Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mr Mike's High School Record Collection: Starship - Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985)

Mickey Thomas plotting his takeover of the Starship...all too easy... bwahaha!

This is one I've been putting off for a while, waiting for the right moment to spring an analysis on an album that's sort of become forgotten...and from one point of view rightfully so. I'm talkin' Starship...Jefferson Starship. Or Starship Jefferson. An group and album that unwittingly symbolizes the baby boomer culture of the mid 80's. In the 60's, Jefferson Airplane made its name as a groundbreaking psychedelic band led by guitarist Paul Kantner and the Acid queen-Grace Slick. Jefferson Airplane were one of the flagship bands espousing the liberal mind expanding counter culture. Make love, not war. But by the early 70's, the Airplane was out of gas and had to come in for a landing.

But Kantner still had something left to say so he took some members of the Airplane (including vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin) and mixed it with some new blood (including guitarist Craig Chaquico and bassist Pete Sears) to continue his hippie free love dreams...by playing beautifully sappy soft rock. But by the end of the decade both Slick and Balin were gone and Kantner was looking for a way to adapt his band to fit the times. So Kantner recruited high voiced Elvin Bishop Band singer Anakin Skywalker, I mean, Mickey Thomas of Fooled Around and Fell in Love fame. Together, they transformed Jefferson Starship into a slick AOR band. And eventually, Grace Slick returned to add a dose of New Wave in the mix.

Through it all, Kantner used his band as a platform to push his political voice behind causes and politicians. But the free concerts and liberal politicking began to wear on Thomas and other members who were seeing their dreams of hit songs and big paydays disappear faster than hope for a Mondale Presidency. Soon, Kantner found himself the odd man out in his own band, so he left and took "Jefferson" with him. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, Paul Kantner was exiled to Tattoine while Thomas assumed his place as Sith Lord of the Galaxy (too harsh on Thomas? Probably, I don't think Thomas is an evil guy just someone who wanted his shot at the title of Pop Star). By 1985, the band was Mickey Thomas (vocals), Grace Slick (vocals), Craig Chaquico (guitars), Pete Sears (bass) and Donny Baldwin (drums) and they entered into the studio with Producer Pete Wolf (not the J Geils dude) to record their shiny new Pop album.

1. We Built This City - What does songwriter Bernie Taupin do when he's not working with Elton John? He writes stuff like Heart's These Dreams and this ditty, a song often considered one of the worst songs of the decade - "We Built This City". Considered arrogant by some fans who were tracing the evolution of the band (Slick's presence led people to think the statement "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" was referring to the San Francisco music scene and 60's rock) the song became Starship's first #1 hit single. Personally, I love this vapid Pop Rock joint that finds Thomas singing in a lower register than normal as he trades verses with Grace Slick. It's silly fun played with a big stiff beat and unintentional humor as Slick sings "Someones always playing corporation games / who cares they're always changing corporation names" with no apparent irony. This song validated the dropping of Kantner and effectively called out their hippie past and buried it with bags of money.

2. Sara - Peter Wolf had written No Way Out which was the hit off the previous Jefferson Starship album Nuclear Furniture (1983). This time, Wolf teamed up with his wife to put together another ballad that would become Starship's second #1 smash. Scoring a casting coup with snagging Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business) for the video, the pleasant song with a harmonica sounding synth followed "We Built This City"'s momentum and increased the band's stock with Pop fans. The soft, bubbling synths provided Thomas the foundation for his soulful croon to soar.

3. Tomorrow Doesn't Matter Tonight - One of my favorite tracks on the album. The third single was a Top 40 hit, a snazzy taste of Pop Rock with Thomas again out front and delivering a fine vocal. I may knock Thomas a bit for leading the charge that caused Kantner's ouster, yet there's no doubt I prefer his version of Starship versus anything Kantner did. I enjoyed "Girl With The Hungry Eyes" from Freedom at Point Zero (1979) but for the most part skipped Kantner's songs on Jefferson Starship albums. And with Kantner gone, Thomas had the juice to pick songs that fit his voice perfectly.

4. Rock Myself to Sleep- I've covered this song before, it was one of those tunes that people in the music biz seemed convinced would be a smash. Written by Kimberly Rew (Katrina and the Waves), his hard rock ode to self love allowed Grace Slick her first full lead vocal on the record. Slick often seemed resigned to the song when interviewed about it, her vocal was suitable though it stood in stark contrast to her New Wave lovin' ways or at the very least her normally personable delivery.

5. Desperate Heart- Anytime it seems like Michael Bolton is a curse on all things tasteful in music, I think of this ballad he co-wrote with Randy Goodrum. Another of my favorites from this record, "Heart" gave Mickey Thomas some of that Michael Bolton room to dole out a splendidly strained vocal.

6. Private Room - Outside songwriters can often signal a lack of ideas or a determination to sell out. Or both, as the lone Thomas / Chaquico song is this jumpy useless track that pumps up the tempo for a second more than anything. If you can't tell, I despised this song. Ack!

7. Before I Go - The fourth single from the double Platinum record was this mid tempo ballad with a recurring synth hook and a subdued performance from Thomas. Like the glitzy shoulder padded blazers the band members wore, "Before I Go" is built to please and manages to make it to an acceptable level of Pop.

8.Hearts of the World (Will Understand) - Grace Slick gets her second lead vocal on this AOR cut. Some of Slick's animated personality shines through the glossy production but she is definitely hamstrung by the bland lyrics and melody. After 1987's No Protection the lack of substantial lyrics became Slick's chief complaint and led to her quitting. Still, I enjoy this sunny dose of movie soundtrack-ish Pop Rock.

9. Love Rusts - After opening with an uptempo duet, Knee Deep in the Hoopla closes with a quiet duet. A great AOR ballad with a lot of drama.

And so Starship cashed in, Thomas's soaring voice fit the same audience that enjoyed Steve Perry but had it's own character to distinguish it from Journey. Keeping Grace Slick allowed the group to vary their sound a bit and most importantly, give them a built in ability to perform duets. Guitarist Craig Chaquico found his part in the group pulled back a touch to stay out of the radio friendly way of the jams. Like the 80's itself, the band turned its back on liberalism and raked in the almighty dollar for their trouble - much like the Yuppie culture that was popular at that time. Not necessarily a bad thing as with Starship I think the slicker and less political the better, it's just Reaganomics at work. Slick's departure would cause Mickey Thomas to write a song slamming both Slick and Kantner that was the title of Starship's 1989 album, Love Among the Cannibals. Stay the Course Mickey Thomas!

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