the crashed Airplane and fallen Starship has always been fool’s work, so who better for the job than MTV/VH1? The truth is that no one can reconcile Alice, Jane & Sara, no matter how you build the backstory. And using Grace Slick as the linchpin is nonsense; logo maybe, but structurally speaking she was only one spokesperson in a moving wheel. If I sound grumpy, it’s because the band’s hits were such soulless endeavors. Without Paul Kantner’s islands of integrity to rest at, you’re just swimming in starshit for sixty minutes. By album’s end, you’re left wondering if the original Airplane was anything more than psychedelic stylemongering, given how ingeniously they adapted to the soft rock of the 70s and the studio rock of the 80s. The reason people make compilations like this isn’t to tell a story but to sell records. A single-disc compilation that includes “Somebody To Love,” “White Rabbit,” “Miracles” AND “We Built This City” would be nigh irresistible to most rock radio listeners, they reckon. But it’s a Frankenstein’s monster they’re selling, with the head of a psychedelic 60s band, the hairy chest of a 70s rock band and the butt of a thousand jokes about the 80s. Here’s the story the way I tell it: the Airplane was high from the beginning and crashed after the 60s; Kantner, Slick and (eventually) Balin crawled from the wreckage and started their own commercial airline in the 70s; that airline got bought out by a corporation in the 80s and Grace Slick was hired as their spokesmodel. The first book in the trilogy, Jefferson Airplane, is the only interesting one, so better to buy a compilation that digs deeper into tracks like “Lather” and “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil.”
Starlog: 10.5: MUSIC FOR DUMMIES. This song first appeared in the film Mannequin; no irony there. Of course it’s product, written by professional songwriters Diane Warren and Albert Hammond. It also became the band’s most successful song, topping the charts in the US and the UK, so somebody at RCA obviously knows their product. The B side features a live version of “Layin’ It On The Line” recorded at Louisiana State University. Honestly, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is at least as annoying as “We Built This City,” although if I was going to build a Worst 10 Songs of the 80s list it would have to include “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, “Wild Thing” by Sam Kinison, “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, all of which have the distinction of being associated with horrible, horrible visual images.
Starlog 10.2: ANOTHER HELLMARK MOMENT. Somewhere in a diabolical Brill Building, lyrically inclined lemurs craft soulless songs designed to erode what little decency remains in the world above. That would explain how a “Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight” comes to be, the squalid offspring of some febrile mind in Hell’s Hallmark Moments kitchen. I can’t think of a more reckless sentiment than “tomorrow doesn’t matter tonight,” unless someone finds a way to craft a melody around the words “I’m sure they check them at the condom plant.” The B side comes courtesy of Bernie Taupin and Martin Page and features the opening insight that “Love rusts when it rains on romance,” which would literally mean “Love rusts when love rains on romance.” Obviously, someone is rusty.
Starlog 9.0: MUSICAL CHAIRS. The last ride of the Jefferson Starship, which was no longer a band but a banner under which separate and sometimes warring factions rode: Pete and Jeanette Sears, Craig Chaquico and Mickey Thomas, Paul Kantner (now teamed with The Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert), Grace Slick… even ex-Zappa sideman Peter Wolf gets invited along for the ride. Stylistically, the album doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s a mix of modern Top 40 music, arena rock, socially conscious songs about religious conflict and nuclear war, and the continuing story of Lightning Rose (last encountered at Point Zero). Like I’ve said, I never had much skin in the Starship saga, so the sinking of one more commercial juggernaut means nothing to me. Despite my apathy, the album continued the band’s unbroken chain of gold and platinum albums and managed to generate another Top 40 hit with Peter and Ina Wolf’s “No Way Out.” I have no idea who buys these albums and singles, but we should be tracking their migration and mating patterns with microchips. Any album that thanks “everyone at MTV” without a trace of sarcasm is not to be trusted. Make no mistake: Jefferson Starship was a commercial venture from the very beginning. Yet Kantner and Slick always had a touch of space madness to them that kept the music interesting. You’ll find a little of that madness on “Connection,” “Rose Goes To Yale,” “Champion” and “Showdown,” but not enough to just sitting through so much product. And as long as I’m picking on the album, this has to be one of the worst covers I’ve seen since Kansas’ Vinyl Confessions (and that’s being chairable).
Starlog 10.01: STARSHIT. They were knee deep in something alright. Here was a song that purported to be an anthem against faceless corporate crap, yet stank up the airwaves with its blissfully ignorant irony. At the time, I really hated this song, but it doesn’t rankle me so nowadays. They say you get more mellow with age, or more Mallomar-y or something like that. Apparently, the rest of the world doesn’t forgive so easily. Blender’s readers ranked this the worst song of all time. Rolling Stone’s readers ranked it the worst song of the 80s—and, presumably, in a separate poll ranked the 80s the worst decade of all time. In a separate, separate poll, Blender readers secretly admitted to also reading Rolling Stone. So many polls and so few places to put them… The B side isn’t so bad: a funky instrumental written by actual members of the band that reminds me of The Tubes and appeared on Starship’s first album, Knee Deep In The Hoopla.
Kronomyth 8.0: CHANGE IN LIEDERSHIP. Grace Slick was more engaged for Winds of Change, but any notion that she and Paul Kantner were back at the controls of the Starship was quickly dispelled by a look at the songwriting credits. Craig Chaquico and husband-and-wife team Jeanette and Pete Sears had become the dominant creative voices in the band, steering the Starship closer to the radio-friendly sound of Toto and Journey. At this stage, Kantner is more of an honorary captain, allowed to grow long in the tooth for a couple of spacy excursions but no longer counted on to steer the band through the shallow 80s. Kantner and Slick can still kick up some dust; their response to punk, “Out of Control,” is a highlight. And Grace has got a pair, giving no more quarter to Mickey Thomas than she did Marty Balin. Yet this might be the lamest Starship album so far. REO Speedwagon producer Kevin Beamish was brought in to help the band sell records, not silence critics. I’d say anyone who could make Top 40 hits out of “Be My Lady” and “Winds of Change” knows what they’re doing behind the boards. But no one on board the Starship is a balladeer of Balin’s stature, and the sharp edge of songs like “Ride The Tiger” and, more recently, “Jane” has been dulled down to the soft studio rock of “Keep On Dreamin’” and “I Will Stay.” A Jefferson Starship without any teeth bites more than you’d think. Better, in my opinion, is Paul Kantner’s Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra, which finds Kaptain and krew sailing into deeper waters.