Historical Perpectives

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Posted by Keith E Rice on 12/29/01 - 03:50:51
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Scott's raised the "Mickey Issue" again; so here's my twopennyworth.... (That's a limey saying, by the way.)

5/7 of the "WINTERLAND" JA line-up - Kantner, Slick, Creach, Barbata and Freiberg - made it to the first JS tour (with Chaquico and Peter K) in early 74. In interviews 76-78 and in Barbara Rowes 80 biography of Grace, Barbata takes a lot of credit for masterminding the transition. ("I kept saying to Paul and Grace: 'We don't need Jack and Jorma. I know the guitarists. I know the engineers. We can do it without them.'")

In interviews Paul kept saying "This is a new band" and they played only a handful of Airplane tunes - "Wooden Ships", "Volunteers", "Up Or Down" (with Kangaroo on vocals and joint lead guitar; Freiberg on bass) "John's Other" (a Hot Tuna tune - if we're being pedantic!) and "Milk Train". The rest of the material was from "BATE" and "MANHOLE".

But to most people's ears, they sounded like the Airplane, with Craig and Kangaroo having a similar upfront guitar-bass attack to Jorma and Jack.

Later that year "DRAGONFLY" came out, sounding very much like a more coherent successor to "BARK" and "LJS".

So most people really did think of them as the Airplane Part 2. And - very different to today's JS! - they were run as a democratic outfit, with everyone having the opportunity to write and arrange. (Freiberg: "Whoever yells loudest gets their songs on the albums!" - very Jefferson Airplane!!)

Then Marty rejoined and they revived "Somebody To Love", "White Rabbit" and "Have You Seen The Saucers". Hot Tuna meanwhile slipped increasingly towards cod-metal oblivion and people accepted JS as JA. (The mega-success of "RED OCTOPUS" brought
"SURREALISTIC PILLOW" and "VOLUNTEERS" back onto the lower reaches of the charts.)

What some hardcore Slickantner fans had difficulty accepting, though - as indeed, they still do today - was that Marty's return also brought a return of the "SURREALISTIC PILLOW"-era pop sensibility.

What had been a hint of songs you could actually whistle on "BARON VON TOLLBOOTH" (courtesy of Freiberg)became explicit simple melodies - as Marty found willing allies in Freiberg and Barbata. (The Starship was soon as faction-riven as the Airplane had been!)

On "OCTOPUS" and "SPITFIRE", Marty's contributions were balanced. On "EARTH" they over-balanced. With the added insult that RCA promoted the band that year as "America's homegrown Fleetwood Mac"!

So Grace was fired for being drunk, Marty drifted away and Barbata exited via an auto accident that killed one of the band's roadies.

In came Mickey and Aynsley Dunbar.

JS 74-78 looked, sounded and behaved pretty much like JA. (The group shot for "OCTOPUS" even has the same kind of ambience to it as the one for "WINTERLAND".)

The Thomas-Dunbar version didn't. They didn't look like hippies anymore - all dressed in black and Freiberg no longer allowed to grin and smile on group shots. Without his smile, David looked lost and miserable.

David - who had contributed stunning Casady-like sounds to "Switchblade" and "Show Yourself" - also wasn't allowed to play interesting bass anymore. Craig and Mickey told him just to plod to the bass drum while Chaquico played lots of pomp-rock crash chords.

And so a vital component of the Airship sound - the upfront melodic bass - was largely negated. Of course, Pete Sears was just too good a bassist to keep down and he kept sneaking in interesting lines on his and especially Paul's songs.

With the band's musical identity severely compromised and Craig pushing imitative pomp-rock - "I don't care that people say we sound like Boston and Foreigner. I like Boston and Foreigner!" - sales began to slip.

Not that the Mickey-era JS albums are bad. They're the most technically well-produced albums in the canon; and I would argue that "WINDS OF CHANGE" has the highest count of good melodies - the wonderfully-jarring "Out Of Control" excepted - in the canon.

Onstage in the early 80s they were still a very powerful act - as the wonderful "MELLO YELLO" demonstrates. Lots of extemporisations - most notably on "Mary" (which is transformed from the dirge it was on "MODERN TIMES"). And Mickey makes a far better job of "Light The Sky On Fire" than Marty did on the studio single.

Mickey's voice was well suited to the pomp-rock stuff - technically brilliant (a far greater range than Marty) and identikit to Steve Perry and a half-dozen other leading pomp-rock frontmen.

Paul's answer to the band's artistic mess and declining commercial status was to go retro to Grunt-era Airplane. "PERRO" is very much a statement of where he wanted the Starship to go. Just read what he says about "the band I'm in" on the album insert.

Grace's answer was to go techno-pop. She brought in Peter Wolf. Paul responded by getting Sears to play the most ludicrously upfront bass runs on "Rose Goes To Yale" since Casady annunced himself to the world with "Let Me In".

Kantner wanted the band to play smaller venues as headliners. Mickey - with IRS problems - wanted the band to play stadiums - second on the bill, if necessary.

The democracy Paul had so carefully nurtured since their days on the Haight now worked against him. The rest of the band chose Peter Wolf and support act status on stadium tours.

Freiberg was ejected sometime in early 85 - according to one report, for hanging out with the embryonic KBC Band - and so 5/7 of JS 84 became 5/5 of Starship 85.

They now no longer looked, behaved or sounded like imitative pomp-rockers. They dressed in banana bunch outfits - silly on a woman of Grace's age!! - and made some very NEW sounds!!

Most of "KNEE DEEP IN THE HOOPLA" is awful because it pitches at the lowest common denominator - it's not even well-crafted. Only "Love Rusts" really displays the new sound to good effect - a glorious marriage of pomp-rock and techno-pop.

On "NO PROTECTION" the band got the new sound pitched spot on - remarkable considering they produced some of it themselves and used three other producers! (Even HOLDING TOGETHER considered this an excellent album!) They  took chances, too - I reckon "The Children" to have the most unusual time signatures on any Airplane-related product since the "BAXTER'S" era.

Starship by 87 were leading the field in developing the rockier side of the synth-pop sound - and doing it very commercially.

Meanwhile, KBC released a dog of an album - "Mariel" and "America" excepted - and quickly disappeared. Worth getting hold of is their "KING BISCUIT HOUR" live promo - still not brilliant, but far better than the studio affair. Ironically missing from any form of official release are a slew of great KBC songs, including Marty's "Spaghetti Western", Paul's "Crossfire" and Daryl Verdusco's "Candles". [Revival time, eh, Paul?]

With Grace defecting to the Airplane reunion, Starship confirmed their bassist of a couple of years - the highly-talented Brett Bloomfield - as an official member and released the stunning (and very rocky) "Wild Again" as a single.

I saw them at the Reading Festival in 88 - where they played an excellent gig under very difficult conditions. (Craig took a 2 litre bottle of piss to the knee and never missed a beat on his solo on "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" - announced by Mickey as "a perfect pop song which we're gonna try and fuck up as much as possible!")

Unfortunately, "Wild Again" was about the only decent thing on "LOVE AMONG THE CANNIBALS" - where the new style squandered on "HOOPLA" and perfected on "NO PROTECTION" was almost absent - replaced by some dense and muddy mediocrity that sounded indistinguishable from dozens of other chart acts of the late 80s.

Even more unfortunately the Airplane reunion album was almost as bad a mess - with clashing styles and only half-developed ideas.

What a sad end to 25 years of managing to balance - more or less! - commercial accessibility with high art.

Of course, it didn't quite end there. We have - according to the 92 judgement - Paul Kantner's Jefferson Starship (Paul and a bunch of hired hands, with Marty as a kind of super guest artist and no influence on policy-making) and Mickey Thomas' Starship (Mickey and a bunch of hired hands, including former KBC drummer Daryl Verdusco and Mickey's wife - still Sarah? - doing the Grace role where necessary).

Paul lays claim to the Airship heritage upto 79 and Mickey does it 79-89. Paul and Marty have introduced some new and some revived KBC material via "WINDOWS OF HEAVEN" which sounds more like an alliance of convenience than a marriage of visions. However, as RELIX has rightly noted, since the Carnegie Hall show in 2000, Paul and co have increasingly become an oldies act - with 90%+ of their act being previously-recorded material. On the one hand, this makes it sound like the "GREATEST HITS - FILLMORE" travesty was actually a deliberate band strategy. But, as "ATSOS" and the CIA releases show, Paul's quite willing to mix in more obscure material - and even requests it via this Site.

Mickey - while threatening an album in the mid-90s - has, to my knowledge, not produced any new material.

So, if you want material from the band's most creative era - plus, heated-over attitude - you go to Paul's JS. If you want the pomp-rock and Starship stuff -  in a family show atmosphere - you go see Mickey.

Paul may still have passion - perhaps too much of it! - but his JS is generally irrelevant except to me, Kevin, the other hardcore fans who populate this Site and as a footnote to Airship history. Mickey is merely a good showman going through the motions to entertain people and supplement his income. Paul plays in small clubs and puts out live oldies records via the Internet and tiny obscure labels. Mickey plays his greatest hits to reasonable-sized audiences at county fairs.

I don't see the problem.I thought Americans prized freedom of choice?

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