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Starship: Too Old To Rock?

March 16, 1986|DENNIS HUNT

Fossils. Dinosaurs who play rocking chair rock. That's how many fans--particularly young fans--regard the pop/rock quintet Starship.

They cattily snicker about "Grandma" Grace Slick, marveling that she can still sing rock at her age--46--though acknowledging that she does look nifty for that age.

The Starship's current success--two No. 1 singles ("We Built This City" and "Sara") and a Top 10 album, "Knee Deep in the Hoopla"--has quieted some of this disparaging talk.

"We're still fighting that image," complained lead singer Mickey Thomas. "People think we're all 50 years old."

They're not quite ready for retirement homes. Slick, the lone leftover from the Jefferson Airplane, is the only one over 40. The others are much younger. Thomas, guitarist Craig Chaquico, bassist Peter Sears and drummer Donny Baldwin range from 31 to 37.

"OK, so we're not kids," admitted Thomas, who's 35. "But it's OK to be in your '30s in rock 'n' roll now."

It's been open season on the Starship. Longtime fans have been sniping at them too. Many who knew the band in the '60s when it was the Jefferson Airplane and in the '70s as Jefferson Starship, don't like this current simplistic pop/rock direction. They prefer the old Airplane, which was rooted in psychedelia and free-floating rock.

"People tend to glamorize and romanticize the past," Thomas said. "If you go back and listen to a lot of those old '60s records, they don't hold up."

Before "Knee Deep in the Hoopla," the Starship was sputtering a bit. Its three '80s albums, "Modern Times (1981), "Winds of Change" (1982) and "Nuclear Furniture" (1984), averaged about one-half million in sales. For a veteran band, these were just passable figures. They suspected that their label, RCA Records, thought this crew of "codgers" was over the hill.

"RCA never came out and said we're getting old," Thomas said. "But I'm sure they had thoughts and conversations about it."

The pressure was on. "We needed a big hit album," Thomas said. "If it didn't sell, the members of the band might have decided it wasn't worth it to continue."

"Knee Deep in the Hoopla," was the Starship's first album without Paul Kantner, one of the founding members. He quit the band nearly two years ago, taking his spacey, quirky songs with him. Bassist Dave Frieberg left during the "Hoopla" recording sessions.

Without those two, the Starship soared in a different direction. "We had been doing too much of that heavy, message stuff, that heavy-handed sci-fi stuff," Thomas complained. "We wanted to get our feet back on the ground."

On this album, the Starship wanted to do something lighter and more accessible to the masses. "Our plan was to make a nice, uplifting, surface album, one that was fun and didn't take a lot of thought."

Though the album, produced by Peter Wolf and Jeremy Smith, has been maligned as slick, vacuous and woefully mainstream, it has sold 1.4 million copies and revitalized the band's career.

Since the late '70s, the Starship has had a revolving-door membership. As the Jefferson Starship, the band emerged from the ashes of the Jefferson Airplane in 1974, with a nucleus of Kantner and singers Marty Balin and Grace Slick.

Then the Starship began to splinter. Slick left in 1978. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar joined that same year. Balin dropped out a year later.

Thomas became the main Starship singer in 1979. A gospel-R&B style performer, he was then best known for singing "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" while with the Elvin Bishop band.

Slick returned in 1981. Drummer Don Baldwin replaced Dunbar in 1982. Then the big change came in 1984--the exit of Kantner.

Though respected for his talent, Kantner always had a reputation for being tough, demanding and difficult to work with. His battles with the other Starship members were notorious. He wanted to play more complex, esoteric rock while the others were eager to explore various popular styles. Another problem was that the other members didn't like Kantner constantly assuming a leadership role they didn't confer on him.

Thomas was blunt in talking about Kantner: "We're better off without him. We can move forward. If he had still been in the band, we couldn't have made 'Knee Deep in the Hoopla.' "

The band's conflict with Kantner was reflected in the music. The three '80s albums before "Hoopla" were chaotic, rambling and included hardly any good songs. Thomas, candid as usual, offered a reason for the subpar compositions: "To be honest, songwriting was one of the weaker elements of the band. We couldn't write great songs."

So why not use outside material, which distinguishes "Hoopla" from past albums? "That would have been the smart thing to do but Paul was against it," Thomas replied. "He demanded that a certain number of his songs be on the album."

The battles became nastier and more intense. Kantner finally quit and then engaged the Starship in a long, nasty legal squabble over the rights to the band's name and a settlement price for Kantner. Eventually the band paid him off and shortened the name to the Starship. Thomas liked the name change.

"We had been thinking about dropping 'Jefferson' anyway," Thomas said. "People associated 'Jefferson' with the old band. We wanted to get away from those old associations. I'm tired of people thinking we're dinosaurs. In spite of all we've done that's still there. Maybe it'll never change."

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