Sunday, January 29, 2012

Getting There: Starship

Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship: Starship

[purchase]

This is not the Jefferson Starship of “Miracles” (which is still a great song, by a good band, in my opinion, despite its lack of critical respect) or the Starship of “We Built This City” (a bad song by a bad band, in my opinion, consistent with its critical loathing). This Jefferson Starship was what Paul Kantner, of the recently disintegrated Jefferson Airplane, decided to call the band that recorded a science fiction/popular revolution concept album called “Blows Against the Empire” originally released in 1970. The album included contributions from Kantner, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Jack Casady, David Freiberg and others.

I came to this album, which became one of my favorites, in high school, probably 5 or 6 years after it was released, never having heard it before. I, like many others who listened to classic rock radio in the mid-70’s, became a fan of Jefferson Starship and bought “Red Octopus” because of “Miracles.” In what was probably the first time my obsession with music manifested itself, my friend Chris and I started working our way through the Starship and Airplane discography, mostly by buying albums from the Korvette’s cutout bins. There was no Allmusic or Wikipedia, so we learned about the albums by reading books and magazine articles, or by just buying what the store had and listening. Our exploration of the catalogue led us to listen to classics, like the Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” and not-so-classics such as Slick’s “Manhole.” The first time I heard “Blows,” easily the best of the Kantner/Slick solo projects during this era, I fell in love with its goofy, but sincere, idealism and the loose, well played music. I read the liner notes booklet so many times that it fell apart.

The story of “Blows Against the Empire” tells of a revolutionary band that steals a government built spaceship with the intention of traveling through space and creating a utopian society. Its theme fits the era of its recording and release, during the anti-war movement, the Reagan governorship of California and the Nixon presidency, and shortly after the first moon landing. The music, written by the performers, and others, including Marty Balin and Rosalie Sorrells, includes rock, folk and noise, but the bulk of the album is beautiful jammy folk rock, with great vocal harmonies and guitar playing. “Starship”, the finale, features Kantner on acoustic guitar and vocal and Slick on vocal and keyboards, with Garcia on lead guitar, Crosby, Nash and Freiberg (of Quicksilver Messenger Service and later versions of Jefferson Starship) on vocals, and Harvey Brooks (of Electric Flag, and who worked with Dylan and Miles Davis, among others) on bass.

It took a while for the album to be released on CD, and I remember buying it and enjoying it for the first time in years. It is still a good listen, even if its themes of revolution and space travel seem a little dated now (although with Newt Gingrich’s pledge to build a moon base if elected president, maybe Kantner will rally his friends and try to hijack the moonship).

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