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Posted by Keith E Rice on 01/01/02 - 08:33:42
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Hi, Eth - and happy New Year to you, yours and everyone else on A-Deck. (Including the even-more historically-pedantic-than-me Kevin!)

It's great, youngster Jon, that you've turned on to the Airship and that - as Eth gleefully points out - you find them relevant to your late teens life.

I think, though - and, with me, there's usually a "but" - some of us might find it unsettling that you rate all 3 incarnations of the band equally. (The Kantnerphiles who clog up this page will hate you particularly for liking Starship. Just deal with it. You get used to their abuse!)

In some ways, I don't have a problem with it. "NO PROTECTION" is a far better album than the charmless "KBC BAND" or the simply mediocre "JEFFERSON AIRPLANE".

But the Airplane was far more than just a "cultural" thing.

I can only echo what Kevin says about the power and energy of live albums and wish there was more commercially-available (in the UK) live Airship - particularly 74-84).

If you listen to the "LOVES YOU" Spring 67 set, "MONTEREY", "MELLO YELLO", KING BISCUIT 81 (Kevin's recommendation), KING BISCUIT 84, KBC BAND KING BISCUIT and KING BISCUIT 89 (at least that's what I call the tape, Kevin!), you will hear a band that boasts wonderfully-gifted singers and musicians delivering highly-enjoyable and dexterous performances.

Listen to "FILLMORE EAST" and the jaw begins to drop. They're starting to stretch the barriers of what's musically possible.

"POINTED HEAD" - just 6 months later - transcends. I've never heard music before or since like this on a commercial release*. And it takes some getting into - partly because they're not the band's best songs and partly because the music is just so complex.

(*A  70 bootleg - "TAPES FROM THE MOTHERSHIP" - finds the band in equally explosive form.)

6 musicians - OK: on some tracks it's just 5 and on "Rock Me Baby" 4!) - going completely hell for leather all the time - OK: they relax ever so  slightly on "Fat Angel"! - and pulling it off.

It's like jazz gone mad! Instead of one musician soloing away. You've 4-6 soloing away at the same time. You can listen to Grace or Marty or the guitar or the bass or the drums - not much Kantner on this one! - or you can listen to them all playing together. This is polyphonic music at its best. There is something going on behind something going on behind something going on behind something going on.

Unlike symphonic music - where everything supports the central melody - peak Airplane music was truly polyphonic - every voice and instrument making its own melody. When those melodies all fit together - as they do on "POINTED HEAD" - it truly transcends.

(There are many reports of Airplane gigs 68-70 where it didn't; and Tuna's big-time Knebworth 76 appearance - supporting the Stones - is infamous worldwide as a complete polyphonic disgrace! Sheesh! - and they only had 1 voice and 3 instruments to fit together!!)

To expand this point: J S Bach was the master of structured polyphonic music; Beethoven and Schubert were the great symphonists - Beethoven is even said to have invented the particular structure we call "symphony" today.

How improvisationally good the Airplane were in late 68 is reflected in that Casady even drops a major bollock - does that translate into American?  - plunging down half an octave - on "3/5" and the rest of the band catch it in mid-air and run with it. Thrilling stuff!!

(For a comparison, Joe Osborne makes exactly the same mistake on "Monday Monday" at Monterey and the Mamas & Papas lose it totally!)

There are mistakes all over "POINTED HEAD" - Dryden tries to finish the mid-song instrumental on "Other Side" and Jack and Jorma just ignore him - and the infamous one of Kantner's rhythm coming in too soon while Spencer's still rolling on "Fat Angel" - but the band were just so hot on those nights....

No wonder they were the toast of the critics and could shift concert seats by the thousands! People were intrigued by this band that could just turn songs the way they did.

As "FILLMORE EAST" captures a band starting to expand, "WINTERLAND" captures a band contracting. The songs are better than on "POINTED HEAD", the sheer muscle is still there - "Have You Seen The Saucers" (indeed!) - and they clearly remember how they used to do it - much of the form is still there, but the imagination is largely gone.

The 76 bootleg "FASTEN YOUR SEATBELT" - "Please Come Back" on "FLIGHT LOG" is from that show - echoes that 68-70 period in many respects. The energy is certainly there - and the musicianship on display is pretty astounding. It doesn't have the degree of edgeiness of "POINTED HEAD", though - it just doesn't take the crazy chances.

Much the same can be said of "DEEP SPACE/VIRGIN SKY". No wonder some people claimed early 90s JS was the best since 68-70. (So come on, Paul, let's have "DEEPER SPACE/EXTRA VIRGIN SKY" - and please make sure the fucker's available in the UK!!)

So what was it made the Airship - particularly 65-78 - so special. (Sorry, Kevin the Boston-Foereigner soundalikes of the early 80s were OK; but they weren't special!)

Well, it was kind of like putting The Mamas & Papas vocal richness - Marty as funked-up Denny and Grace as slimmed-down Cass (equally-foulmouthed!) - with the instrumental dexterity of Cream (Kaukonen was as good as Clapton - Eric just bought his wah-wah pedal before Jorma did his - and Casady had a fuzz-box and Bruce didn't; 74-78 Chaquico and Sears did a reasonable impression of the Kaukonen-Casady attack).

No one else - other than the very early Fairport Convention - sounded like them.

Plus, they had attitude...

66-67 was chemical fun and liberation - acid by the bucketload and girls getting their tits out in the park for photographers;
68-70 was anti-war and serious revolution - people got their heads busted by cops at Airplane gigs;
71-73 was Stones-style excess and dissipation - with the band literally falling apart;
74 was earnest comeback, with lots of "we can do it" - and, when they did it, public putdowns of Jack and Jorma;
75-78 was old hippes doing contemporary love songs with a knowing wink on the way to the bank.
Marty now as slimmed-down Barry White!

Paul may have been - and clearly still is! - a hippie; but Grace and Jorma were always punks. And Marty actually put on his leather jacket once "Miracles" gave him some confidence.

And those attitudes - combined with extraordinary music - made the band SO relevant. (Even "LJS" went gold - and the last-gasp Airplane made as much money touring the US in 72 as ths Stones.)

79-84 was pretty dull. (Sorry, Kevin.) The music was OK - but Mickey, for all his range, was a passionless identikit singer, Pete had to sneak in basswork under the Thomas-Chaquico regime and Freiberg spent 5 years looking uncharateristically miserable. (Find me a grinning Freiberg photo from that period if you can!)

The band pretended to be Journey and ceased to be relevant. When Grace came back in 81, even she was dull. No excesses, little public swearing and she was faithful to Skip Johnson. (After both of the Slick boys, Dryden, Morrison, Kantner, Bob Matthews and Kaukonen, she settled down with a lighting man?!? - and he was eventually unfaithful to her!)

Grace did show a potential return to form on "Can't Find Love" - singing about making girls with fat asses cum - but, unfortunately, it was a one-off.

Paul's histrionics on "Stairway to Cleveland" might have pleased fans who liked to shout "Up against the wall, MOTHERFUCKER!" - but it did sound rather contrived. He tried to liven things up a bit with "PERRO" - musically brilliant but SO retro - think "BATE" meets "SUNFIGHTER". And then Grace put out "SOFTWARE", got a few decent reviews and we were on the way to Starship.

Starship in an odd way were relevant. They had a clear image - Banana Bunch outfits - and what at first sounded like bubble gum music but in fact was a potentially-exciting marriage of pomp-rock and techno-pop. Only on "Love Rusts" and "NO PROTECTION" did they get anywhere near fulfulling their potential.

By comparison, KBC were quite irrelevant, Bravely, they set out NOT to be the Airplane - so played only a smattering of old numbers, had a sax instead of a fiddle, no girl singer and looked totally anonymous - apart from Jack's ties. To really make themselves irrelevant, they put out a dreadful album.

The Tuna-Kantner tours of 88 were, by contrast, fairly (though not hugely) relevant. You could go to a small(-ish) friendly venue and see old sparring partners pretending (sort-of) to get on, hear them sometimes massacre and sometimes deliver superbly songs from your childhood. Plus, you never quite knew which other former partners would get up on stage with them.

89 was a year of total irrelevancy. Starship made an album that sounded like an even worse version of "KBC BAND" and the refried Airplane made an album that sounded like the worst bits of "NUCLEAR FURNITURE" plus out-takes from "BURGERS".

JS in the early 90s looked like they were going to be relevant. For one thing, they played a lot of gigs. A lot of gigs! They certainly had the musical chops. But they - deliberately? - didn't do much hype. After all the hype of the Airplane reunion, perhaps they didn't want to raise epectations. Perhaps Paul thought they could grow into an underground phenomenon Dead-style?

And no major label deal. So nobody but the devoted knew about them.

Then Gorman and Gould left; and JS became Paul and Marty with a safe dependable roster of musicians. (Could you ever imagine Aguilar arguing venemously with Paul the way Jorma would or Chris Smith dishing Marty to jornalists the way Sears did?) They're increasingly an oldies band - their one new album  ("WOW") sounded like two different bands in the same studio!

Unless you have money and hype to do oldies BIG style - Stones, Floyd - where the sheer spectacle imposes itself on people as relevant, oldies means small clubs and nostalgia tours. (Hi, Spirit of 67.)

Paul Kantner is deeply relevant to me. The man has played a large part of the soundtrack of my life. I'm extremely critical of where he seems to have been at for the past few years and I've no great hopes left of him. But I'm also deeply grateful for the pleasure and provocation he (and his colleagues) have brought into my life these past 33 years.

Unfortunately, I have problems seeing Paul and Marty as relevant to anybody who doesn't thrive on seeing old heroes deliver OKish versions of classics deeply embedded in your brain.

That Jon's on board may mean I'm missing something. On the other hand it could mean that the current musical scene is so shit, reheated Paul and Marty are the best option. On yet another hand, it could mean that Jon is an isolated incident.


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