Jefferson Starship: Spitfire (1976)

[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.

Original LP Version
A1. Cruisin’ (Charlie Hickox) (5:27)
A2. Dance With The Dragon (Paul Kantner/Grace Slick/Marty Balin/Craig Chaquico/Pete Sears) (5:02)
A3. Hot Water (Grace Slick/Pete Sears) (3:17)
A4. St. Charles (Paul Kantner/Marty Balin/Jesse Barish/Craig Chaquico/Thunderhawk) (6:38)
B1. Song To The Sun: Ozymandias (Paul Kantner/Craig Chaquico/John Barbata/David Freiberg/Pete Sears/Grace Slick) (1:39) / Don’t Let It Rain (Paul Kantner/China Wing Kantner)   (5:36)
B2. With Your Love (Marty Balin/Joey Covington/Vic Smith) (3:33)
B3. Switchblade (Grace Slick) (4:01)
B4. Big City (John Barbata/Joel Scott Hill/Chris Etheridge) (3:20)
B5. Love Lovely Love (Jesse Barish) (3:31)

The Players
Marty Balin (vocals), John Barbata (drums, vocals, percussion), Craig Chaquico (lead guitar, vocals), David Freiberg (bass, vocals, keyboards, ARPS), Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar, vocals), Pete Sears (bass, keyboards, mellotron, organ, Moog, piano), Grace Slick (vocals, piano) with Bobbye Hall (percussion and congas), Dave Roberts (string and horn arrangements) and Steven Schuster (sax on track 5). Individual, track-by-track credits for David Freiberg and Pete Sears are listed on the lyrics innersleeve, which is where you’ll learn that Pete plays the “melatron” on track 3. The album was again produced by Larry Cox and Jefferson Starship, and engineered by Larry Cox. Pat Ieraci (Maurice) and Paul Dowell continue to receive credit as production coordinator and amp consultant, respectively.

The Pictures
Spitfire completes the quartet of natural elements: air (Dragonfly), water (Red Octopus), earth (Earth) and fire. Jefferson Starship is credited with art direction, Ron Slenzak with cover photography, Shusei Nagoka with illustration, John Langdon with label art and Chris Whorf & Tim Bryant of Gribbit! with album design. Incidentally, the cover model is San Francisco-born Cassandra Gaviola, who proved equally bewitching years later (under the name Cassandra Gava) opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 film, Conan The Barbarian.

The Plastic
Originally recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco and released on elpee, quadrophonic elpee, cassette and 8-track in June 1976 in the US, the UK and Canada (Grunt, BFL1/BFD1/BFK1/BFS1-1557) and in Japan (Grunt, RVP-6087) with lyrics innersleeve; reached #3 on the US charts (RIAA certified platinum record) and #30 on the UK charts. 8-track features different track order.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1981 in the US (Grunt, AYL1-3953) and Germany (Grunt, NL8-3953).
  2. Re-issued on elpee in Japan (Grunt, RPL-2113).
  3. Re-released on 20-bit K2 remastered compact disc on January 21, 1998 in Japan (Grunt, BVCM-7333).
  4. Re-issued on remastered compact disc on August 23, 2004 in the US, UK and Germany (BMG Heritage, 62871).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc on August 4, 2009 in the US (SBME Special Markets, SBMK-749265).

1 thought on “Jefferson Starship: Spitfire (1976)

  1. As with “Bark” and “Nuclear Furniture”, “Spitfire” walks a very fine line between diversity and disjointedness. This time, with fewer intra-group collaborations than on “Red Octopus”. The democracy in the group works against the album this time around, with less cohesion than the last two albums. This results in portions of the album that I like more than “RO”, and some that I like less.

    Falling in that latter category is “Big City”. John Barbata should NOT have been allowed to sing a lead vocal. It’s a remake of a song he wrote and recorded a few years ago with Joel Scott Hill and Chris Ethridge. Hill had sung the original for a very good reason. Barbata should have given the song to Balin.

    Who, at this point, was looking for outside material. He started to become, as Paul Kantner once put it, a “song whore”, writing less and less after his big burst on “RO”. One would think that his experience with “Miracles” would have boosted his confidence. Instead, he settled on a mediocre rocker, “Cruisin’”. “Love Lovely Love” was written by one Jesse Barish, who would become Balin’s main go to guy for his material from here on out. In retrospect, it should have been the second A-side, rather than the B-side. The soul/disco sound was perfect for the Top 40 in 1976, with Chaquico’s lead guitar adding a rock element. It’s not too surprising that “With Your Love” was the big hit, since it sounds like a mini-“Miracles”.

    The material dominated by Kantner is better and more interesting than his contributions to “RO”. “St. Charles” has a convoluted songwriting history. Kantner had started it. A Native American friend of Marty’s named Thunderhawk came up with the “St. Charles” bit in the chorus. (Who, what or where St. Charles might be has never been explained). Chaquico contributed chords for the guitar solo, and Barish finished the lyrics. For all that, it’s yet another intriguing, inscrutable song from Paul. It should never have been an A-side. The single edit is a real hack job.

    “Dance with the Dragon”, which contains another catchy guitar hook from Paul, seems to deal with Vietnam vets, but what this had to do with the Year of the Dragon (1976) is anyone’s guess. “Song to the Sun” is a more typically optimistic sci-fi vision, enthusiastically sung and played. Finally, Grace continues the winning streak she’d been on since 1973 with her two songs.

    The album sold well in the wake of “RO” and another hit single – but people may have been more confounded by what they got this time around.

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