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JEFFERSON STARSHIP “FREEDOM AT POINT ZERO” (1979)
Jane/Lightning Rose/Things To Come/Awakening//Girl With The Hungry Eyes/Just The Same/Rock Music/Fading Lady Light/Freedom At Point Zero
“Been too long in the green fields of rapture, been too long without being on the run”. And Jefferson Starship had: after six productive but difficult years as Jefferson Airplane - stalked by controversy, line-up changes and such a sea-change in the music world that they end up going from being at the head of the pack to the end by 1972 – Jefferson Starship had had it comparatively easy. Gold records, hit singles (something the Airplane never managed post 1967), a relatively stable line-up for some five years, respect from new music lovers who’d never heard of the Airplane and still with the kudos of their early records, stresswise the 1970s were a golden decade. But then the sea change happened. Punk and new wave came long to make 1960s survivors making prog rock seem as ancient as any dinosaur. A lack of interest and boredom meant that 1978 album ‘Earth’ became easily the worst release to have had the ‘Jefferson’ name to date. Lead singer Marty Balin decided he’d only agreed to join the band temporally and wanted to do something else, something ‘new’. Drummer Johnny Barbata (who’d been with the band since 1971) had a nasty car crash that left him unable to perform (his replacement, Aynsley Dunbar, is now arguably the biggest name in this era of the band although his success will all happen later). Other lead singer Grace Slick followed, after a nasty break-up with the Starship’s Paul Kantner and a year that saw her alcohol intake soar wildly, culminating in an infamous gig in which she insulted the front three rows of the German audience, reminded them repeatedly that they’d ‘been crushed by us in the war’ – and stuck her fingers in the nose of a guy in the front (‘because he had such a big nose I was intrigued to see if they fit’). Grace will be back, one miraculous soul-searching solo album (‘Dreams’ – see News and Views no 39) and the end of one Starship album sessions later, but for this album she’s gone too. It’s as if those comfortable five years in the sun had never happened on ‘Freedom At Point Zero’, an album as edgy and paranoid as any in the Airplane’s catalogue but with a more updated, modern sound.
This album tends to be a ‘turnstile’ album for fans of the Starship, the point where the band adapted a new wave sound that some old fans found ridiculous – and some newer fans thought finally gave life to a hoary old band. I’ve never really subscribed to either view: ‘Point Zero’ is certainly a take-all-prisoners sea change and if you listen to the Starship albums in order you won’t know it’s the same band after ‘Earth’ (unfortunately the ‘five classic original albums’ reissue is rather foced into ending with this album by sheer virtue of the titl, thus neatly annoying one half of the fanbase who hate the Mickey Thomas era and annoying the half who do love it by making people fork out £15 for just the one album, instead of splitting the band neatly into four ‘Balin’ and four ‘Thomas’ albums), but I have a sneaking respect for both this and the following three albums (one of which, ‘Nuclear Furniture’, is even one of core 101 albums at no 87) that most fans of the band’s earlier sound don’t share. The band certainly had to do something if they wanted to continue – and full respect to them for embracing the sound of the then-new at a time when they were falling apart instead of simply taking the easy way out. Paul Kantner, especially, hasn’t sounded this excited and inspired for some time (Starship’s debut record ‘Dragonfly’ I’d say) and the rest of the band acquit themselves well playing songs at tempos double the speed and quadruple the power and storm of old.
The one big loss these records suffer compared to their earlier counterparts, though, is the subtlety and range of albums like ‘Dragonfly’ and ‘Spitfire’. Jefferson Starship had been a byword for slowly escalating epics in their early period , songs like ‘St Charles’ that grew from a breeze and developed into a hurricane before slowly fading out again. You also had no idea, on playing a record first time, where it would go from one track to another; to take ‘Spitfire’ as an example it started with a retro 50s song about cars (‘Cruisin’), went into Barry White territory (‘Love Lovely Love’) and gave a rocker to the drummer to sing who’d never sung before (‘Big City) as well as giving us the usual Grace Slick piano ballads, Marty Balin love songs and something weird and imaginative from Kantner. The future Jefferson Starship records, starting with ‘Point Zero’ don’t have this so much: all the tracks tend to sound the same and the four albums don’t progress so much as develop themes that were raised in earlier records. New singer Mickey Thomas’ voice is as much a part of his era as Marty Balin’s had been and both emotionally and spiritually on these records he does exactly what he’s asked: sound at home on these songs written by people 10 years older than him, whilst bringing them to the sound of a whole new younger, hungrier audience. However he doesn’t have the shades of colour that Balin brought to the band (especially on Airplane’s first two LPs) and – for this record only – there’s no Grace Slick vocals to add any contrast. In short, it’s easy to see why non-believers think this album (and the following three) are just one big shout , but approach this album in a whole new way and you’d be surprised at how good these albums actually are.
Kantner’s songs, especially, have great fun playing with a new medium that should sound deeply alien to him (few artists get as prog-rock as Kantner at his best, with tales of flying saucers and hippie colonies on other planets), but his songs are arguably better thought out on this album than most of the Balin-era ones. We talked at length about ‘Lightning Rose’, the character who transcends her poverty-ridden beginnings to lead the nuclear-hit Earth into a brave new era on our review for ‘Nuclear Furniture’. This album is in many ways the prequel, a story of what could well happen in the present day, with the cold war reaching another spike (there’s an interesting train of thought that thinks punk in 1977 kept things short and simple because their songs might be cut short any minute by the sound of a nuclear warning siren). The album is called ‘freedom at point zero’ for a kick-off (not that ‘point zero’ seems to mean anything, but it just sounds like an Asmiov or Heinlein story set in an Armageddon-hit future) and has a cover of a young lad trying to get a multi-coloured futuristic spaceship to rise into the sky, while adults on an obviously military vessel (actually the naval cutter USCG Midgett, which had just been de-commissioned at the time) rush forward on the back cover to try and stop him. This is a modern twist on Kantner’s own ‘Blows Against The Empire’ for the modern age, a world where peaceful, trusting children are the answer and innocence and hippie ideals can steal one over crass capitalism anyday (a feeling that was in the air at the time – E.T. started filming at almost this time and note how that has an alien being befriended by children and we know he’s ‘doomed’ if he goes near the military ‘adults’). I’m intrigued why the front cover clearly shows a boy model though (it might have been better if this was the ‘Rose’ featured on these songs – a character surely at least in part based on Paul and Grace’s daughter China).
Kantner’s songs follow this theme heavily. ‘Things To Come’ is an edgy, ominous song where destruction happens before our ears, with a list of instructions that sounds like some mad, futile attempt at a home safety announcement in the event of nuclear fallout turned surreal by the horror of the events unfolding (‘wrap yourself in a cloak of fire and drive on through’) and an unknown figure getting us through it all (‘I’ll be your lifeline! I’ll be the fire in your heart!’) ‘Lightning Rose’ herself is the story of immediate post-annihilation, complete with a descriptive first verse that got cut out of the song for unknown reasons but was included in the album lyrics (and is re-printed in full above as the second of our ‘album quotes’), a ‘song of the freemen camps near the river’ when cities are crumbling and civilisation appears to be over. The characters sit around and talk about the best of the world that has been blown up in front of them, of the little human things, the ‘crazy dances’ humans do. Rose, ignored for decades by her own friends and family, comes into her own, diverting the path of a river so that the water will run straight into the blazing flames. ‘Girl With The Hungry Eyes’, the most overtly new wave song here, is winningly obtuse but does at least have the cry ‘I am the child of atomic war!’ as if Kantner is adopting the fears and cries of his children’s generation. Presumably too the girl with the ‘hungry’ eyes – hungry to rebuild civilisation all over again – is Rose herself. Finally the title track goes back in time to the present day, warning us listeners to ‘get ready’ because ‘there’s a ship comin’ in’, a song that sounds lyrically like the coda to ‘Blows’, with a fight going on between the good and spiritual and bad and warlike parts of our nature. It’s probably no coincidence, either, that Kantner revived ‘Blows’ a couple of years after this album was released with a hard-to-find sequel (‘The Empire Blows Back’) that’s not too dissimilar in mood to what we have here. A fascinating four-part mini-drama sprinkled throughout the album, these tracks are somehow both very Kantner and - with the new wave sound – very different to what we’ve had before.
The problem with this album, as with the three to come, is that Kantner is writing a quite different album to what the rest of the band are trying to make – and everyone else’s choice of songs are mixed. Bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears and his wife Jeanette step up to the void that used to Balin and Slick and come up with some winning pop songs that vaguely sound like what Kantner is writing, but these references to stars and planets and spiritual quests are far vaguer and make no mention of cold war of nuclear energy. ‘Awakening’ is still a darn good song, though, especially it’s extended coda that gives Chaquico a chance to stretch his guitar-legs and the rest of the band a chance to prove that even though the punks of the world can only last two minutes, Jefferson Starship can do this kind of thing for eight (the jury’s still out as to whether this a good thing or not). ‘Fading Lady Light’ is less successful, a ballad that sounds to me as if it was left over from the band’s ‘old’ sound and Mickey Thomas is at his worst here, miles away from the life that Marty would have breathed into this song. Guitarist Craig Chaquico’s pair of songs (co-written with Sears) are a harder-edges take on the same idea. Their ‘Rock and Roll Is Good Time Music’ might have nothing to do with the plot at the heart of Kantner’s music on the album, but it still kind of thematically fits as a joyous celebration of everything that was ever good about society at its best (we loved this ode to the power of music so much we used it ourselves for our last AAA Youtube video a few years ago). ‘Just The Same’, though, is as basic as it’s title suggests and stop-starts too many times for comfort. That just leaves ‘Jane’, a pop song written by most of the band apart from Kantner, which is actually about the weakest song here despite being the album’s big hit single – presumably chosen because it had the most in common with what other bands of the period were doing (which, as we’ve seen, is not as interesting as finding new ways to make the same music yourself and add your own identity).
Still, though, you have to hand it to both Sears and Chaquico: only a year earlier on Earth both songwriters were still trying out their first compositions and generally had only collaborated with one of the old Starship members (Sears and Slick used to make a great partnership, although when Grace returns to the band she usually writes with Chaquico). The pair of them were certainly thrown in at the deep end trying to fill the void of not just one songwriter but two and by all accounts the loss of Grace was sudden (Marty had, by contrast, been trying to leave for years). What surprises me is that the band’s ‘other’ songwriter David Freiberg didn’t get more of a look in on this album, especially given that as a former member of ‘Quicksilver Messenger Service’ he had a writing pedigree to rival most of the band(he even gets full co-credit with Slick and Kantner on their third album together ‘Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun’, even if he manages to escape his own ‘band nickname’!) Back when the Starship were very first put together and even in the very final Airplane days Freiberg had a much bigger role too: filling in the ‘hole’ that Marty had left, writing two of the better songs from the Starship’s debut album ‘Dragonfly’ and adding his own deeper bass growl to nearly all the band’s vocals, not just the occasional one. Inevitably, David’s role was reduced further when Marty rejoined the band (he’s officially only a ‘guest’ on ‘Dragonfly’ and only sings on one song), but what’s sad is that he’s either not given or refused to fill the huge shoes he was brought in to fill in the first place. Freiberg revealed later that he was unhappy with the band’s direction and leaves in 1984 when Kantner does – but, surely, he should have been best placed in the band to steer this new direction? The very first draft of ‘Jane’ was written by Freiberg alone and he clearly had a great ear for what the public wanted, but sadly from being a renaissance of creativity his lone co-credit on this album is the last he’ll ever get with the band.
As you’d expect, the band were nervous about creating such a drastic shift in their sound, but they also had confirmation that this was what the public surely wanted when ‘Jane’ surprised many to become a runaway success, making #14 in the US charts and doing respectably in the UK too. To put this into context, Starship hadn’t had a hit single since ‘Miracles’ in 1973 and even that song hadn’t done quite so well (the days of #1 hits like ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ and ‘We Built This City’ won’t come until the mid-80s). Clearly some people out there loved the Starship’s new direction (the album did better than ‘Earth’ had too, although that might just be because the band were together enough in this period to promote it properly) so it made senses to continue with what was at first simply a roll of the dice to see if Starship could still be ‘relevant’. This song’s success will have ramifications for the band for some time. The fact that it was old hands Frieberg and Chaquico who’d come up with the hit songs also changed a bit of the politics and hierarchy within the band. Kantner, as the only surviving member from the Airplane days, is clearly in charge for this album and is naturtally assumed to be ‘the boss’ – but starting with the very next LP (‘Modern Times’) he’s lucky to get a couple of songs on an album as the other band members gain in confidence (and Kantner’s songs sound more and more out of touch with the musical landscape). From now on Starship will become less about educational concepts and more about boogie music fans could escape to and Kantner will gradually become more and more sidelined from his own band (he leaves in 1985, taking the rights to the word ‘Jefferson’ with him, leaving the rest of the band to become the poppier, lighter ‘Starship’ and to bitch about the fact their old leader ‘had been writing the same song since 1967’). For now, though, it’s Kantner’s songs that clearly have the edge, offering an alluring, opaque take on the destruction of our civilisation and relishing a modern sound that few of the Airplane’s contemporaries dared to tackle (of the AAA bands only Neil Young ever updates his sound this radically in one go, on 1982’s ‘Trans’, and even he doesn’t follow it up, going in quite the opposite direction for the 1950s-style ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ the following year).
Not that you’ll notice any cracks if you just play this album on it’s own. The one criticism made repeatedly about the early Starship records was that the band was an unwieldy seven piece who sounded mighty slick (no pun intended) on record but couldn’t really play. The best thing about this record is the amount of live playing, with little overdubs or effects going on. ‘Hungry Eyes’ and the title track especially don’t sound like a bunch of 35-year-olds taking it easy – the backing tracks growl and pounce. Craig Chaquico, discovered by Kantner at the age of 15 and quickly added to the band’s line-up in 1973, has grown into a real guitar God, one whose fluid effervescent but clean style sounds fare more relevant here as part of a hungry rock band than it did as part of a prog-rock giant band. Dunbar’s drumming too is loud and heavy, recorded at a distance for the most part as if his thundering playing has to be taped down a corridor it’s all so loud. You can tell a true Starship fan by their ability to ‘guess’ whether its Sears or Freiberg playing bass or keyboards on a particular track too (the former is more on the beat as a bassist, the latter more eccentric and plays it like a guitar while interestingly the reverse seems to be true for the keyboard playing) and both sound more at home here, with the Balin and Slick-sized hole forcing them to the front, than ever before. That leaves Mickey Thomas: love him or loathe him (and I can often feel both feelings within the space of the same song) he’s exactly what the band needed to get on the radio in 1979 and – in this era at least – never gives less than his all (he’s genuinely excited by the band’s prospects in 1979, but it won’t be long before Grace is back in the band to cut his vocal performances in half and Mickey reportedly hated it whenever he had to sing a duet with her, despite the fact that the most famous Starship records almost always were made like that). For the most part Kantner seems to sit out the sessions though (was he the de facto producer of this record?) and his characteristic rhythm playing is nowhere to be seen (the few times there is a second guitar playing I’m pretty sure it’s Chaquico overdubbed).
The result, then, is a record that’s by turns powerful and peculiar. It takes some time and concentration to break through the ‘sound barrier’ of what the band have changed to and yet few fans on the look out for new wave-garage music like this will be more than a little perturbed at the mystical lyrics and future-settings that were always a prerogative of the old Starship style. Usually this is the point at which I say ‘it’s very good – but I’m glad all the Starship albums weren’t like this’; the only problem is that there’s another three albums almost identical to this one, which is a bit of a shame for a band who’d made it their life’s work to head in several directions at once. For all its bluster and attempts at aggression, however, there’s something likeable at the heart of ‘Freedom At Point Zero’ – a record that offers up love and gentleness as well as warnings about our possible future. And what else could the band do? The contemporary sound on this album might sound as retro as what the Starship were doing beforehand to our modern ears, but it’s far more in keeping with the Jefferson tradition to make an album like this one that draws a line in the sand between the past and present and it’s a lot better as a solution to hiding your hand in the sand and ignoring the changes going on around you. Compared back to back with ‘Earth’, for instance, the excitement, intelligence and most of all hunger on ‘Freedom’ is a far better combination – I just with the band had gone for a little more variety with the dynamics instead of keeping the album at an almost constant scream. But a scream is at least a sign of emotion and involvement – you won’t find any of those in the ‘green fields of rapture’; it’s a hard fought for sound that only comes with ‘being on the run’. Whilst not the greatest Jefferson album ever made, it’s nice to hear the band back in their natural habitat; hungry, mysterious and back to making albums that are capable of going out on a thematic limb so that you never quite know what’s coming next...