Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Guilty Pleasures: A Primer on 80s Jefferson Starship

One of my very guilty pleasures is the Jefferson Starship (and to a lesser extent Airplane). I feel like that band had a great formula not known to people who are only aware of stuff like We Built This City (which is not the Starship I am talking about). So if you care to indulge me, here is a quick primer and some suggestions for perusal.

Jefferson Starship rose from the ashes of the Airplane in the early 70s and had the three primary Airplane singers in the band - Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. After four albums, though, that lineup crumbled, with Slick and Balin leaving the band. Their biggest hits of this period were probably Ride The Tiger (a Kantner song) and Miracles (Balin ballad).

This is where my love of the band starts in earnest. Kantner forged on in 1979 by signing up singer Mickey Thomas, who had a pretty big hit with Elvin Bishop, called Fooled Around and Fell In Love. Thomas turned into a cheesebag in the mid 80s, leading to the departure of Kantner and eventual decline into We Built This City etc (but of course the band's most successful commercial period is this one as well - oh well...). You can now see him on the casino circuit.

The first release of the Kantner/Thomas era was Freedom at Point Zero in 1979. This album is probably the best of the four albums I want to talk about here. From the keyboard intro of the hit Jane to the closing epic title track, there is little wrong with this album. Kantner is firmly in control of the ship as he introduces the very Queen-esque concept of vocal overdubs that make it sound like 500 people are singing in unison. It's a unique sound that would help me identify a JS song out of anything else from that era.

Songs from this period of the band fall into three categories: 1) Pop/Rock, 2) Atmospheric/Slightly Proggy, and 3) Kantner Sing-Alongs/Apocalyptic Tunes.

Freedom At Point Zero is loaded with categories 1 and 2. I would recommend a quick perusal of 30-second sound bites on iTunes and then purchasing the whole album. Folks who dig solid rock and roll will dig Jane, Rock Music, and Girl With The Hungry Eyes. Fans of things slightly more moody will dig Things to Come, Awakening, Just The Same and Freedom At Point Zero. The album flows well and is a great listen.

The next album was Modern Times, which sees Grace Slick rejoining as a guest on a few songs and Kantner's all-time classic Stairway to Cleveland with the very excellent "Fuck You, We Do What We Want" break. This is the introduction of category 3 from above. Wild Eyes and the title track also fits into this mold.

The hits from this album were Find Your Way Back, Stairway to Cleveland, and Stranger (duet with Grace Slick). There is some throwaway stuff on here but it's another album I'd recommend all the way through. The "moody" pieces include Alien - check that one out for sure. Kantner is for sure still in charge but those formula hits are starting to push the band more in a poppy direction.

The next album, Winds of Change, is where the train starts to come off the tracks a bit. Grace is back full time and her performance on the title track is one my favorites of hers, as is in her song Black Widow. The hits keep coming with the title track, the ballad Be My Lady and Can't Find Love, which is one of the catchiest tunes this lineup ever put out.

But the dross is getting more prevalent and there is less of category 2. Also, only one category 3 song, Kantner's not-so-good "I Came Back From the Jaws of the Dragon." One stand-out in the bizzaro department is "Out of Control," which is technically a Kantner song but I always hear Grace's sense of humor in it. This is very silly song but it makes me laugh so what the hell.

Album four, Nuclear Furniture is where we have a well-defined split in the band with 70 percent of the songs as category 1 wanna-be's. For Kantner, it is his last hurrah. His three songs Connection, Rose Goes to Yale, and Champion are the last we hear of him in the band. Champion is the best of the three, and is a bit of a revisit to Stairway to Cleveland but with a very apocalyptic bend to it. Grace's best song from this era , Showdown, is also on this album. Might be the best song on the album actually.

Those four songs partially save that album for me, as the rest are ballads and re-hashes of stuff that already worked on the earlier albums. Side story - apparently Kantner stole the master tapes in the middle of the sessions, put them in his car and drove around San Francisco for a few days and wouldn't bring them back until the band mixed the album in a way more to his liking.

I saw the band a couple of times on this tour and the split was evident in the latter show. Kantner walked offstage during the middle of a show later on this tour and never came back. The name of the band might as well have changed to Jefferson Lawsuit as they started suing each other over the use of the name. Kantner now owns the name and has had a new version of JS touring for a few years now. Haven't seen them - not sure I want to.

Anyway, power up iTunes and hit it. Here are my suggestions, if you are very brave:

Freedom at Point Zero:
--Get the whole album

Modern Times
--Find Your Way Back
--Stranger
--Save Your Love
--Modern Times
--Alien
--Stairway to Cleveland

Winds of Change
--Winds of Change
--Out of Control
--Can't Find Love
--Black Widow
--Quit Wasting Time

Nuclear Furniture (only if you really like stuff like Stairway to Cleveland! You have been warned!)
--Connection
--Showdown
--Champion

OK I have bared my soul here and gone WAAAY out on a limb. That is what blogs are for. Don't kill me for it, please!

5 comments:

neddrum said...

Aynsly Dunbar kicked ass during that late seventies early eighties era. I think you also have a picture of you, me and Pete Sears somewhere in your photo archives.

Chris said...

I loved Winds of Change back in the day. I remember listening to it in headphones at night, mostly asleep, when that little electronic voice that led into "Out of Control" came on and scared the shit out of me. "I tried to warn you, I tried to warn you!"

It freaked me the hell out, because I couldn't remember having heard it before.

Isorski said...

Yes, and Dunbar is on the first three of the four albums I am talking about.

Chris, that is a great story. When I recently re-bought all of these albums, I seemed to remember that WofC was the weak link but I find myself liking that album just as much as the first two right now.

budd said...

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane paul. the band was great and Aynsly Dunbar certainly deserves individual props as does co writer of find your way back and double neck guitar slinger craig chaquica or however it is spelled.

Rock and Roll is good time music!!

Isorski said...

Gotta say, Mike, that the best songs are by Pete Sears/Jeanette Sears. Pete played with Rod Stewart for years and was a multi-instrumentalist big time. And a great songwriter too, it seems.

Ned is right - we met Pete back in the Strangers days at the Great American Music Hall when we opened for Zero and he was in the band. Jeanette was there too and I got both of their autographs.

She said Pete was humiliated by the commercial turn the band took and left as soon as his contract was up. One album after the one We Built This Shitty is on.