Friday, 8 January 2010
♫ I’m often asked where I get my ideas for the newsletter top fives. Well, no, actually, I’m not. That would be silly. After all, it’s not as if I’m some boring talking head on one of those ‘top 10 irritating people of the year hosted by the guy or gal who came 11th’ programme. But if I was asked then I could certainly reply where this week’s top five came from: cooped up at a station waiting for a train to arrive. So here is the AAA patent pending handy guide to the best train songs in the world, ever (or so I would be saying right now if I worked for the Virgin compilation CD market). We’ve only got space for five so here’s a list of honourable tracks that de-railed just before publication: Train In G Major (slow blues from Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog On The Tyne’ album), Terrapin Station (on which the Grateful Dead retrace the old Settle-Carlisle route with a medieval tale of love and a terrapin holding the world on its back while the fat controller axes trains or something like that; from the album of the same name); One After 909 (Beatles number written in 1961 but not recorded till 1969 and ‘Let It Be’ – the one after 909 is 910 by the way. And there’s a wrong location, to rhyme with station dontchaknow); Hari’s On Tour (Express) (George Harrison – not that you can tell from this rather weird instrumental which kicks off the Dark Horse LP); Rush Hour Blues (A Kinks song about commuters – Waterloo Sunset is outlawed as being a bit vague on the railway front- from the A Soap Opera album); No Expectations (gorgeous song of defeat from the Rolling Stones, waiting on a station to be taken to the Beggar’s Banquet no doubt); Casey Jones (the Grateful Dead again, riding that train high on cocaine with a track from Workingman’s Dead clearly written just to use the pun ‘Casey you’d better watch your speed’) and RRRRRRapid Trrrrrrransit (phonetic spelling) (by train fanatic Neil Young who, despite writing several car songs – including a whole album’s worth with ‘Fork In The Road’ – has only written this one ‘train’ song to date; check out the Re-Ac-Tor album for more).
5) Homeward Bound (Simon and Garfunkel, 1966; Heck not this debate again – some of you will own it on the ‘Sounds Of Silence album and some on the ‘Parsley, sage’ album – though most of you probably own it on a compilation or film soundtrack anyway): The perfect song of restlessness and a need for stability, this song was reportedly written by a pre-fame Paul Simon stranded for the night in Widnes railway station during his 1964 sabbatical in the UK and desperate to get home after another low-paying poorly attended gig. Having spent the best part of a year virtrually living on the empty platform waiting for the one train an hour to pass through while there’s nobody in the ticket office yet again, it’s easy for me to see why this might have been a true story. Whatever the circumstances behind the song, this is a very touching song and given just the right sparse treatment by Simon and Garfunkel’s wondrous harmonies.
4) Last Train To Clarksville (The Monkees, ‘The Monkees’ 1966): ‘Paperback writer...’ No, we haven’t gone mad by quoting a song by the wrong. It’s just that Monkees writers extraordinaire Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart saddled, as they originally thought, with writing all the songs for a new TV series about pop wannabees decided to turn to The Beatles for inspiration and a lyric that one of them mistakenly misheard. Catching just the fade of the song on first hearing they heard it as ‘take the last train...’ and, on discovering their error, decided to write the song the Beatles track could have been. In a parallel dimension with trains. A driving, sorry training kind of pop song, effortlessly crafted, there’s a reason why ‘Clarksville’ became the debut single of the Monkees. And there’s a reason why millions of record buyers lapped it up – it was #1 in America a full month ahead of the TV series being screened in fact. Never has Micky Dolenz’s voice sounded better – and never have guitars been made to mimick the sound of a rollicking train quite so well.
3) King’s Cross Blues (Lindisfarne, ‘Back And Fourth’ 1978): Lindisfarne seemed to have something against trains, appearing for the second time on this list courtesy of this rollicking pop effort from singer Ray Jackson. Stuck on a train with a lot of know-it-all passengers who seem to be using the carriage as an extension of themselves, this song doubles as an interesting character analysis of humans herded together and made to think the same things. As for me, I seem to share the same philosophy. Fasttalkingquickpacingtrackbracing stuff.
2) Shock On The Tube (Don’t Want Love) (10cc, ‘Bloody Tourists’ 1978): What was it with train songs recorded in the year 1978?! Anyway, here’s another one: a typically funny off-the-wall sketch of life from the world’s most hilarious band (after the Spice Girls). A bored commuter dreams of the gorgeous girl sitting in the seat opposite him and unbeknown to him falls asleep, unaware that all the sexual shenanigans are going on in his subconscious rather than in real life. A great tune that runs at a hundred miles an hour threatens to fall off the rails but somehow makes it through all the twists and turns intact. A classy throwaway.
1) 5:15 (The Who, ‘Quadrophenia’, 1973): Out of my brain on the train! And now, standing on platform one, its Keith Moon’s last great moment with The Who, turning his kit into a train that never sits still for a minute. The song, of course, is from our beloved concept album ‘Quadrophenia’ (see review no 60) and sees Jimmy the Mod travelling to the scene of his past heroics at Brighton, stuck in a carriage between two members of the upper classes he’s been doing his best to avoid and stoked up on various pills. It’s really about the journey in his mind of course and the long long journey he’s taken throughout the double album from fearless ‘face’ trendsetter top mixed-up mod. An exhilarating ride, with The Who at their rock and roll best, worth a return ticket anytime.
ERRATUM: now it sometimes happens that writing about a topic this wide about groups this varied means that you miss out the bleeding obvious and horrifiedly realise about a week after you’ve written an article that something major is missing. So here i9s what probably should have been no 1 in our list: Last Of the Steam-Powered Trains (The Kinks, ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, 1968): A cornucopia of train sounds from the brothers Davies – harmonica, guitar, a steady drum beat and a lead vocal sung against the grain of the backing – all contribute superbly to the feel of this song about museum pieces that are being replaced by something far faster and more streamlined but also uglier and less individual. A very Kinks theme for a very Kinks-like album which is nearly all variations on this same subject.
And that’s that for another issue – see you in a fortnight’s time for a review of our other new purchase, the long awaited outtakes set from Stephen Stills’ Manassas band. Till then we leave you with news from Philosophy Phil, who has been tempted out of hibernation to give us this nugget of advice: and this is a true story folks: There really is a book out there entitled ‘Depression and Low Self Esteem – For Dummies’. I rest my case about the sad state of the modern world....see you next week!
You can buy 'Wild Thyme - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Jefferson Airplane/Starship' by clicking here!
Jefferson Starship “Original Album Classics” (Dragonfly/Red Octopus/Spitfire/Earth/Freedom At Point Zero)
Last issue we announced the exciting discovery of a 5 CD set by Jefferson Starship which finally saw these often-neglected albums restored to their former glory, without the cheap trick of weird two-for-one combinations ('Modern Times' and 'Nuclear Furniture' together - why?!?) or exorbitant import costs to ruin the day. And now, thanks to my Christmas stocking, I can review it and get re-acquainted with a lot of well loved albums I used to hear under the snow of vinyl crackling and under the sight of stains from whoever owned the LPs before I did and clearly didn't understand their value (we're talking both as music and as an investment here). And is say loved because these albums are loved by me – many in the Airplane community and most of the general public see these albums as a step away from the dangerously exciting grooves of the original 1960s albums and a time when the band became ‘safe’ and ‘ordinary’. I'd never lay claim to any of these records - even the best ones like 'Dragonfly' and 'Spitfire' being as great or as groundbreaking as the finest Airplane records. But these records are only ‘safe’ and ‘ordinary’ by Airplane standards – compared to anyone else these albums are still (generally speaking) a thrilling ride.
The first five records represented in this set may have taken only the expected 5 ½ years or so to make but they represent a ridiculously rollercoaster like journey through the fashions of the 1970s. The personnel is never the same from album to album (eg lead singer Marty Balin cameos on album 1, appears on 2-4 and leaves before album 5; other lead singer Grace Slick is there for the first four albums but is long gone by the fifth album in the set; only Paul Kantner is a constant from the Airplane days, alongside bassist Pete Sears, guitarist Craig Chaquico and keyboardist David Freiberg), which perhaps explains why I got so hot under the collar over those last batch of Jefferson re-issues (putting albums like the lyrical, prog rock ‘Spitfire’ next to the punkish ‘Modern Times’ or even the plain 'Starship' albums is like hearing the Spice Girls in a double album set with The Beatles). But these sets have done the band proud at last. OK so the only bonus tracks are some intriguing but ultimately rather badly rushed concert tracks on the end of ‘Red Octopus’ (and on the basis of both this and the official live DVD it’s probably fair to say the Starship were a band made for the studio rather than for the road) and the packaging is minimal – five small cardboard sleeves with back and front pics but no sign of the original origami-like inner sheets and inserts. All that said the sound is impressive throughout and shows some encouraging signs of re-mastering which you don’t always get for sets this cheap (I paid £12 for mine, which isn’t bad at all for five rare albums - and actually less than I paid for the joy of owning merely 'Modern Times' on CD; this back catalogue badly needs sorting!)
As discussed last issue, you won’t love everything about these albums and, in fact, they rise and fall pretty sharply in quality considering they’re made just five years or so apart. First album ‘Dragonfly’ is the stunner and the album I shall be concentrating on in this review – closer in sound to the Paul Kantner/David Frieberg/Grace Slick solo epics than the later band sound it’s a glorious album that hits the spot in almost every way: performance-wise, music-wise, lyric-wise, theme-wise. There’s only 8 songs – the shortest amount here – but every one’s a gem in its own sweet way. Almost everything comes highly recommended but the long awaited Kantner/Balin collaborative love song ‘Caroline’ some four years after their last and Grace’s fun but heavy rocking ‘Devil’s Den’ win by a small nose. Five stars for definite.
Next album ‘Red Octopus’ is the one that saw the band break big for the first time, being the best selling Jefferson-anything after perennial favourite Airplane album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ and contains lots of gossamer-light Marty Balin ballads that are amongst the best-crafted pop songs ever made. But that’s all you get: Grace Slick gets one good song with the opener and then goes to sleep, Paul Kantner is all written out after nigh on 7 years of dominating the band’s sound and gets only two co-writes to his credit, only one of these a vocal and worst of all there are two instrumentals that muddy the waters badly (but not in a blues sense, sadly) and ruin all the good work the album has built up to that point. The best of the bunch is, for possibly the first time on this whole website, the hit single: ‘Miracles’ is a classic Balin pop ballad while Kantner’s angry ‘I Want To See Another World’ and Slick’s cute but chastising ‘Fast Buck Freddie’ take second honours. Despite all the hoo-hah and strong sales, a measly 2/5 stars for this. Who came up with these album names by the way? I can’t work out if they’re terrible or utterly brilliant!
‘Spitfire’ is the start of the band’s decline in terms of both sales and influence, being something of a step backwards towards the psychedelic playground the band made their own a few years before. But it’s all the more enjoyable for that, with an eclectic mix of styles that pretty much nobody was managing in 1976: part punk, part prog, part pop, there’s even a 1950s throwback in there to kick things off. Say what you like about some tracks on the album (and it’s generally reckoned, probably fairly, that the two closing songs, the drummer-sung ‘Big City’ and pop monstrosity ‘Love Lovely Love’ are the worst this band ever got), for the glorious high points on this record I’d sit through anything. And those highpoints are, not surprisingly, the most psychedelic of the bunch: the glorious epic ‘St Charles’ which goes in several hundred directions at once and still manages to tie up all the loose ends by the close of the song, the poppy ‘Dance With The Dragon’ which pulls off the same trick in miniature and the tune of desperate optimism ‘Song Of The Sun’. An impressive 4 stars out of 5.
‘Earth’ is the odd one out of the bunch, even though on the surface everything seems the same as before. But most of the songs are by outside writers (something that, cunningly, you can’t tell from the back sleeve of the original or at all on this CD re-issue, as it’s the only album not to include writer credits on the rear), many of the songs feature the backing crew with only a single Jefferson lead singer taking part and practically none of the songs even begin to use the old Jefferson sound (or the new one for that matter). Actually, I take back what I said about ‘Spitfire’; songs like the one-line ‘Fire’ and the hilariously wrong-footed ‘Skateboard’ (WOOOAH-MAMA, HERE I GO AGAIN, TOO FAST FOR THE DOWNHILL, FASTER THAN I CAN WOO-AH, etc,) are even worse than ‘Love’ and ‘City’. Ironically given the title, ‘Earth’ is the least ‘humane’ sounding of all the Jefferson records without the usual Slick or Kantner anthems offering warning/hope about mankind’s progress in the past/present/future. The highlights aren’t many but the Slick-sung ‘Love Too Good’ and the Marty-sung 'Runaway’ - both by outside writers - do at least have a bit of emotion and pizzazz about them which the others sadly lack. A wonky 1 out of 5 stars (a comparative measure of course, before I get letters – if we were studying spice girls albums here then I’d be forced to make all of these albums 10/10 just to fit the darn thing in the same scale).
‘Freedom At Point Zero’ is one of those albums that blows away the cobwebs, updating the Jefferson sound musically without actually changing all that much lyrically. Very much Kantner’s baby, this is him and new singer Mickey Thomas (who unlike most Jefferson anything fans I do like a lot, if not quite in the same way that I adore Grace and Marty) dominating the sound which is brash, noisy and aggressive. A bit like the band were in 1966 in other words, but less trippy and much more one-chord like. But oh what a one chord that is! Look out too for the songs by bassist Pete Sears with his wife Janette; pushed out of the way by Slick and Balin songs for so many years but now suddenly, with those two members gone, they’re amongst the best writers in the pack, ably supporting Kantner in his quest to extend the band's template sound. Highlights include Chaquico’s ridiculous guitar solo in ‘Awakening’ – one of the best on record I’d go so far as to say – Kantner’s brilliantly joyous ‘The Girl With The Hungry Eyes’ and the good time ‘Rock and Roll’ (‘Mama said be a doctor son – a voice said follow the music, Papa said be a lawyer boy – the voice said follow the muse’) which is as close to a summation of what this website is all about as any other AAA track. Not for everyone – but if you can get over the shock of the sound and noise then this is a nice little forgotten album. 3 stars out of 5.
So that’s that. A one, two, three, four and five star album out of, erm, five albums. Talk about varying quality.
For the rest of the review we’ll be focussing on the most ‘essential’ of these LPs and the one that’s the direct link between the Jefferson Airplane and Starship sound, ‘Dragonfly’. But first, a little history because, well, we like history on this website – it kinda makes sense of the incomprehensible, where changes to social culture are so great it feels like you’re looking at another world entirely (eg such as why girl and boy bands were seen as a good idea in the teen-oriented 90s - sometimes recent history is the more puzzling than ancient history). Also I seriously doubt it if you've gone to the trouble of looking us up, but some of you may be coming to this band for the first time so we’d better do them justice. How did the Airplane, psychedelic pioneers in the jet age days, turn into a poppy interstellar starship? Is this an upgrade as the title implies? Or evidence that the whole exercise has just grown out of all proportion to its original job? Well the Airplane had been falling apart since pretty much day one, with founder member Marty Balin gradually ostracised in favour of rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner and then the band's new recruit with the soaring voice Grace Slick. Typically the band that were all about communication with the world in general stopped talking to one another and the band that were once all about brotherly love now struggle to stay in the same room as each other (the same thing was happening to The Moody Blues at the same time the other side of the pond and between them both bands had all 'peace and love' aspects covered). Solo albums taking the band's better material didn't help, with Marty and drummer Spencer Dryden both bailing out after the atmosphere in both the band and in the outside world plummeted somewhere around 1970. Against all the odds the band soldiered on, but the Airplane always prided themselves on being several bands in one and were split in two in 1972. While half the band wanted to carry on as normal, half wanted to go speed-skating and play blues in a new spin-off band called Hot Tuna rather than carry on with the Airplane’s uncompromising sound, which robbed the band of their most ear-catching musicians, namely Jorma Kaukonen’s trippy guitar lines and Jack Casady’s hard working bass. Freed of their responsibilities, Kantner and Slick became a couple and had a child before working on a series of three joint albums for which they were joined by just about everybody who was everybody in San Francisco in the day (the same cast who help out on various CSNY and Grateful Dead albums of the period). You can hear the unravelling of that relationship during the five records in this new CD set but in 1974, when ‘Dragonfly’ was born, they were still very much a close-working couple and were inevitably going to work together in something.
The name ‘Jefferson Starship’ was first coined in 1973 for the classic ‘Blows Against The Empire’ album (see review no 44) – but that’s a rather different band to what we have here, being an ‘ad hoc’ collection of all the musicians who wanted to hang around the Jefferson studio rather than go home. David Freiberg, late of Quicksilver Messenger Service, is about the only name to hang around – hired for the Airplane at the end of days to replace Marty Balin, he’s a keyboard-come-bassist who got a joint credit on the last Slick-Kantner album and was all set to be the ‘third voice’ on these early albums before Marty came back and stole his thunder - first in a cameo role on this album and then full-time by the next LP 'Red Octopus' (when he'll provide the 'hits' to counterpoint everyone else's 'weird stuff') . Joining too are another bass-come-keyboard player Pete Sears, whose driving beat is very like Jack Casady’s and mixed just as high but slightly more on the edge of being in control rather than out of control (a bit like the new band themselves). Craig Chaquico was back then a fresh-faced 15 year old (he’s still a rather fresh-faced 60 year old today, a good ten years younger than the original Jeffersoners) from Jefferson discovery band Steelwind and was a key part of the band’s sound across these five albums (he’s the only member from this line-up who was still there at the bitter end with spin off band Starship). Johnny Barbata should be wellk known to viewers of this website by now, having played a key roles in the history of CSNY in 1971 when Neil Young gets moody about Dallas Taylor’s drumming. That just leaves Papa John Creach, a septuagenarian who transcended the age barriers and played violin on a lot of San Francisco area bands and who - scary thought alert - was the same age then as most of these musicians are now.
That's the band members in place then - what about the music? Well, without Jack and Jorma pushing the music to the extreme Jefferson Starship are more 'normal' than the Airplane ever were. The recordings lose that feedback-driven energy and as a seven-piece rather than a six-piece the Starship sound is ever so slightly bigger than the Airplane's ever was. 'Dragonfly' especially sounds like a logical successor to Paul, Grace and David's three albums together, but with the politics and sexual double entendres turned down and the pop songs turned up a notch. It's a matter of taste as to whether it's 'better' - but the difference is that the Airplane were put together to revolutionise America and break down barriers; the Starship were put together to sell records In time the Starship will become just part of the furniture of 1970s/1980s bloated American prog rock groups (literally given the name of 1984's record 'Nuclear Furniture') but here especially the band are still quite a potent force, with an impressive sound and lyrics that befit a band who still care passionately about the world but want to leave the 'revolutionary' stuff to the younger bands around. This is an important progression: perhaps more than any other band the Airplane were unashamedly linked to the 'flower power' era and were still recording roughly the same songs at the end as the beginning (not to say there isn't a 'progression' or anything - there's several from folk rock to psychedelia to protest songs, but the raw band who cut 'Takes Off' can still be heard in the raw power of 'Long John Silver' six years ago). Hot Tuna, while ostensibly closer lined to the blues than psychedelia, never really shook off their 'made in 1967' tag and Jorma's guitar sound in particular will closely link the two bands until Hot Tuna's collapse in 1976. Starship sounds very much like an attempt to move with the times and as prog rock is basically a more laid back psychedelia without the drugs references, sitars or a feeling of doing something that's never been done before the course trajectory of the Starship makes sense (until 1979 when the starship undergoes a much-needed MOT and comes out as a sleeker, punkier model).
The Starship are often moaned at for becoming bloated and complacent - which is true in many later albums ('Earth', as we've seen, is diabolical) but not here. 'Dragonfly' features four great writers (Paul, Grace, David and - briefly - Marty) all offering some of their best material in years. The band are still very much a democratic unit (not like later when Frieberg in particular gets the raw end of every deal going) with five of the band members getting writing credits (this is the only Starship album where Pete Sears doesn't get one - he'll be the band's most prolific member after Paul Kantner across the entire eight record run) and the band sharing the vocal duties fairly equally (Grace gets three, Paul and David two, Marty one). Everyone gets a chance to shine and the meticulous sleeve-notes (erm, missing from the 'Original Masters' CDs we raved on about above - sorry about that!) even list who plays what as if it's of the most deathly importance (check out how often David and Pete switch between bass and piano!) The sleevenotes aren't quite detailed enough to lost who played what when but I'm willing to bet that all the band played on at least the first take live - 'Dragonfly' may have Paul and Grace very much in charge but it's a democracy, the way the Airplane became but wasn't at the start (when Marty was the main writing and singing star) and is so from the very first record.
Lyrically, 'Dragonfly' delves a touch deeper than most Airplane albums. Paul and Grace's albums had become increasingly turned on by such ideas politics, ecology and what it means to be a human living in America in the mid-1970s. While 'Dragonfly' or indeed it's sequels doesn't really pick up on the first theme much, the other two are here in abundance. 'Dragonfly' begins with a philosophical song about the different approaches to the world taken by the East and the West, Kantner throwing his lot in with the former on a wild song about taming the 'dragon' of life. 'That's For Sure' finds Freiberg sorrowfully comparing his point of birth with his feared death, both 'unsheltered and all alone' and even a catchy chorus can't cheer him up. 'Be Young You' finds Grace reflecting once again on greed, the wars fought over oil (yep, even in the 1970s we knew it was wrong) and an attempt to move away from the 'old man' generation of dog-eat-dog. 'Caroline' is a love story that's deeper than any of Balin's love songs before or since: this isn't just love, it's telepathy and re-incarnation, a song for two lovers who have danced aro8nd each other across the centuries and seen civilisations rise and fall while their love still continues. 'Devil's Den' touches on racism, classism, greed, corruption and a chess game played with two sides of the American Dream across the ages (if this was now they'd call it 'Dragon's Den'). 'Come to Life' touches on regeneration: the feeling that bad times are now being harvested and bad times are now over. 'All Fly Away' is about escapism, Kantner's despair over what the human race is doing to the planet leading him to yearn for the skies, to 'dragonfly away' to some better life or perhaps the future (it would have made a nice coda to the 'Blows Against The Empire' album). Finally Grace's 'Hyperdive' is about all sorts of things including a new 'dimension' to life only accessed at certain points in your life. As you can see we're a long way from 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off' and each of these lyrics is excellent in its own way: of all the albums I own containing lyric booklets this is one of the most rewarding to read. One of my biggest criticisms of the later Starship albums is how throwaway many of the lyrics are (even on some songs where the music is excellent) - never again do the Starship show the class and depth they do here.
Of course this album isn't perfect. Two largely piano based ballads from Grace is at least one too many. Even though the album running time is up to length (or there-abouts) having only eight songs means that 'Dragonfly' isn't exactly dripping with ideas. The album cover art is weird and doesn't fit the music at all (with what looks like a female Cyber(wo)man going for a walk in the sky; actually if any of you are fellow Dr Who anoraks enough to know the Raston Warrior Robot, on screen for all of the minutes in anniversary special 'The Five Doctors' in 1983, the cover looks very much like that). Even the title is suspect, although it is at least mentioned in the lyrics to 'All Fly Away' (where it also makes no sense whatsoever). Already a certain feeling of doing things by numbers is creeping in: compared to the Airplane even at the end of its days the band are sometimes sluggish and the rockers don't rock as hard as they could. But these are the minor quibbles I come up with when I can't find any fault with an album's foundation; effectively the building of this album is more than sound, it's just painted a few garish colours sometimes. All eight songs are excellent in their own ways, all of them go somewhere different (well apart from Grace's twin songs, sensibly separated between side one and two) and all of them are delivered by a band who rerally sound as if they know where they're going. Craig Chaquico is already the band's star, at home on a variety of guitars and playing a wide range of parts with different textures to them (while both Marty and Paul get credits as guitarists Craig plays all the guitar parts you remember). Johnny Barbata has nailed the new-look Starship's sound, playing simpler and with more space to accommodate all the players than he did in the Airplane's final days. David Freiberg and Pete Sears are both fine bassists and keyboard players, with the former thankfully getting the turn in the spotlight he deserves (even if one of his two vocals on the album is on one of Craig's songs). Paul and Grace are already dynamic enough frontmen and women even without Marty outshining them all on his cameo (so full of life compared to how he was in his last days with the Airplane across 'Crown Of Creation' and 'Volunteers'). Even Papa John Creach is at his best and least squeakiest here, playing on the tracks where he's needed rather than simply playing on everything. What's more the public seemed to like it too - its American chart placing of #11, just outside the top ten, is a huge improvement on the most recent LPs (Paul, Grace and David's #120 album 'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' or Grace's 'Manhole' which did only a tiny bit better). Overall 'Dragonfly' is the sound of a band going places and after a little disappointment about not going to the same places as the Airplane has died away, the places this record goes to are still exotic and beautiful enough for most tastes. The Starship are off to a cracking start - arguably greater even than the Airplane in 1966 - unfortunately the only way from here onwards is crashing back down to 'Earth'.
First up is  ‘Ride That Tiger’, the closest to a rock song that this band will come until their conversion to new wave in the late 70s. A collaboration between Kantner and Slick and based on the mystical sayings/doings of Eastern gent Biyoung Yu, this song sets out much of the Starship philosophy at the start: Western ways are too scientific and logical and after the maelstrom of the 60s the current generation should be looking towards eastern philosophy to understand the truth in life. ‘We got something to learn from the other side, we got something to give and we got nothing to hide’ might almost be a band philosophy. However, this is as bald a statement as the band will make on the subject, couching their future philosophy behind less specific constraints (or Kantner will anyway, the others pretty much ignore this trait altogether). The middle eight, quoted in our ‘key lyrics’ section above, says everything: western man will look at how a tear is formed and why in the scientific sense but in the east they would look at how and why in an emotional sense. The rest of the song, meanwhile, is about grabbing hold of life and riding it as you would a tiger: the journey may be rough and you feel like falling off but more of life and purpose will be revealed to you if you do. A great rock and roll number which swaps lines between guitarists Kantner and Chaquico throughout, it also features Pete Sear’s bass at it’s booming best. A fine start to any album.
 ‘That’s For Sure’ may be only the second track on the first LP by Jefferson Starship, but sadly it’s also the penultimate track the underused Freiberg will ever have to shine. The song is actually by the non-singing Chaquico but given to David to sing and also features his bluesy piano playing to set the scene in a majestic little opening section which gradually unfolds itself to reveal the main tune: perfectly in keeping with this song about birth and death and having nothing at both ends of the spectrum. Everything in between is just noise and experience that will be lost as soon as we die – an unusual subject matter for a song for sure, but it works well enough here thanks to the layers of the song that are built up bit by bit, from the slow entrance to the philosophical verses to the two-line booming anthemic chorus. Grace’s harmony is more fine work, dancing around Freiberg’s own lead in some kind of rhythmical tribal dance and the rest of the band cover the song’s strange varied sections with aplomb. Interestingly, though, there’s probably less guitar on this track than any other despite being written by the lead guitarist. Like many of the songs on this album, though, it doesn’t quite know how to end, simply repeating itself over and over. Still, though, it’s a very thought provoking track which is handled nicely by such a ‘young’ band.
 ‘Be Young You’ is a moody Grace ballad, firmly in the style of her earlier solo/Kantner album tracks. It’s title, which has little specifically to do with the lyrics, is clearly based on the eastern gent referenced in the opening track and is more of the Starship’s early philosophy. It’s not one of Grace’s best pieces, as despite a rather sweet little piano riff there’s not an awful lot of tune to go with the intriguing lyrics and the switch between melody lines isn’t as smooth as it ought to be, especially when Papa John gets a bit Creachy with his violin in the second-half. The lyrics are what save the song, however, with the ear-catching message that ‘tongue’s are made of different elements: that some speak rarely, some speak continually, some pour oil on troubled waters and some are made of steel.
 ‘Caroline’ may well be the album’s highlight, certainly it’s the album’s most loved song. Marty Balin, absent from all Jefferson records since 1969, ends his 5-year hiatus with the template for much of his work to follow. A gorgeous rocky love song, this collaboration with Kantner sports a lovely, ever flowing tune and some sweet little lyrics that might have been trite had they not been set to such harsh music in places. Switching gears from undiluted passion to joy to desperation and obsession depending on what guitar riff or bass solo is playing behind, this song is a rollercoaster epic that sets the template for many future epics (St Charles for one, possibly the best song the Starship ever did). It sounds like we’re overhearing a private conversation in fact, with a nicely rambling vocal line that only starts to rhyme and properly scan by the chorus. Intimate yet gritty, this is one of the best love songs ever recorded, if not quite written and despite the long six-minute playing time doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Marty’s cameo on the lead – this is the only one of the album’s songs he appears on – is a delight, full of a confidence we haven’t heard since about 1967 and surprising given that, unlike the Airplane, he’s very much a guest here rather than having a whole band built around him.
 ‘Devil’s Den’ is more or less a duet between Sear’s busy bass lines and Grace’s soaring vocal. The lyrics, like the more famous ‘Fast Buck Freddie’ on the next album, deal with the long-standing Slick theme of corruption in high places and how our leaders aren’t necessarily the best people for the job just because they say they are. This time the scapegoats are a monarchy – an unusual subject, this, for an American band but one that us UK citizens can more than identify with. A lifetime spent chasing ‘worthless paper’ and ruling subjects with an iron fist (‘don’t talk back or everything you need will go away’...) can turn even the nicest of heads, says Grace, and we should be most afraid of those who think they are ‘born to glory’. Pete Sear’s bass sounds like a rumble of warning, gradually spinning more and more out of control as the track gets more and more hysterical before finally ending on perhaps the ultimate Jefferson anything lyric of equality: ‘it’s a great man saying no colour no name’. One of the finest and most overlooked of all of Grace’s contributions to the Jefferson canon, this song more than deserves to be dug out by the current incarnation of Starship (who do a pretty fine version of ‘Caroline’, incidentally).
 ‘Come To Life’ is the last lead vocal David Freiberg will ever get on a Jefferson album, despite the fact he will stay in the band until 1984! It’s another fine, overlooked song this one, showing a real talent that should have been used more, that successfully distils the joy and optimism the band members feel at starting all over again with a new band and a new ‘look’. Reminding us that everything that comes to an end merely starts a new life as something else, it almost sounds happy as it jauntily informs us that ‘those good old days are dead and gone’. Like the last track, it’s held together by a very bass-heavy sound and a one-line chorus that comes out of nowhere like the rays of the sun over the horizon. Controlled chaos, caught somewhere between rock, Motown and pop, ‘Come To Life’ is another fine song on a fine album.
 ‘All Fly Away’ is a curious Kantner song with a rather pedestrian chorus but still plenty of choice moments among the chorus. Picking up the last song’s message about new opportunities, this track tells us that we can always free ourselves of our current situation by switching gears and going somewhere different, even inviting the audience to join in with the line ‘won’t you join with me?’ A kind of microcosm of the whole ‘Blows Against The Empire’ project, this is hippie utopia as escapism from a rather troubling world where nothing can be trusted and nothing is quite what it seems. There’s a lot opfr curious imagery in this song, not least the three ‘Byrds’ that encourage Kantner to leave his drab existence behind – could this be a reference to our old AAA friends and is the third one ‘who talked’ a reference to David Crosby’s later friendship and promises of hippie heaven that encouraged so many other 60s musicians to join in with the fun? Certainly the Byrds were responsible for getting quite a few American bands post 1965 to take up music, taking back the lead that the Beatles had kicked off there in 1964. There’s also a reference to ‘silver statues’ which may be the ‘silver suits’ from the Crosby/Stills/Kantner collaboration ‘Wooden Ships’, the current establishment turned into statues by standing still and not offering the changes needed in a changing world. An intriguing low-key track, this is the ‘grower’ of the album.
 ‘Hyperdrive’ is Grace’s farewell to the album, a collaboration between herself and Pete Sears which is this album’s other best known track, although to me it shares the fault of many of Grace’s pieces in sounding pretty similar to her past work. The spiritual link between the two piano playing musicians is evident, however, as the lyrics about space and time travel and being lost in both fit the tune’s lost hazy melody rather snugly and Chaquico’s energetic solo is about the only colour we do get in the full song. There’s also a curious falsde ending where the track seems to end in quite a full-blown natural ending and then Grace cuts in again, telling us ‘oh because I felt it, I believe it...’, as if the narrator has been so busy studying and describing what’s happening to her that only after its all over does she feel compelled to explain it. A track about new experiences, its far more imaginative and less literal than the other tracks on this album but still kind of fits the overall album theme of new things and learning by making hard decisions. Again the audience is involved with the final chorus: ‘anyone can go, that much I know’. Could it also be that this is the final Jefferson song about drugs, a mainstay of the Airplane’s material? There’s certainly something about this track that you can’t quite pin down and, whilst off-putting, it’s also intriguing.
So, what we have here is the template for much of the years to come, plus a lot of tracks based on the idea of new beginnings and experiences desperate to break away from everything that came before. In ‘Airplane’ terms, then, this is less the half-timid, half-brash battle cry of first album ‘Takes Off!’ than it is about underground-loving, imagination dwelling system changing ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ (see review no 15). Like that album it’s not to everyone’s taste and will never convert the masses in the same way that more ‘cosy’ albums like ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ and ‘Red Octopus’ did, but for the faithful this first flight by Starship is an exhilarating ride, updating the band’s sound without diluting any of the contents and stance. That’s all to come, sadly, as the Jefferson Starship gradually got more mainstream as the decade progressed, but for now ‘Dragonfly’ sounds better than ever thanks to some CD remastering and is well worth the cheap price of this set alone, if you treat some of the lesser albums as ‘bonus tracks’ to this one and nothing more.
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