Saturday, January 9, 2010

Takin' off and landin' with Jefferson Airplane/Starship

The first Rock ‘N’ Roll song I ever remember hearing on the radio that was NOT a Paul Revere & The Raiders record was Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” when I was a wee three years old.  It’s a timeless classic that would easily make my Top 100 songs (probably even my Top 10) of all-time list, if I ever get around to making one.  The Airplane was one of the mainstays of the Rock world in the late ‘60s, but they were quite the dysfunctional lot, and it’s amazing they stayed together as long as they did, given all the ego trips, in-fighting, back-biting, sniping and just plain animosity they inflicted upon each other.  When the Airplane finally ran aground in the early ‘70s, it morphed into the Jefferson Starship and enjoyed another round of success in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s before it became the neutered just plain Starship in 1985.  Like their contemporaries the Grateful Dead, JA/JS/S did indeed take “a long, strange trip,” which is chronicled in the very fine book I just finished entitled Got A Revolution!  The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane by Jeff Tamarkin, who also authored the write-ups in the Airplane CD box set and the re-issued Airplane/Starship CD catalog.  I’ll spare you the minutiae of the band’s history (hell, read Tamarkin’s book if you want that—it’s well-written and holds one’s interest throughout) and I’ll just throw out some random observations and thoughts about the band(s).

As I’ve stated before, as much as I like Jefferson Airplane—not to be confused with the “Jefferson Hairpie” from Cheech & Chong lore—I still feel that their overall body of work is a skosh overrated, and not quite Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame-worthy.  While “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” (or “White Wabbit” in Fudd-ese) were landmark recordings, and the albums Surrealistic Pillow (1967) and Volunteers (1969) both hold up quite well, the rest of their 1966-72 output was inconsistent at best and the post-Volunteers era was short-circuited by drugs, indifference and lack of musical direction.  I would even go as far to proclaim that the Jefferson Starship era from 1974-82 was far more prolific than the halcyon Airplane days.  Then again, I’m a child of the ‘70s, therefore I prefer that style of music over some of the meandering improvisational stuff the Airplane often dabbled in.  More succinctly, I’m more partial to structured songs that sound like they are going somewhere and/or have a point to make, as opposed to mindlessly rambling around in no particular direction, which was often the Airplane’s in-concert style, as well as on vinyl.

Co-founder Marty Balin is a great singer and a decent songwriter, but he has this irritating penchant for playing his victim card a lot.  Far too often in interviews, he goes into Rodney Dangerfield can’t-get-no-respect mode when he jealously talks about how Grace Slick always overshadowed him on record and on-stage.  And while some of his songs were pretty good (“Volunteers”, “Miracles”, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, etc.), a lot of his stuff was rather wimpy and repetitive and he got very one-dimensional with his wooing and crooning, especially as the mid ‘70s wore on.  In fact, I remember guitarist/co-founder Paul Kantner stating in a radio interview after Balin left Starship that he (Paul) was tired of the band getting smoked in concert by upstart opening acts like Foreigner and Journey because the Starship’s stuff had gotten so stale and wimped-out, thus inspiring the much edgier Freedom At Point Zero album in late ’79.

And then there’s the inimitable Grace Slick, the Bea Arthur of Rock ‘N’ Roll.  I’ve always known she was outrageous at times and a little on the crazy side, but I’ve also tried to give her the benefit of the doubt in the hopes that there’s a nice person underneath all the macho bravado.  But, based on the book, what you saw is pretty much what you got—it seems like Grace has an axe to grind with most everyone, including her own bandmates and lovers (which included every member of the Airplane except Balin, at one time or another), and was often a total bitch (Brother Raley, care to chime in, here?)especially when she was drunk, which was quite often.  There were also many times when she would do totally tasteless crap like dressing as a Nazi and doing Hitler salutes on-stage and appearing in blackface on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” during the height of the Civil Rights era and the tensions therein, not to mention her infamous '78 drunken meltdown on-stage in Germany where she took the audience to task for the Holocaust.  Still, she possessed one of the most distinctive voices in Rock history, and back in the day was an incredibly striking woman (before she started wearing that ‘80s crap anyway), and I always liked her confident smile, the rare times she flashed it, anyway.  This photo of Grace with Janis Joplin (informally known as “Ice” and “Fire”, respectively) is a classic, too.  Hard to believe she's 70 years old now...

It’s easy to forget that Grace wasn’t the original female Airplane vocalist.  Another cute brunette, Signe Anderson, filled that role for the debut LP Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, but left the band soon after its release when she had her first child in ’66, thus becoming the answer to a great trivia question.  Some early Airplane fans of the band were quite pissed that this Grace person replaced her, but Signe was soon forgotten anyway.  Based on what little I’ve heard of her voice, she reminded me a bit of Spanky McFarland of late ‘60s pop group Spanky & Our Gang.

I was really surprised (and disappointed) to read that the band considered 1982’s Winds Of Change—one of my Jefferson Starship favorites—to be “a dog” of an album.  I thought it did a nice job of maintaining the continuity that began with Freedom At Point Zero and Modern Times, and it was certainly the last really good record JS ever made.  They started losing me with 1984’s flaccid Nuclear Furniture (after which Kantner split the band and took “Jefferson” with him), and their albums got progressively wimpier and more plasticine to woo the MTV crowd after that.  They lost me even more with 1985’s Knee Deep In the Hoopla—when “We Built This City” came out, I’ll never forget a guy I used to work with exclaiming when he first heard it, “Oh my God—they sound like ABBA now!”  To this day, I’m astounded that Bernie Taupin co-wrote that hunk of roach droppings!

Then Starship lost me altogether with 1987’s insipid “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, from that cinematic classic Mannequin, starring Andrew McCarthy and a pre-“Sex And The City” Kim Cattrall.  I had to endure constant playings of that bloody thing during my first year in radio at the “Mighty 1030”, KKJC-AM in Blue Springs, and even though I thought Mickey Thomas’ and Grace Slick’s voices blended quite nicely together when they sang duets (“Stranger” from Modern Times being a prime example), “NGSUN” was just too saccharine for me.  Slick looked like a total sellout singing this mindless schlock, and Grace herself later admitted it was pretty ludicrous for a 50-ish veteran of failed (not to mention volatile) relationships to be singing such lovey-dovey teen-oriented drivel.  While the song did hit #1, and netted her and the band a big fat paycheck, Grace seemed so out-of place and looked like a fool.  I cringe every time I see this photo of her, and I have no doubt she’s more than a little embarrassed by the clothing and bad hairstyles she sported back then.

I have a retraction of sorts in regards to Airplane/Starship co-founder Paul Kantner.  When I spoke of Winds Of Change in my rundown of 1982’s best albums that I posted about a year ago, I chastised PK a bit for how he pissed and moaned about the direction of the band at the time, even though (in my view) it was HIS band, so why didn’t he do something about it?  Well, after reading all about it, it seems that as Mickey Thomas and (to a lesser extent) Craig Chaquico rose in stature and had more say-so, there was a seismic power shift within the band.  Slick tended to side with those two more and more, thus Kantner was often out-voted and outmoded when it came to musical decisions, and he more or less became a non-factor and subsequently left the group.  Now that I see where Paul was coming from, I take back what I said about him, and I apologize for calling him a “whiny bitch”.  I still think he’s a bit too acerbic, petty and spiteful, but I do enjoy his wry sense of humor, and Kantner still rates highly with me just for writing “Stairway To Cleveland” alone.

I was also surprised to learn how latter-day Starship drummer Donny Baldwin rearranged singer Mickey Thomas’ face (literally) during a 1989 tour.  Baldwin and Thomas were longtime friends, having both been members of the Elvin Bishop Group (that’s Mick singing on Elvin’s 1976 classic “Fooled Around And Fell In Love”), but they’d had some brouhahas during this tour and after a night of heavy drinking, Baldwin beat the livin’ shit out of Thomas, who required major reconstructive surgery and installation of titanium plates in his face.  So much for DB’s career with Starship, eh?Their flight? was just about over by then, anyway.  Ironicially, if you scan back up to the group photo two paragraphs back, it looks like Baldwin has Thomas all teed-up to kick him right in the face!  Meantime, over in the other camp, the critics gave the 1989 Jefferson Airplane reunion album the same treatment Baldwin gave Thomas’ face, but I didn’t think it was such a horrible record, really.  I snagged a copy of it for a buck at a used CD store a couple years after it came out, and while it’s hardly Surrealistic Pillow, Volunteers or even Red Octopus, it’s at least listenable.  In both cases, though, these were rather ignominious ends for both factions of this once-proud musical franchise.

The most underrated member of the Airplane/Starship conglomerate was guitarist Craig Chaquico (pronounced cha-KEY-so), who was literally a teenager when he climbed aboard the Starship (wait, that’s a Styx song, ain’t it?) in ’74, but he was already light years ahead of many seasoned veterans, and was a perfect fit for the band.  CC provided many distinctive solos and hooks over the years, as well as giving J. Starship some badly-needed edge, especially in the early ‘80s.  Craig has since moved on to a very successful career in the smooth jazz genre, and some of his instrumental stuff is quite tasty.  Not something I’d get the urge to listen to every day, mind you, but good stuff to relax to and/or work by.

Bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (pronounced YOR-ma COW-ko-nen) were pure musicians, and just loved to play and play, so when they got bored with the Airplane stuff in the late ‘60s, they formed a sideline band called Hot Tuna that specialized mostly in folky blues.  Their albums and shows were known for their extended jams which some music-lovers enjoyed, but I often have trouble with.  As I hinted above, 10-, 15-, 20-minute jams bore me, and I’m more partial to actual songs in concert.  I did see Hot Tuna open for George Thorogood at a show in ’95, and they weren’t bad as a 45-minute opening act, but I don’t think I could stand three hours or more of them, which is how long their headlining shows often lasted.  Great musicians, Jack and Jorma are, but just not quite my cup of tea.

Jefferson Airplane/Starship went through more drummers than Spinal Tap throughout their storied history.  I counted at least nine after reading the book:  Jerry Peloquin, Skip Spence, Spencer Dryden (pictured here), Joey Covington, John Barbata, Aynsley Dunbar, Donny Baldwin, Kenny Aranoff and whoever replaced Baldwin in Starship before the group dissolved in ’91 (he/she wasn’t mentioned by name in the book).  Dunbar might be the most well-known of the lot, having also played for Journey and Whitesnake, among others, and Baldwin had the longest tenure (1982-89), while none of the others lasted more than about three years with the band(s).  The late Skip Spence left after Takes Off and later formed Moby Grape before alcoholism and mental health problems did him in.  Spencer Dryden was dismissed not long after JA played at Woodstock, and he later joined New Riders Of The Purple Sage in the early ‘70s and died of cancer in 2005.  To my knowledge, everyone else who was a member of Jefferson Airplane/Starship is still living.

My All-Time Jefferson Airplane Top 15:
15) Embryonic Journey (1967)  Nifty little instrumental by Jorma Kaukonen off Surrealistic Pillow, and a hint of what he would go on to do with Hot Tuna.  I normally don’t go for acoustic stuff, but this one wasn’t too shabby.
14) Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon (1969)  I get a kick out of listening to Paul Kantner try to sing.  While he’s not quite as tone-deaf as The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, he ain’t exactly Robert Plant, either.  Still not a bad song, though.
13) Crown Of Creation (1968)  Title track off the fourth Airplane album, which was slightly better than the third record, After Bathing At Baxter’s.
12) She Has Funny Cars (1967)  Ignore the title—it’s pure silliness.  Opening track off Surrealistic Pillow, which featured some nice interplay between Marty and Grace, as well as between Kaukonen and Casady.
11) Other Side Of This Life (1968)  Airplane often opened their live sets with this one.  Not a bad choice for a lead-off hitter.
10) How Do You Feel (1967)  Sounding almost Mamas & Papas-like, in places, I’m surprised this wasn’t a hit single.
9) It’s No Secret (1966)  One of the better pre-Grace Slick Airplane songs, and a prototypical romantic Marty Balin song.
8) Plastic Fantastic Lover (1967)  Before Balin found his niche (or rut, if you will) of writing mushy love songs, his stuff had a lot more bite to it, and this one is a good example.
7) We Can Be Together (1969)  This one has risen rapidly up my chart after I finally sat down and listened to the lyrics, which for whatever reason, I never paid much attention to before.  I always thought this was just another love song (based mostly on the title, I guess), but in reality it was a protest song, and very timely for 1969 America.  Even more surprising for me, I never even noticed the potty-mouth language in the song (“Up against the wall, motherfuckers”, et al).  Caught me napping on that one…
6) 3/5 Of A Mile In 10 Seconds (1967)  Marty apparently got the title from reading the drag race results in the paper, and he does utter this line near the end of the song, which rocks out quite nicely.
5) Wooden Ships (1969)  Co-written by Kantner and David Crosby, Kantner went uncredited so Crosby Stills & Nash could also record the song and not have to endure the legal hassles JA was dealing with at the time with their ex-manager.  Both group’s versions of song are quite good, with slightly-differing lyrics.
4) White Rabbit (1967)  Pretty hard to leave this timeless classic off the top-echelon of the list, which no doubt left skidmarks in the collective underwear of the parents whose kids listened to it back in the day.  Go ask Alice, indeed…
3) Greasy Heart (1968)  When I was little, because of this song, I thought Grace Slick’s name was “Grease” and/or “Greasy” Slick!  It’s a very cool and vastly underrated cut from Crown Of Creation that was inexplicably omitted from the JA box set, all about superficial and phony people.  Could easily have been written about today’s “Reality” TV generation.
2) Volunteers (1969)  The perfect bookend opposite “We Can Be Together” on the Volunteers album and one of Marty Balin’s ballsier songs.  The excitement and fervor he generates from the get-go (“Look what’s happening out in the streets…”) is rather infectious, and made you want to get off your ass and do something.  Again, very timely for 1969…
1) Somebody To Love (1967)  Is this not a KILLER fucking record?  Catchy chorus, crashing guitar chords from Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady’s rumbling Entwistle-esque bass lines and (arguably) Grace Slick’s finest vocal performance ever.  Even though it’s been played to death on the radio over the last 43 years, I NEVER tire of hearing it.

My All-Time Jefferson Starship Top 15:
15) Miracles (1975)  Probably Marty Balin’s finest hour, one that even Papa John Screech—er, uh—Creach couldn’t ruin with his shrieky fiddle playing.  I know that Papa John was beloved by the band and some fans, but I always thought he was as out-of-place with this group as Kid Rock would be on the "700 Club".
14) Find Your Way Back (1981)  Album Rock radio classic off Modern Times that still garners quite a bit of airplay today.
13) Ride The Tiger (1974)  Best track off the first Starship album, Dragon Fly, and it succeeds in spite of silly lyrics.  “Look to the summer of ’75—all the world’s gonna come alive…”  Really?  I don’t recall that happening.  Don’t get me wrong—’75 was great year, but the world hardly came alive.  I also had problems with the couplet “A tear in the hands of a Western man—tell you about salt, carbon and water/But a tear to an Oriental man—tell you ‘bout sadness and sorrow and the love of a man and a woman.”  Uhhh, you’re saying we Americans don’t have soul?  I beg to differ, Mr. Kantner.  If anything, we’re just the opposite—Western people are far more emotional than our rather stoic Oriental counterparts.
12) Modern Times (1981)  Underrated title track off a rather underrated album.
11) Runaway (1978)  Even though the Balin-era Starship was starting to run on fumes at this point, I always liked this song, which showed off Craig Chaquico’s melodic side quite well.  Was also a nice respite from all the Disco that permeated Top 40 radio that summer.
10) Jane (1979)  I couldn’t believe my ears the first time I heard this song, and was most impressed with this Mickey Thomas guy.  The Starship was born-again hard, and for a while, people were actually uttering, “Grace who?”
9) Keep On Dreamin’ (1982)  Great track off Winds Of Change that makes me think of a cute chick I had the hots for at the time.  It mystifies me why this wasn’t a hit single.  Nice guitar work again, from Mr. Chaquico.
8) Out Of Control (1982)  One thing I always looked forward to on Starship albums was at least one really whacked-out song, and this one features Grace.  It hasn’t aged very well over the years, but I still have a soft spot for it anyway.
7) Stranger (1981)  When Grace Slick emerged from some much-needed time on the sobriety wagon between 1978 and ‘81, she took baby steps getting back into the band, and this song is where it started, an excellent duet between her and Thomas.  Their voices complimented each other well, and more duets (for better or worse) followed later on down the road.
6) Winds Of Change (1982)  Another underrated title track from another underrated album.  One of Grace’s better vocal performances during the Starship era too.
5) Can’t Find Love (1982)  Story of my life, unfortunately.  Love the attitude near the end from Grace (“She’s got a fat ass, no class…take some, make some, do it ‘til you make her come, but don’t say no…”).
4) Save Your Love (1981)  One of Mickey Thomas’ finest vocal performances, and outstanding guitar outro by Chaquico.
3) Rock Music (1979)  “Rock ‘N’ Roll is good-time music,” the song sez.  No need to argue that point.  Another FM radio favorite too.
2) Freedom At Point Zero (1979)  I really liked the positive attitude of this song, and how tight and together the band sounded at that time.  More great vocals from Thomas.
1) Stairway To Cleveland (1981)  This one would also make my Top 100 of All-Time list, if I ever get around to compiling it.  I love songs with rapid-fire vocals, and “Stairway” is brilliant in its satirical view of the history of the Airplane/Starship franchise and the slings and arrows it had suffered at the hands of music critics worldwide.  Have to love the motto, “Fuck you! We do what we want!” which is the basic credo of this blog, too.  As the song repeatedly sez, "Whatcha gonna do about it?"  Also the only Rock 'N' Roll song with Walter Cronkite in its lyrics.  And that's the way it is...


dr sardonicus said...

Jefferson Airplane/Starship made plenty of good, and at times even great music, but they have never been a band I could bring myself to care about much. I just can't shake my impression of Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and Marty Balin as drug-addled egomaniacs who consistently destroyed whatever chemistry their various lineups had.

I might be able to come up with a Top 15 list covering each of the Airplane/Starship eras; once again, I have a hard time caring enough to bother. Since I don't see "Good Shepherd", "Caroline" or "Fast Buck Freddie" on your lists, there's room for debate. Also missing is "Across The Board", a track from Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun which was a Kantner/Slick album released between the two eras. This is one of Grace Slick's finest moments - check out the lyrics, then find a download somewhere.

Kantner's remark about getting blown offstage by opening acts made me chuckle. The one time I saw Jeff Starship in concert, they were indeed upstaged by the openers - in this case, .38 Special.

Brian Holland said...

Good to see ya, Doc! Thought maybe you got lost in the wilderness...

I omitted the sideline stuff like Baron von Tollbooth and Hot Tuna from my lists, in part because I don't have any of it in my collection! I just recently became familiar with "Good Shepard" and "Fast Buck Freddie", but neither impressed me enough to dent my lists.