Starlog 3.0: ENTER THE SEVEN-HEADED HYDRA. Spitfire is the spitting image of their last album but without the contributions of Papa John Creach (or, for the zen masters among you, the absence of an already-invisible violin). Marty Balin again provided the big ballad, “With Your Love,” and the album furthered the Starship’s winning ways, but on close inspection the band was more fractured than ever. Balin continued to bring in songs from outside the band, Grace Slick barricaded herself behind the acid-spitting dragon queen persona and Paul Kantner’s journeys into space grew more quixotic and less coherent. A lot of successful bands in the 70s had individual egos to feed: Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead. My impression of Jefferson Starship is a seven-headed hydra that feeds on itself. They’re a female-fronted rock band, psychedelic dinosaur and soft-rock peddler rolled into one monster. At this point, it’s obvious that I’m not buying into the Jefferson Starship experience. They need to manage their portfolio better; consolidate rather than diversify or dazzle us with diversity. I think I would prefer a solo album by Balin, Kantner or Slick at this stage, knowing that they had some actual skin in the outcome, rather than Spitfire’s mediocrity by committee. Of course, Starship fans will tell you this is a solid album, and they’re right. The material here is as good as anything you’ll find on Octopus or Earth, with highlights that include “St. Charles,” “Song To The Sun” and that minor miracle of pop music, “With Your Love.” It’s just that Spitfire, like most Starship albums, is a lighter record than the sum of its parts would indicate. Take Balin’s ballads out of the equation, and you’re holding a very average 70s rock album in your hands.
Starlog 3.1: BALLADACIOUS. The big ballad from Spitfire is credited to Marty Balin, Balin’s Bodacious D.F. bandmate Vic Smith and original Airplane drummer Joey Covington. Charlie Hickox, another BDF alum, provided Spitfire’s opening track, “Cruisin.’” Balin’s relationship with Starship was always that of a guest, and I had the impression he was renting space in the band rather than buying into the idea of a Jefferson Airplane Part Two. Of course, ballads like this paid the rent and then some, so I don’t think anyone was complaining. The B side is Grace Slick’s “Switchblade” from Spitfire, which is typical of her intense but unmemorable tracks.
Starlog 4.0: UNITED EARTH. This is the last ride of Kaptain Kantner and the Two Heads (Marty Balin, Grace Slick) in the good ship Starship. For all the acrimony that was likely under Earth’s surface, this may be the smoothest ride of the four Jefferson Starship albums. It contains two winning ballads from Balin (“Count On Me,” “Runaway”), a nice pair from Grace Slick (“Show Yourself,” “Take Your Time”) and a solid opening shot from Craig Chaquico (“Love Too Good”). Plus, everyone piles onboard the Starship for one last ride on the closing “All Nite Long,” which is a nice sendoff. Still, it’s mediocrity by democracy. Balin and Slick seem like they’re leasing space in the Starship at this stage, carving out their own corner of Earth with Kantner, Chaquico, Barbata, Freiberg and Sears as their backing band. Oddly, this disharmony of personalities was a preferred formula for success during the Seventies, as evidenced by Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and CSN&Y. It provided a richer mixture of sounds, since every ego had to find its outlet, with a little something for everyone. Rock, ballads and mystical sidetrips got rolled together, and while smoking the whole thing was strangely unsatisfying, these everyone-gets-a-turn albums were usually good for a few hits. Like their neighbors the Grateful Dead, the Starship albums had their share of missteps too; this time it’s the embarrassing “Skateboard,” in which Grace Slick philosophizes “If miles turned to inches, you know that man would roll all the way around the world tonight,” which doesn’t make any earthly sense at all. Then again, I don’t have a lot of skin in the Starship saga, and if the original starcaptain had grown long in tooth and dim in vision, the mutinous mutation of Earth is no concern of mine.
Starlog 4.5: STAR WHORES. Yes, Virginia, there really was a Star Wars Holiday Special and the only kind thing I can say about that is the merciful absence of Ewoks. Oh, and it had a video of Jefferson Starship (minus Grace Slick) playing “Light The Sky On Fire,” which premiered on the special before catapulting up the charts to number 66. Written by Craig “light my hair on fire” Chaquico, the song is a rare case of Marty Balin in the role of psychedelic stargazer, who manages to be nearly as menacing as Eric Bloom. The nonalbum B side, “Hyperdrive,” is even more proggy, with a guitar/violin attack that’s almost Crimson in effect. The 7-inch single was also included with the 1979 greatest hits compilation, Gold (which is the orphan I own, known by its gold sleeve).
Starlog 6.0: WOW, MAN’S LIBERATION. Kaptain Kantner returns to the helm of the Starship; Marty Balin, Grace Slick and John Barbata bailed. Instead of spelling the end of the Starship, Freedom At Point Zero turned out to be their best album, at least from a prog/rock fan’s perspective. Mickey Thomas replaced the two-headed beast of legend, while The Aynsley Dunbar inhabited the traps. The singing change isn’t as troubling as you’d think, since Mickey Thomas sounds like a woman half the time anyway; Dunbar is an upgrade wherever he goes. And the Starship finally found a full-time job for David Freiberg (bass) and Pete Sears (keyboards), which allows Sears to settle into the synth role and deliver some of his best work to date. Any discussion of Freedom At Point Zero begins with “Jane,” its disco bridge notwithstanding the best rock song they’ve written since “Ride The Tiger.” Kantner’s “Girl With The Hungry Eyes” was an unlikely hit, Craig Chaquico’s “Rock Music” should have been one too. But for prog fans, it’s “Awakening” that’s likely to open eyes. I usually take pains to point out that Jefferson Starship is not a prog band, but this track would have felt right at home coming from Kansas. The rest of the record is solid, from the BOC soundalike “Just The Same” to the small amount of celestial magic found in “Things To Come.” Maybe it’s the extra testosterone, but Freedom rocks harder than any Starship album, period. Unfortunately, the band returned to its orbit around the ego of Grace Slick soon after, and what seemed like freedom turned out to be only a boys’ night out.
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.
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).
Kronomyth 12.3: JEFFERSON AIRPLANE LOVES YOUR MONEY. A three-disc boxed set recovered two decades after the Airplane crashed that’ll cost you thirty bucks and three hours of your life, but what else are you doing with your money and your life? I’ve only heard Disc Two because the set became unbundled within the South Shore library network and now the only chance I have of hearing the whole thing is to keep re-ordering Jefferson Airplane Loves You and hope the odds are in my favor (which is an intriguing prospect given my love of chance and happenstance, but maybe not so much for you in the short term). Given the third I’ve heard, I’d say this is well worth tracking down for the archival material (unreleased live tracks and buried treasures like the Grace Slick/Frank Zappa collaboration, “Would You Like A Snack?”) and the tasteful selection of hits. I can’t offer any insight into the alternate mixes, but I can tell you that the live material included on Disc Two sounds very good (no muddy soundboard recordings here). Of the stuff you haven’t heard before, it’s the blues (“Don’t Let Me Down” and a live version of “Uncle Sam Blues”) that stand out. On the opposite end of the color wheel, Marty Balin borrows an unfortunate line from the Edward G. Robinson film Barbary Coast, “I feel like a little white kitten reborn,” in what one can only hope was a desperate attempt to get laid. If you don’t love Jefferson Airplane before you buy this (and that would be a prerequisite for most of us), you’ll probably love them after, since this set captures what’s best about the band: the psychedelic experiments, the early rock juggernauts, the spirit of rebellion and the reincarnation of kittens.
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.
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.