CD Review: Jefferson Airplane / Jefferson Starship / Starship: The Essential (RCA Legacy, 2012)
Legacy’s two-disc Essential collection is actually a re-branded reissue of the 1998 Hits release, reiterating the same 35-track lineup and including Ben Fong-Torres original liner notes. If you pop these discs in your computer’s CD drive, you’re even likely to have the cover image of Hits pulled up by your media player. The set remains a good overview of “the band that transformed with the times,” from Jefferson Airplane’s scene-leading San Francisco Sound recordings of the mid-to-late ‘60s, through Jefferson Starship’s inheritance and evolution, and the Kantner-less Starship’s full-face turn to radio-friendly pop. The musical, social and commercial distance traveled from the Airplane’s earthy psychedelic jams to the Starship’s synth-laden ballads is itself a monument to adaptability.
The seventeen Airplane selections cover all seven of the band’s first run albums (nothing from their 1989 self-titled reunion is included), along with the single-only “Have You Seen the Saucers.” A few of their lower charting singles are absent, but other than “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” the Airplane was never a Top 40 success, and so the additional album tracks are more telling. Missing are tracks with early Airplane vocalist Signe Anderson singing lead, and even more noticeable is the lack of live material. Performance was an essential element of the San Francisco scene, and no telling of the Airplane’s story is truly complete without the stage interplay of vocalists and instrumentalists. Follow-on purchases of 30 Seconds Over Winterland, Bless Its Pointed Little Head or the more recent 6-CD anthology of vintage tapes can fill that gap.
Though the Jefferson Starship name was employed for Kantner’s 1970 sci-fi concept album, Blows Against the Empire, a steady band wasn’t formed until four years later for 1974’s Dragon Fly. This set skips the former album and picks up with two songs (“Caroline” and “Ride the Tiger”) from the latter. Though Dragon Fly went gold (and hit #11 on the album chart), it was the group’s next release, Red Octopus, that marked their real commercial breakthrough. Topping the album chart, the album spun off the Top 5 single “Miracles” and introduced a band who would have a ten year run in the Top 40. Most of Jefferson Starship’s biggest hits are included here, missing only their Top 20 “Winds of Change.” All eight of the group’s first run studio albums are sampled here; their two reunion releases (1998’s Windows of Heaven and 2008’s Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty) are skipped.
The group transformed yet again in 1984, into Starship, and found even greater success on the singles chart with three #1s: “We Built This City,” “Sara” and the Albert Hammond & Diane Warren-penned theme to the film Mannequin, “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now.” Starship landed two more in the Top 10, the latter of which, 1989’s “It’s Not Enough,” closes this set. Two more minor chart entries and a greatest hits album were released before the band morphed into a touring unit for vocalist Mickey Thomas. The six Starship tracks here cover all three of the band’s original albums, but omit a handful of lesser charting singles. This thirty-three track anthology provides a compelling picture of a San Francisco underground legend’s metamorphosis into a 1980s commercial juggernaut.