Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Only Time In History An Airplane Ever Crashed, And Turned Into A Starship

Trying to explain the history of Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship is like trying to explain the history of the French government from 1789 to 1870. Let's see ... first there was a king, and then there was a revolution, and then there was Napoleon, and then Napoleon left, but then he came back, and then there was a king again, and then there was a "citizen-king," and then Napoleon's nephew took over? I lost track right around 1810. Basically there needs to be a Periodic Table of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship. If you really want to sort it out, there's this amazing website called Wikipedia. Here's the short version:

Jefferson Airplane were a late '60s San Francisco psychedelic rock band, originally featuring, at its core, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Jorna Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and, from their second album onward, co-lead singer Grace Slick. In the early '70s, Kantner and Slick formed a temporary side project called Jefferson Starship, which was not really meant to be a proper band (they also had a baby together, but never married). Kaukonen and Casady frequently performed as a side project called Hot Tuna, and although Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Hot Tuna co-existed for a time, by 1974 the band split for good into either Jefferson Starship or Hot Tuna, leaving Kanter, Slick, and Balin as the core of Jefferson Starship. Many other members came and went. After going on a drunken tirade during a concert in Germany in 1978 where she gloated about the US winning World War II, Slick was kicked out of the band, and soon after, Balin left as well. In 1979, another lead singer, Mickey Thomas, mainly known for singing lead on Elvin Bishop's huge hit "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" in 1976, joined Jefferson Starship. Mickey Thomas had never been in Jefferson Airplane. Slick, presumably more sober, rejoined in 1981. By 1984, Kantner had finally had enough of the band's transition into increasingly cheesy arena rock, but all the other members of Jefferson Starship totally wanted to keep going. Kantner said that if they wanted to keep going, they would have to do it under a different name, God damn it. Legal action was taken. Slick and Thomas suddenly had a needle to thread: they needed a new name that still retained the sense of connection with the old group, while also managing to satisfy the rigid decree of the court system. What if they dropped the "Jefferson" and became, simply, Starship? The perfect solution for all involved! Although the initial Starship lineup was essentially the 1984 lineup of Jefferson Starship minus Kantner, the only member of Starship who had ever originally been in Jefferson Airplane was Grace Slick. And then the Germans invaded Alsace-Lorraine in revenge for Slick's drunken tirade.

But what about the music, Little Earl, what about the music?

Early '80s Jefferson Starship is what happens when a band just ... keeps ... going. Why are we a band again? We've got to keep being a band because being a band is what we do. No one asks how we got here. To ask is to make trouble.

Jefferson Starship's early '80s hits are like the early '80s hits that time forgot. I've never heard them played anywhere. None of them were very big hits, but there were a bunch of them. It's like their popularity declined, but they never quite got unpopular enough. They still had an excuse to keep making records. And unlike most other aging '60s veterans, the band dove eagerly and brazenly into the MTV age. You thought the video for "We Built This City" was bad? Wait till you get a load of some of this shit.

Most people probably think of Jefferson Starship as having retained some semblance of taste and integrity before the shameless slide into Starship, but I discovered a shocking secret. In reality, Starship really began once Mickey Thomas joined Jefferson Starship in 1979, long before the name change. Mickey Thomas was like the Safeway Select Cola to Steve Perry's Coke. When "Jane" hit #14 in 1979, sounding like Toto after a long night at a biker bar, any lingering Jefferson Airplane fans probably headed for the exits, but Mickey was just getting warmed up.

"Find Your Way Back" found its way to #29 (#3 on the Mainstream Rock chart) in 1981, just as Slick rejoined the band at the last minute. According to Wikipedia, "Although not appearing in the band picture on the gatefold cover, she is listed on the back cover of the LP with the credit 'Introducing Grace Slick' and her picture is on the lyric sleeve with the note 'Grace Slick courtesy of Grace Slick.'" Ha ha, guys, very funny. The video finds Mickey Thomas trying to give Oates a run for his money in the mustache department, as well as wearing the world's tiniest tie. Also, I love how there's a group photo at the end, and then an entirely separate photo of Grace Slick that suddenly flies in out of nowhere. She's gone light speed!

"Stranger" stalled at #48 (#17 Mainstream Rock), took its title from Billy Joel, its opening drum beat from "My Sharona," and I think Grace Slick took her hair from Bride of Frankenstein and her necklace from her neighborhood hardware store, but other than that, it's not bad. Most unintentionally hilarious moments:
  • 1:02 - Eyes! So many eyes!
  • 1:10 - Mickey Thomas has a sheet over his head, and as the camera zooms in, the sheet ... flies off his head! Slowly!
  • 2:05 Mickey walks through a dark room toward a brightly-lit doorway, stands in the doorway, and then ... turns around! And then disappears! In a blinding flash!

And yet, like loyal fans sitting in the bleachers when their team is down 9-0 in the 9th, there still must have been at least one or two old hippie burnouts, desperately clutching their ticket stubs from the Fillmore days, hoping that Paul and Grace would be able to turn this (star)ship around and fly it back to glory.

Their faith would be ... how should I put it? Misplaced.


Anonymous said...

Hey nice write up and all but you forgot to mention the "No Way Out" video which was seemingly made with a budget of $10 and has Grace Slick making clucking noises. It also features the drummer lifting weights in bed to impress a dancing geisha when it's clear she was already down for action. Talk about trying to hard. And there was the equally as odd "Sara" video with some Grapes of Wrath meets Wizard of Oz vibe with the suggestion that Sara (played by Rebecca DeHornay er DeMornay) was taken out by a tornado. Worse it featured that DX7 harmonica patch so favored in the 80s. Out of control moustaches all around in every Starship video. In terms of "We Built This City" I never thought it worse than the other synth pap at the time. I mean Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonight" video was the nadir of some larger nadir that took a decade to fully manifest. But the song itself (which featured a prominent synth line) was an audio nightmare that presaged an equally as horrible video.

Little Earl said...

I assure you that neither "No Way Out" nor "Sara" have been forgotten. This Starship is simply too bloated and excessive to fit into one space port, er, blog post.

Anonymous said...

Please accept my comments as being rhetorical - most (if not all) of what I point out here and in other comments you seem to already know though as a music business refugee (both as a producer and musician) I got to live in the belly of the beast that helped churn out some of the acts and songs you address in your Blog. I was never A List but knew lots of those guys - I got to experience more unintentional humor than all the people I've ever known combined. The movie Spinal Tap only hints at the absurdity of the music industry and the trajectory of bands. Anyway some (most ?) of the decisions behind what gets issued as a single or the story behind a given video has more to do with what the Label Boss' latest super hot young intern thinks than anyone or anything else. In some ways many of these musicians know well before anyone else that they are issuing dreck but that's the participation cost of staying in the star (in this case StarShip) machine. The subject of facial hair was the topic of many meetings back in the day and whether or not to shave and to what extent was agonized over as lawyers might do over newly discovered evidence that would prove a Death Row inmate's innocence. In the 80s Glam Metal scene there were a handful of singers who refused to sign contracts unless the costs of their "hair systems" and "hair transplantation services" were picked up by the label. Some of these guys had maybe one hit song and faded into obscurity but for a time had the "best hair" in the business.... Anyway I enjoy your blog and please pardon my somewhat intrusive comments....

Anonymous said...

And lastly I would like to see you do a take down of Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonight" video. I've read several and there are some good ones but in my view you've got the right type and level of sarcasm to take it on.

Blogger said...

Did you know that you can shorten your long links with AdFly and get cash for every click on your shortened links.