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Music / Jefferson Starship

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The classic line-up of Jefferson Starship. From left to right: John Barbata, David Freiberg (top), Marty Balin (middle), Craig Chaquico (bottom), Grace Slick, Paul Kantner (top) and Pete Sears (bottom).

Jane, you say it's all over for you and me, girl
There's a time for love and a time for lettin' it be, baby!
Jane, you're playin' a game called...
Called "hard to get" by it's real name!
Makin' believe that you just don't feel the same!
Oh, Jane!
- "Jane"

Jefferson Starship (named after the ad-hoc supergroup that played on Paul Kantner's Hugo-nominated science-fiction concept album Blows Against the Empire) is an American soft rock and, later, Arena Rock band formed in 1974. It is the noticeably more commercially-oriented Spiritual Successor to Jefferson Airplane, which had broken up two years earlier, and initially featured Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, David Freiberg, Papa John Creach and John Barbata from its predecessor's final lineup. Other founding members include teenage guitarist Craig Chaquico (previously a frequent guest on Kantner's solo albums) and bassist/guitarist Peter Kaukonen, the brother of Jorma from Jefferson Airplane (Peter Kaukonen was gone after their first tour, replaced by British session man Pete Sears, who had featured on Grace Slick's solo album Manhole). Jefferson Airplane founder and frontman Marty Balin, having left the Airplane in 1970, officially joined Jefferson Starship shortly after the release of their debut album Dragon Fly from 1974. Their second album, the polished soft-rock-based Red Octopus (their final work to feature Creach) would become their most successful album (topping the Billboard album chart for four non-consecutive weeks in 1975), and with a little help from the main single from that album ("Miracles", which hit no.3 in the charts) they became more commercially successful than Jefferson Airplane ever were.

But despite all that, their main pop culture distinction these days is being "That band that showed up in The Star Wars Holiday Special".

While the group's next (primarily Balin-helmed) two albums, Spitfire and Earth, cemented the Starship's commercial success further, this popularity was not to last. In 1978, Slick was asked to resign due to her out-of-control alcoholism and a disastrous concert in Hamburg. Then came the Star Wars Holiday Special, and not long after that, both Balin (due to creative burnout) and John Barbata (due to sustaining near-fatal injuries in a road accident) exited, leaving Kantner the sole remaining founding member of the Airplane to persist in the group. The following year, vocalist Mickey Thomas joined the band to fill both Slick and Balin's roles and subsequently became the effective leader of the group in the 80's. Simultaneously, Barbata was replaced by famous British session drummer (and former Journey member) Aynsley Dunbar, with Thomas' Elvin Bishop Band alumnus Donny Baldwin succeeding him in 1982. Through these new additions, the group revamped itself into a commercial hard-rock band reminiscent of contemporaries Boston and Toto, although Kantner's more esoteric and Airplane-flavored political anthems would continue to persist on their albums deep into the Reagan era. By 1981, Grace Slick was back, but all of these line-up changes took its toll on the band: numerous younger members advocated to fully modernize the band's sound, whereas Kantner adamantly persisted with his more '60s-inspired stylings, which both these bandmates and the group's producers increasingly viewed as anachronistic and commercially unviable. These conflicts attained a peak during production of "Nuclear Furniture" in 1984, prompting Kantner to depart shortly following the album's completion. He would subsequently sue the remaining members over their continued use of the band's name; ultimately, the case was settled under the condition that the group would cease use of the "Jefferson" moniker going forward. Lacking one of its primary creative forces and with only a single prominent member of Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick) remaining, the group was thus reborn as the infamous Starship.

That's not the end of the story for Jefferson Starship though. Paul Kantner re-formed Jefferson Starship in 1992, and for the first few years they used the name "The Next Generation" next to Jefferson Starship (a reference to Star Trek: The Next Generation). They eventually dropped that, but they remain active today, mainly as a touring act. The revived band has featured a multitude of rotating personnel from the original group, among them Marty Balin, Papa John Creach (until his death in 1994) and, more recently, David Freiberg and Donny Baldwin, with Grace Slick contributing vocals on a small number of occasions. For a period in the mid-late '90s, the band's lineup likewise featured iconic Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady; resultantly, the track "I'm on Fire" (hailing from the revived group's first album, Windows of Heaven), through featuring Balin, Kantner, Casady and a guest vocal from Slick, reunited a higher percentage of Jefferson Airplane's most iconic lineup than the original Jefferson Starship ever did. Kantner remarked of the band: 'I'm working on erasing the bad history of Jefferson Starship, in the '80s when it went bad. I had to leave the band, it got so bad. I'm usually the last one at the party, as a general rule'. They released two studio albums (the aforementioned Windows in 1998 and Jefferson's Tree Of Liberty in 2008) and several live albums before Kantner died from multiple organ failure and septic shock following a heart attack in 2016. Nonetheless, the band, now helmed by David Freiberg, has continued performing into the present and released the album Mother of the Sun (featuring guest contributions from Slick and Pete Sears in varying capacities) in 2020.

Principal Members (Founding members in bold, current members in italic):

  • Mark "Slick" Aguilar - guitar, vocals (1992-2012)
  • Signe Toly Anderson - backing and lead vocals (1993-1994; died 2016)
  • Donny Baldwin - drums, percussion, vocals (1982-1984, 2008-present)
  • Marty Balin - lead vocals, guitar (1974-1978, 1994-2008; died 2018)
  • John Barbata - drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals, congas (1974-1979)
  • Gary Cambra - keyboard, synthesizer (1995)
  • Jack Casady - bass (1992-2000)
  • Craig Chaquico - guitar, vocals, synthesizer, drums (1974-1984)
  • Papa John Creach - violin (1974-1975, 1992-1994; died 1994)
  • Aynsley Dunbar - drums, percussion, marimba, synthesizer (1979-1982)
  • Barry Flast - keyboard, synthesizer (1995)
  • David Freiberg - vocals, keyboard, organ, piano, bass, synthesizer (1974-1984, 2005-present)
  • Jude Gold - guitar (2012-present)
  • Tim Gorman - keyboard, synthesizer, vocals, piano (1992-1995)
  • Darby Gould - backing and lead vocals (1992-1993, 1994-1995, 2005, 2008)
  • Chico Huff - bass (1998-2000)
  • Paul Kantner - vocals, guitar, banjo, keyboard, synthesizer (1974-1984, 1992-2016; died 2016)
  • Peter Kaukonen - bass, guitar (1974, 1994-1995)
  • Diana Mangano - backing and lead vocals (1993-2008)
  • T Lavitz - keyboard, synthesizer, piano, organ (1995-1998; died 2010)
  • Tom Lily - bass (2000)
  • Prairie Prince - drums, percussion, marimba, rainstick, snare, kick, bodhran (1992-2008)
  • Cathy Richardson - backing and lead vocals, harmonica, guitar (2008-2015)
  • Rachel Rose - backing and lead vocals (2015-present)
  • Trey Sabatelli - drums, percussion (1995)
  • Steve Schuster - saxophone (1978-1979)
  • Pete Sears - bass, piano, harpsichord, organ, synthesizer, clavinet, celeste, guitar, vocals (1974-1984)
  • Grace Slick - lead vocals, piano (1974-1978, 1981-1984)
  • Chris Smith - keyboard, synthesizer, piano, bass, squeezebox, drone, pennywhistle (1998-present)
  • Mickey Thomas - lead vocals (1979-1984)
  • Jack Traylor - guitar, vocals (2005)
  • Bobby Vega - bass (1998-2000)

Studio Discography:

  • 1970 - Blows Against the Empire note 
  • 1974 - Dragon Fly
  • 1975 - Red Octopus
  • 1976 - Spitfire
  • 1978 - Earth
  • 1979 - Freedom At Point Zero
  • 1981 - Modern Times
  • 1982 - Winds Of Change
  • 1984 - Nuclear Furniture
  • 1998 - Windows Of Heaven
  • 2008 - Jefferson's Tree Of Liberty
  • 2020 - Mother of the Sun

Live Discography:

  • 1982 - RCA Special Radio Series Volume 19
  • 1995 - Deep Space/Virgin Sky
  • 1999 - Greatest Hits: Live At The Fillmore
  • 2000 - Live At B. B. King's Blues Club
  • 2000 - Live At Vinoy Park
  • 2001 - Post Nine 11
  • 2001 - Across The Sea Of Suns
  • 2002 - UK
  • 2003 - Live
  • 2005 - Galactic Reunion Concert
  • 2011 - Air Play
  • 2013 - Live In Central Park NYC May 12, 1975

Nuclear Tropes:

  • Control Freak: Mickey Thomas by all accounts, bringing him into increasingly intense conflict with the group's founder Paul Kantner during the early 1980s.
  • I Am the Band: Evidently applicable (particularly for the group's revived incarnation) to Paul Kantner - the only member to be a part of every incarnation - until his death in 2016. Relative to Mickey Thomas' synonymity with the group's successor Starship, however, Kantner's role in the original Jefferson Starship was nonetheless not all-pervasive, only co-writing two tracks on the group's best-selling album Red Octopus and otherwise permitting numerous compositions from other members, particularly on the band's 1980s albums.
  • Intercourse with You: "Miracles".
    • The lines "I got a taste of the real world (oh baby)/When I went down on you girl" can still be heard on the radio today.
  • Lighter and Softer: Relative to the more socially-critical and politically-engaged Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship's output (save for most of Paul Kantner's compositions, which noticeably retained hallmarks of his work with the Airplane, and sporadic exceptions such as "Assassin" on "Nuclear Furniture") generally tended to be more escapist and romance-oriented.
  • One-Woman Song: "Caroline", "Jane".
  • Put on a Bus / The Bus Came Back: Grace Slick was sacked in 1978 due to her worsening alcoholism and her behaviour during their Hamburg shows. Slick returned in 1981 though, in time for Modern Times.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Marty Balin had enough and quit in 1978, though he returned in 1994 - only to quit again in 2008.
  • The '70s: Founded almost midway through the decade, the group rapidly became one of the most prominent commercial soft-rock groups of the era and, by the end of the decade, had successfully morphed into an Arena Rock group along the lines of Toto (as a matter of fact, their hit song "Jane" was understandably accused of aping Toto's single "Hold The Line", right down to the piano triplets).
  • The '80s: Endured almost midway into the decade prior to their rebranding as Starship, chiefly due to mounting inter-band tensions and founder Paul Kantner's disdain for the increasingly-electronic and commercially-oriented work he perceived the group to be veering into.
  • Shout-Out: The album Blows Against the Empire was inspired by, and referenced, another Heinlein novel, Methuselah's Children, again with permission. (Heinlein commented that his plots had been used by others many times, but this was the first time someone had asked first).