Monday, 7 October 2013
Jefferson Starship "Spitfire" (1976) (Album Review)
"Hey pretty baby let's go for a ride, cruisin' down the freeway sitting side by side, I don't care you can bring your dog too, but cruisin' down the freeways all I wanna do, let's go cruisin' baby!" "All the young dudes in jail will remember when the laws are finally changed, and they'll wonder about Oscar, who spent five years in a Texican jail" "'Nam vets, scared yet?, heroes, dreams and broken bayonets, no choice, no voice, but I got a reason in my heart to rejoice" "Dance with the dragon, it's the year that it breathes, dragon year, so clear, the sound of wings burning in my ear" "I can see by the smile on your face that you know what I mean, if you can hear me won't you come near me whenever you can? And it all gets down to love, love is hard" "I think I'm going to skip this shining rock across the water, hot water, and see if it comes straight back, straight up the way it ought to" "There was China, in her eyes, in a silk and velvet disguise, she was moving like a lady, looking like a dragon princess" "I was shanghaied by the way, hypnotised by the things she would say, in the moonlight on the water we were lovers in another lifetime, oh but is it only a vision? It feels like a prison, just the spell of a demon and I can't get away!" "Let me take you to another place, to another time, another world of people dancing in rhyme, dancing in the air, six fingered web, fair as the air, she is the storm bringer, the storm changer!" "In the wintertime, when the sun is gone, and I think I lost my way, door into the summertime feels so far away, bareback airborne lady, turn me into light, don't let it rain!" "There are people being born, doing crazy with their lives, watch them grow, watch them shine, but they must have time, we are not alone, we are not alone, and the mist seems like a ship tonight, we are not alone!"
Jefferson Starship "Spitfire" (1976)
Cruisin'/Dance With The Dragon/Hot Water/St Charles//Song To The Sun (Ozymandias/Don't Let It Rain)/With Your Love/Switchblade/Big City/Love Lovely Love)
"If science runs underneath man, and English and Maths walk with him, then the arts soar overhead like an airplane or a starship or a spitfire, giving him glimpses of what will be in the future"
How apt. The third and probably most overlooked Jefferson Starship album was named not for the hulking dragon on the front cover, the sultry slinky female riding it's back or some prog rock fantasy epic machine capable of ending the world (as per usual Jefferson style) but for a plucky little English plane that did a better job than most of its predecessors at half the cost. The seven-piece Starship were often so unwieldy a vehicle they either never quite managed to leave the ground at full throttle or got stranded somewhere in space for long periods of time, but 'Spitfire' is the last great gasp of the 'classic' Jefferson-something sound, before the band crash-lands on 'Earth' (not a metaphor: that's the name of the follow-up album) and then gets all sleek and modern. Nothing against the later Starship - unlike some fans I have a fondness for their music up to near the end, or at least 1983 - but like the 'Spitfire' itself there's something both grounded and other-worldly about this album. A lot was riding on it, a lot could have gone wrong and a lot did (the crumbling relationship between the two members at the heart of the band Paul Kantner and Grace Slick didn't help) and there were more than a few teething problems for both projects (although the relative lack of commercial push from RCA, which saw this album underperform compared to their previous album and only #1 LP 'Red Octopus', doesn't come close to the two years of angst and head-scratching before the spitfire plane first took to the skies). But 'Spitfire' at least helped win the war and turn the Jefferson Starship into a fully functional group in their own right, not just a recycled version of the Jefferson Airplane. The record deserves to be in a museum of rock's finest, even though there's precious few examples of the record still in air-worthy condition (and it's notoriously hard to find on CD, like most Starship albums!)
You see, by Jefferson mid-70s standards 'Spitfire' is a very down to Earth LP, a fighter rather than a dreamer. Yes there's a plea to world Governments inspired by a Shelley poem, a song about the astrological year of the dragon (more on that in our top twelve...) and a dream vision of a mystical saint that even for the mid-70s seems a bit excessive, but there's also some of the most earthy songs the Starship ever did: Grace turns in one of her fiercest rockers, Paul finally returns to the politics of the late 60s on 'Dance With The Dragon', drummer Johnny Barbata gets his only vocal and writing credit on any Starship album with a bluesy song more like those Jefferson Airplane spin-off Hot Tuna were playing in the same period and the album even starts with a car song as lovably dumb as any of the early Beach Boys songs about motors. Compared to the previous two LPs, which included songs about 'corners in time' and 'another world' made of peace it's as giant a leap in its own way as the 'new wave' era Jefferson albums will be in 1979. But it's still the prog-rock epics that float among the clouds in a way no one else can - and no one else was, really, as late as 1976. 'St Charles' is often heralded as the album's greatest moment and it's one of the greatest Jefferson compositions of them all, a mystical cloud of a song about a hallucination that might mean everything or nothing to the narrator when he wakes in the morning. There's even the first and in many ways greatest Kantner take on being optimistic about the future, the two-part epic 'Ozymandias/Don't Let It Rain' a plea to the world to get things right this time around (those of you who've read our reviews of later Starship albums will recognise the narrator's voice as 'Lightning Rose', the character who leads the world out of a third world war into utopia, although she hasn't been given her name just yet).
Perhaps not coincidentally, there's a feeling on this album that 'winds of change' (to quote a future Jefferson LP) are about to blow and that things can't last forever and 1976 was indeed a year of change. The Vietnam War, or at least America's participation in it, had finally come to a rumbling stalemated full stop in the summer of 1975, after a ridiculous amount of lost lives on both sides and no result to show for any of it. Richard Nixon, a president the Jefferson Airplane had warned the world about as early as 1970 and 'Mexico' ('There's a man called Richard and he's come to call himself king!') had been toppled in 1974 after the Watergate scandal and Republican successor Gerald Ford was due for re-election just a few months after 'Spitfire's release (naturally, after Watergate, the democrats won by a landslide). There's a definite sense on this album of 'we told you so!', with Kantner especially exasperated at the fact that the rest of America has taken six long years to catch up with what the counter-culture knew all along (that Vietnam was reckless and pointless and that hippie-hating Nixon was a crook). 'Dance With The Dragon' is a song that so often gets overlooked in the Jefferson discography, with its impenetrable lyrics and lack of big hooks, but its a key Jefferson song, yearning for the rest of America to embrace their hippie peace-loving selves in 1976 and admit that the youngsters (who were getting less young year upon year) might have got things right after all.
Ah yes, in case you hadn't guessed, 1976 was indeed the 'year of the dragon' in the Chinese New Year. We've dedicated a whole 'top twelve' to the chinese horoscopes of AAA stars this week (Grace is a ('white'!) rabbit, Paul is a snake and Marty a horse in case you were wondering) to fill you in a bit more (I'm a dog - shouldn't I be allergic to Cat Stevens?!), but the year of the dragon always sees key shifts in power and control and marks a real turning point in politics every 12 years. The year of the showman, when new charismatic leaders enter the scene and inject enthusiasm and excitement into a land where the people have become disillusioned and tired, it's easy to see why Kantner seized on this imagery as a sign that things absolutely had to change in 1976 (to give you a clue as to the power of the year of the dragon, the previous 'dragon' year was 1964, which saw more reforms made in the wake of JFK's assassination than would ever have been made had he lived and the year started barely a week before the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and injected hope and vibrancy back into America). Paul is clearly expecting his 'lightning Rose' character to come from nowhere and lead us to the promised land. Sadly it never came: as it happens, 1976 is about the only year in the second half of the 20th century nothing 'big' happened in politics (1988 saw the star of the gulf war and end of the cold war; 2000 was the terrorist build-up to 9/11), suggesting that Paul got it wrong.
However, there was one other big change happening in 1976 and it was blowing fiercely - it just wasn't a change that affected America anything like as strongly as it affected Britain (and parts of Europe). Punk was always going to happen sometime after years of prog rock excess and it made as much sense happening in 'the year of the dragon' as any, shaking up the old guard the way Kantner and friends had 12 years before (sadly what we got 12 years later - Stock Aitken and bleeding Waterman - was hardly in the same league). Like many American bands the Jeffersons are largely immune (it was 'dinosaur' bands from Britain who were killed off, although even then the best selling single of punk's 'year zero' in the UK in 1977 ended up being Paul McCartney and Wings' deeply un punk-like 'Mull OF Kintyre'), but the winds of change could be felt and Kantner especially pulls heavily in that direction after the band lose Grace, Marty and Johnny in two years' time and effectively starts again anew (see 'Freedom At Point Zero').
There's a fourth probable reason why change seems inevitable on this album. As all good Jefferson fans know, when things start looking really good for this band the wheels will suddenly come off without warning. It happened most famously in 1967, when the band started the year riding high with 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody To Love' and had Marty Balin as their main vision and creative leader, as prolific as any other writer. The band then ended the year in disarray, with Marty managing a couple of co-writes at best and an eccentric album of brilliance ('After Bathing At Baxters') that was guaranteed to put off all but the hardcore fans (in case any of you were wondering, 1967 is the artistic 'year of the goat' when everyone finds inner peace and serenity, which makes perfect sense; however the same sadly did not apply for 1979, 1991 or 2003!) The Starship had just had the only #1 album of their career with 'Red Octopus' in 1975 and Marty's hit single 'Miracles' sold as many copies as 'Rabbit' or 'Somebody To Love' - pretty good going for a band who, technically at least, were only on their second album. However RCA got their kind-of revenge on the band for the stunt they pulled with 'Baxters' and decided simply not to promote 'Spitfire' (the follow-up) properly. A horrified band looked on as precious few of their fans even knew it was out and the record stalled at #3 - not a bad showing, but clearly shy of the #1 they were expecting (and would have got had RCA spent a bit more on the band's commercial budget). This created a sourness between band and label, even though the Airplane had done far worse by RCA in 1967, and the band even called in the company's audits to see how much had been spent on the album's marketing (the two come to a truce when RCA agrees a monstrous budget for next album 'Earth' - as it happens this record doesn't sell that well either, but more because it's awful and easily the worst Jefferson album than because of any lapse on RCA's side). All this bad blood is deeply unsettling and it's no surprise when Marty, who only ever agreed to join the band temporarily, hands in his notice in 1978, two short years after this album.
Grace won't be far behind either, for reasons starting round about here. She and Kantner had been an item for a long time now: Grace admits in her autobiography 'Somebody To Love?' that she slept with everyone in the first Airplane except Marty (with whom she was singing intense emotional duets half the time), but it was clear from the first that she and Paul were soulmates. The pair never married but were a couple for a longer time than most marriages last and their daughter together, China (who appears as a baby on the cover of their joint record 'Sunfighter' in 1971 - see news and views 167 for the full story) is now a feisty five-year-old who even gets a co-credit for her suggestions for daddy Paul's song 'Don't Let It Rain'. Fans at the time probably didn't realise it (unusually, there's very few Kantner-Slick collaborations around - the few that are appear on 'Sunfighter' - and the Jeffersons in both incarnations were a very collaborative band, very generous with the writing credits), but Paul and Grace are at the start of a long process of breaking up. Grace's two songs for this album are both about breaking out and finding someone new ('I don't wanna see him go....but this is the day, this is love!') and she seems very subdued for this record with just the two lead vocals to Paul's three and Marty's four (despite the fact that the album starts with the sound of her giggling - she clearly finds the idea of the straightforward Marty recklessly cruising down the highway hilarious, perhaps because of her own many run ins with the law whilst driving cars; famously on one occasion in this era she got done for 'dangerous driving' by one vengeful policeman despite not even being in the car - instead she and Paul had had an argument in which her car keys had been thrown in the grass by the roadside and when a policeman came by to ask her what she was doing at 4 in the morning she replied 'I'm picking up daisies - what do you think I'm doing?!') There's a general rule that Paul writes songs about the 'outer' world, about society and it's evils and its impact on human beings and that Grace writes about the same ideal but from the opposite end of the spectrum, with songs about inner life and individual circumstances and how they impact on society. Never has that complementary divide been better explored than on 'Spitfire' where Paul returns to his political best after being subdued himself throughout 'Red Octopus' and Grace is so overcome by the changes in her life she's writing them out of her system. Being stuck in the same band must have been dreadful, especially as Grace was at the time going out with the band's lighting director Skip Johnson, and it's almost a relief for Grace when she gets fired from the band after going on stage drunk in Germany in 1978, insults the audience by telling them they were all responsible for losing the war and goes on an alcohol-fuelled expedition up a fan in the front row's nostrils. Another non-show in Germany, because Grace is too ill to play, results in a riot that sees all the band's equipment smashed. Grace will recover, record a simply superb solo album ('Dreams') riddled with angst, guilt and honesty and then rejoin the band full-time in 1982 much happier than before, but the seeds of what was for a time quite a nasty split are sown here.
That's the front row of the band taken care of, but what about the back? Well, sadly, compared to the all-band 'Red Octopus' (where each band member gets at least one song to shine on) there's not as much for guitarist Craig Chaquico and the two bassist/keyboardists Pete Sears and David Freiberg to do here. Chaquico does get a few co-writes, becoming Kantner's chosen writing partner of the period, but no songs of his own (in fact Paul and Grace have switched writing partners, Slick now writing with Pete Sears). Poor David Freiberg, who once got equal billing with Paul and Grace on their 'Baron Von Tollbooth ands the Chrome Nun' album and who once appeared to be filling in Marty's role for the band on 'Dragonfly' before Marty himself rejoined properly in 1975 is now relegated to one co-credit with the rest of the band on 'St Charles'. Violinist Papa John Creach has also finally retired, after joining the Airplane in 1972 at the age of 55 - which would make him about the youngest member of the band if he'd joined today but for a 1970s rock band was seriously old. Keep an eye out for two other names in the writing credits though, one from the Jefferson's past and one from their future: Joey Covington, who worked as the Airplane's drummer in 1971 and wrote and sang three songs on that record to 'fill' the gap when Marty Balin quit ends up co-writing this album's biggest hit 'With Your Love' with Marty himself (when you're part of a Jefferson family, you're family you're life - even if you're not part of the group!) A hit writer for the future is Balin's protégé Jesse Barrish, who writes album close 'Love Lovely Love' and co-writes the lyrics for 'St Charles': he'll repay the band's boost to his career by writing the band's second biggest hit as the Jefferson Starship, 'Count On Me', in 1978.
Overall, then, 'Spitfire' is an album of change. I don't love it consistently the same way I do 'Dragonfly' or many of the Kantner/Slick/Freiberg/Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra spin-offs of the mid-70s. After all, this is a record where Grace Slick, one of the greatest writers of her age, is all but silenced, where the drummer gets a once-in-a-lifetime cameo (on a song that's pretty good considering but so left-field compared to the rest of the band's material it was never going to work) and with not one but two slightly dodgy cover songs. But Paul, at least, is on top form, Marty isn't very far behind him and the album's high points such as 'St Charles' 'Dance With The Dragon' 'With Your Love' and 'Ozymandias/Don't Let It Rain' are as great as anything in the Jefferson canon. If you're a devoted Airplane fan who hates everything the band did after 'Volunteers' in 1970 this album probably isn't for you, but if you're content to accept that the Jeffersons couldn't keep up that intensity and groundbreaking start forever then 'Spitfire' is one of their better offerings and an album where the DNA shared between Airplane and Starship is at its most obvious. Dare I say it, 'Spitfire' is also tonnes better than 'Red Octopus', the million-selling album that actually waters the Jefferson down far too thinly for my ears; by contrast 'Spitfire' gets the balance about right, Marty's songs rooting the band to the ground and Kantner's songs letting them soar; it just doesn't quite have the consistency of the band's first and greatest album 'Dragonfly' where all three singers (plus the under-used David Freiberg) are all on top form at the same time.
'Cruisin', opening wicked Grace Slick laugh and all, is the silliest the Airplane/Starship have been for some time. To be fair, Marty sounds as if he means every word of this cruising-for-girls-having-a-good-time song and both Craig Chaquico and Pete Sears excel themselves on guitar and bass respectively, coming up with one of the band's slinkiest riffs. But the thought of the normally romantic crooner lead singer Marty Balin, who usually sings about 'miracles' or the sanctity of love singing about going for a car ride 'cruising down the freeway sitting side by side' inspires the rest of the band to laughter. Just listen to the daft backing vocals from Grace, Paul and Marty ('Wa-ha-wa-ha-wee-ooh!') and Grace putting on her deepest, most macho voice over the fadeout (and sounding not unlike Louis Armstrong in the process, worryingly). In fact the fadeout is the best thing about this song, as Marty stops trying to stuff our head with nonsense and we can settle in on the Starship kicking up one of their better grooves; full marks to whoever took the decision to let this run for well over a minute after the song itself actually ends. As you may have already guessed, 'Cruisin' isn't the deepest or most detailed song by one of the most intelligent bands around and sounds deeply out of place if you're listening to these albums in order (well, yes, some of us do even in the sampling age!) as well as with everything else around in 1976 (this is such a prog-rocker's idea of a fast paced album opener - compare with the more new wave 'Jane' that kick starts the Starship's 'Freedom Of Point Zero' in three album's time). It is a lot of fun, though, and it's nice to hear the band get the balance about right, taking this car-and-bars song seriously enough to do the groove justice and just silly enough to let us in on the joke. Incidentally, the song is credited to a mysterious 'Charles Hickox' who never seems to have been heard of again: he seems to have written no other songs (an internet trawl on his name just gives me list of links to this album - or the olympic swimmer of the same name; even the usually reliable 'AllMusic' site sensibly gives no writing credit whatsoever for this track) and given the Jefferson's sense of humour and their reputation for coming up with lots of wild and wacky pseudonyms over the years ('Be Yong Yu' anyone?) could this be another in-joke? (Did no one want to admit to writing this song?!)
'Dance With The Dragon' is a much deeper, much more 'normal' composition and easily one of the highlights of the album, a sprawling epic in many parts that might or might not fit together (a kind of Suite: Dragon Blue Eyes' if you will). Paul Kantner had sat out for much of 'Red Octopus' - the least political Starship album of their career and probably not coincidentally their best-selling - but is back to his best here on a fascinating elliptical song that pits American tradition and myth ('Yankee doodle get it up! Stick a feather in your hat!') against American reality ('They'll wonder about Oscar, who spent five years in a Texican jail' - the facts are a bit vague but it looks like this was another case of the law using the maximum prison term for what was a very small quantity of soft drugs; 'they gave him five for one' in John Lennon speak). Kantner's usual optimism takes over (despite the 'world-weary 'alright' that starts the song and makes it sound as if nothing will ever be alright again) and before too long he's dreaming of a better future where mankind realises it's better to love, even if 'love is hard'. The reason for the narrator's hope for the future is that this is the year of the dragon, the time when everything can change, and that if mankind can 'ride' the changes (the same way he 'rode' the 'tiger' on 'Dragonfly') then there is still a future for him. A 'dragon' year is traditionally one of beginnings and endings and Kantner isn't entirely sure which 1976 will be, with Nixon deposed and Vietnam over on the one hand and Gerald Ford not an awful lot more compromising towards hippie philosophy on the other ('Is this a rising sun? Or a setting sun?'), torn between the promise of how great the American Dream was and is and how shoddily so many of its inhabitants are still being treated. Some of Kantner's poetic lyrics on this song are him at his best ('Nam Vets? Scared yet? Heroes, dreams and broken bayonets, no voice, no choice, I've got to find a reason for my heart to rejoice'), although they aren't quite all as inspired as this second verse. The music is as turbulent as the lyrics, built on a staccato riff that lets the Jefferson group chorus sound like some Wagnerian death chorus intoning on the future of their homeland. Listen out for co-writer Marty's strong presence on the vocals, which recall his sterling work on 'Volunteers', calling out for change (Grace gets a co-write too). The co-credit to Sears and Chaquico for the music suggests that they came up with the groovy twin bass-guitar attack for the song (was this song originally part of a jamming session that Paul started putting words to?) and Craig turns in another classy solo, as ever somehow managing to channel Kantner's major ideas without losing touch with the song's commercial flow. The ending of the song comes as a surprise: usually Kantner's 'epic' songs end with regime change or destruction, but this time the end is ambiguous and may be about a different topic entirely. 'I can see by the smile on your face that you see what I mean' is a much more personal touch than on his usual songs and recalls Crosby's opening incantation to their joint written song (with Stills) 'Wooden Ships' about similar civil war and divide turned into peace ('If you smile at me I will understand, because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language'). Indeed, so unusual for Kantner is this section that it may well be Grace's work and not originally about the 'year of the dragon' at all but about her split from him (as we've seen, Paul tends to write the 'outer' songs and Grace the 'inner'). The opening swirl of 'love is hard' works for both themes though: if mankind is to have a future it will have to be through love and even though love is all you need you can't always get what you want (to confide a few AAA song titles). Ellusive, contracted (some of the verses are more like Japanese haiku poetry than regular lyrics) 'Dance With The Dragon' is one of Kantner's strongest songs of the 1970s and one of the band's best as a whole.
'Hot Water' is the third song on the album in a row to be built firmly on a 'groove' and the interplay between the song's two writers Grace on vocals and Pete Sears on bass at the song's opening is its greatest moment, sounding raw and uninhibited, quite unlike the usual Starship polished sound. Alas the song itself isn't one of Grace's best, being a simple song about wanting to dive headfirst into a relationship but not being quite sure what to expect (hot refreshing water or cold water that will dampen her spirits?) The metaphor of love as a body of water is extended to the idea of skipping a pebble across a sea of love because there's nothing better to do and 'see if it skips straight back'. Grace's narrator is unsure whether this is really wants and whether she wants to upset her quite settled life, but to have true continuity she needs more love than she's getting right now and might well find it in the arms of someone new. The mix on this album cleverly masks Grace's voice in the background slightly - on any other Grace Slick song that would be a travesty, but here it seems to keep her distant and unconnected, trapped in the middle of the rest of the band's groove and trying to find her way out. That also makes her sound slightly unsure and hesitant, despite the fact that she sings this song with her usual confident vibrato and purr. Really, though, the best thing about this song is the sound of Jefferson Starship performing as a streamlined funk power trio of Sears, Chaquico and Johnny Barbata nailing the song's tricky riff.
'St Charles' is another collaborative epic, though it mainly seems to have been written by old friends Paul and Marty. Sharing similar chords to another Balin-Kantner classic 'Caroline', it's another song about unrequited love although this time it's much more unworldly and mystical. The song does in fact sound like it was inspired by a real dream Paul had, perhaps with visions of his daughter China grown up ('There was China in her eyes, in a silk and velvet disguise, she was moving like a lady, looking like a dragon princess') and 'another world' which, in typical Kantner style, turns out to be utopia brought on by a 'storm bringer' who might or might not also be a vision of his daughter ('Lightning Rose' again?!) The St Charles of the title is a mysterious figure the narrator calls on to show him love, a sort of cupid for the modern ages, although whether he is real or another hallucination, good or bad (he's referred to as a 'demon' at one point) - and whether he does in fact appear or not - is never explored. There are at least eleven candidates for the title 'St Charles' (from a nickname given to Charlemagne to Blessed Charles The Good, Count Of Flanders, but none of them seem to fit the song's theme of romance and hallucinatory visions (almost all of them became saints for massacring people who weren't Christian for starters) - chances are it's just a 'name' that fitted the song, the same way as there isn't really a 'St Judy' with a comet whatever Paul Simon once sang (and how many of his fans insist that there is one!) Musically this is more like Pink Floyd than the Starship, the song starting as a light, fluffy, fragile cloud and growing bit by bit into a gritty power rocker. That sort of thing is hard to pull off but the band are at their best here and turn in one of the best group performances of their career, turning the musical setting verse by verse from a 'dream' to a 'prison' to a 'stormbringer'. It's interesting to note that, like Grace, Paul seems to be reaching out for another love in his life at this turbulent time, but then again the 'dragon princess' could easily be Grace herself (or, indeed, Marty could have more than a little hand in these lyrics as they aren't far removed from his usual work either - although the science friction elements of the song surely belong to Kantner). This is a magical little song with lots of great parts to it, but none better than the time when the band seem to soar away on a CSN-like chant of 'dream', leaving Paul to narrate like some 1940s radio announcer ('Let me take you to another place, to another time...'), only for the mood to change in an instant on the word 'stormbringer', ushering in one of Chaquico's most intense guitar solos. Simply superb, even if this is the sort of a song that only its creators will ever really know what it is all about. Incidentally, co-writer 'Thunderhawk' seems to be another of those mysterious Jefferson pseudonyms to me - was this Kantner's tribute to the figure he thought had really treated him to the dream in the first place?
Side two keeps up the good work with the final Kantner epic 'Ozymandias/Don't \Let It Rain' (some CDs register the two songs as different tracks - some all as one long medley). To deal with the songs in order, 'Ozymandias' is a moody invocation that sounds as if it's addressed to the Gods but, as the song gets going, is clearly written with politicians in mind (same thing really, in their heads at least). Ozymandias may refer to the Egyptian ruler better known as Rameses III or the Percy Bysse Shelley poem about the inscription on Ramese' statue (and how all leaders, however great in their lifetimes, all become crumbling sand and fading inscriptions with time). The narrator might well be Rameses himself, reflecting on how 'in wintertime the summer is gone' and that for all his power 'I think I lost my way'. Alternatively, this may be Paul himself mourning the loss of Grace. More on that in the next song...While you're here, though, listen for the music line that Paul sings on this by the way - the first two lines seem to have been 'stolen' directly from the Beach Boys' 'Gettin' Hungry' from 'Smiley Smile' (1967) ( if you happen to know both songs simply sing 'oh-oh-oh-oh-oh come the night time...' as the third line and you'll see what I mean). Amazingly, this brief song is credited to no less than six members of the band (everyone but Marty in fact), suggesting that it was born from another band jamming session that Kantner later built on.
'Don't Let It Rain' is the Starship equivalent of The Who's 'Won't Get Fooled Again', telling the same tale that however badly things look there will always be someone to step into the gap to turn things around (they just aren't as cynical as The Who and their take that any politician who wants the job will be as bad as the ones the people have just ousted from power). A promise to someone (daughter China? the 'next generation'? Us listening to this record?) that the band are behind us and together 'we can soar to the top of the world', this song features another of Kantner's most fascinating lyrics. Long known as an anti-religious band, this is the closest we get to an answer about God from Kantner on any of his albums and his take on the subject is much more detailed and hopeful than Slick's and almost traditional ('There's curtain high in the corner of the sky, someone's behind it I don't know who, it might be love but I'm not quite certain...'). The song then pleads to the mysterious figure in change not to 'rain on us tonight' - the narrator is full of his own problems and after such a turbulent few years 1976 needs to be a year for positive change, not more evil.
A third section then adds more mystery to the song. The chant of 'Childhood's End' (also the name of a Pink Floyd song on a similar theme) seems to be about daughter China again, now at the age of five and on the verge of a bright future (or so dad thinks anyway; the fact that she's given a co-credit for this song - easily the youngest writer credited on an AAA song - shows just how much she was in Paul's thoughts at this point); it wouldn't have been lost on science fiction fan Kantner, however, that the song title is also the name of a book by Arthur C Clarke in which a group of aliens take over Earth and bring it peace and happiness but at the same time lose all human identities so that it seems like every other inhabited planet in the solar system (still sounds a fair swap to me) (The children are the 'Earthlings' in general in this context, by the way). Sounding like an episode of 'The Tomorrow People', Kantner then tells us that despite it all he's still hopeful for the future; that 'there are children being born who will amaze you with their minds, leave them be, watch them grow, let them fly'. Given that just five years before Paul was singing (and writing) 'We are the present, we are the future, you are the past - pay your dues and get out of the way, 'cause we're not the way you used to be when you were very young' its fascinating to see him embrace the fact that he isn't part of a 'youth' movement anymore but a father and maybe even a father figure. 'We are not alone' runs the chorus, which starts off as an eerie shiver but soon becomes triumphant, promising salvation to us all because there surely must be other intelligent life out there somewhere - and surely they won't let us suffer in silence anymore. A sound effect of children playing (which sounds like one first used on 'Blows Against The Empire') is a neat touch for the quieter reflective passage but it's the moment when Paul, Grace and Marty in tandem suddenly swoop and soar on the 'we are not alone' passage that will stay in your memory long after the record stops playing. One point though: what does Paul sing at 4:50 it sounds to me (and most 'lyric' website too apparently) as if he is singing '...And the sky tastes like a ship tonight', which must be one of the weirdest AAA lyrics yet if that's right (perhaps Jamie Oliver's really an alien - he certainly doesn't seem to live on the same Earth as the rest of us given some of his recent comments about poverty!) The song seems as if it's going to fade away quietly, the same way as 'St Charles' and 'Dance With The Dragon', but no - instead the song hits another crescendo and a loud 'WO-A-O-AOH!' finale that sounds like the end of a modern-day musical (but better). In all, 'Ozymandias/Don't Let It Rain' is another masterpiece, as open-ended as any of Kantner's best songs but with a drive and purpose if you get into the lyrics fully. After all what a vision: the song starts with the worst of the Earth and ends with the best from outer space; let's hope Paul writes a sequel one day about the 'change' that takes place near the end of the book...
'With Your Love' is another album highlight, although it couldn't sound less like the last song (the best and worst thing about Jefferson Airplane/Starship is that they're at least four bands in one). Marty's latest love-lorn ballad is clearly written to replicate as closely as possible the success of his two previous ballads for the group ('Miracles' and 'Tumblin'). To my ears though, it's better than either song, with a lovely melodic phrase that sounds almost McCartneyesque in its memorable simplicity, a catchy chorus and the return of our beloved middle eights. Lyrically this is terribly simple, but it's the sort of lyric that needs to be to fit such a fluffy light tune and there's a place on albums for some light songs now and again as long as they're not all light and fluffy. I'm less keen on the orchestra that's a tad on the suffocating side - and the 'wooooooh' sudden slowed down ending sounds like it belongs on a John Denver record. But this song actually deserved much better than the still impressive #12 it made on the singles chart in 1976 and is sung much more believably and intensely by Marty than the better known 'Miracles' - in fact this vocal is one of his best. By the way, listen out for Marty murmuring the words 'Got to go now...' under his breath at 1:55 (presumably him leaving the studio, as it doesn't fit the rest of the song).
'Switchblade' is one of those Grace Slick songs that tend to get overlooked compared to the louder, fiestier songs in her back catalogue. The only song on this album to be written by one member alone, this song would have sounded better still had Grace stuck to singing it alone and fragile (her piano is a better accompaniment than an orchestra could ever be). Lyrically, this is surely another song about Grace's split with Paul, admitting that 'he's going to down, if I keep turning him around...' and that 'I don't want to see him go'. Grace does a good job of painting what it is she's leaving for though: the chorus of 'this is love' sounds like the sun coming out in comparison to the verses (where 'living alone just isn't that easy anymore'). Grace (or her narrator at least) does give her blessing to her old partner though, urging him to do what she's done and 'go to her, when you think you know that this is love', whenever 'she' might appear. Notably Paul doesn't appear on this song (although neither does Marty), which can't have been easy for him to hear however much the pair had come to admitting their time was over. I'm intrigued why Grace called this song 'switchblade' - a lot of Grace songs about broken relationships do indeed stick the knife in someone's back, metaphorically anyway, but this one is comparatively calm and about peace and reconciliation and doing what your heart tells you to, not revenge. There are no references to 'blades' anywhere in the song either. An intriguing insight into Slick's life in this period, 'Switchblade' doesn't quite approach Grace's best work, although I'd love to hear a re-recording or a demo of just Grace and her piano one day, without all the excess noise and fluster. AS ever, though, the best thing about the song as presented here is Craig Chaquico's note-perfect fiery guitar, that ends on an exciting scream of feedback that - like the narrator is just beginning to rattle off the rails at this point in the song.
'Big City' must be one of the strangest songs ever to grace a Starship album. That's drummer Johnny Barbata singing for the one and only time and although his voice is nicely gritty in a 'Creedence Clearwater Revival' manner, it really doesn't suit the Jefferson sound (or sounds). Barbata even has fun doing his Otis Redding impression at the end ('I've got to got to got to have it babe!' - what is it with drummers doing Otis Redding? Barbata should have got together with the Buffalo Springfield's Dewey Martin!) More surprisingly, it's the only song credited to Barbata without the rest of the band attached despite the fact that Johnny arguably had a more successful career as a writer on joining the band than any of the Airplane members did (he co-wrote almost all the Turtles' big hits including 'Elenore' and 'Happy Together'). I can't find much info about co-writer Chris Hill, but third writer Chris Etheridge was a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, so when I first bought this album I was expecting country-rock. Actually, the result is more blues-boogie, with Chaquico's twin guitars sounding like early 70s Stones and there's a very Stones lyric too, with the idea that the narrator's girl knows more than all his usual country chicks because she's from the 'big city' and has seen a lot of the world. So far so generic (nobody listens to these sort of songs for the lyrics anyway) although there is at least a tie-in back to the album's main themes with the idea that the big city girl knows so much that 'one day she might save the world'. The song went down well in concert apparently, although Barbata only ever got to sing it on one tour - a nasty car crash in 1978 (the band didn't tour in 1977, at a weary Balin's suggestion) saw him out of action and sadly out of the Starship. Like 'Cruisin' its fun, once, to hear the band play out of type and against their usual styles and they clearly had a ball making it, but this sort of thing belongs on a B side not on an album - especially this comparatively deep and dark album.
'Love Lovely Love' is a third song that might have sounded good in someone else's hands (Hot Chocolate perhaps?) but sounds hopelessly wrong when the Jefferson Starship do it. The band do tend to do at least one 'mindless' song per album without a lot of thought to it and an awful lot of repetition to it (see 'Sweeter Than Honey' from 'Red Octopus'), but this song by Balin protégé Jesse Barish takes repetition to new heights. Balin is a great singer, able to coax blood from a stone normally, but he's not a soul singer and his voice just doesn't suit this song that's meant to sit on a simple groove and spark slowly into flames. That said, even James Brown would struggle to get this song to work: all it really has to say for itself is that love is, err, lovely and while the central hook ('Love! Lovely! Love!) is catchy enough the rest of the lyrics are pretty awful (sample lyric: 'Come a thunder and a hurricane, it's coming through, straight from me to you...' - that doesn't sound like a romantic lover, it sounds like the motto of a mail delivery service). A sad way for such a gripping and multi-layered album to end on what is certainly the weakest track, sending 'Spitfire' crash-landing to Earth.
Overall, then, it's hard to get to grips with 'Spitfire' which even by Jefferson Starship standards is an album of many parts. Kantner's epic songs about civil unrest and times of change, Grace's songs of guilt and remorse, Marty's love-lorn ballad, Johnny's swampy dreams of the big city and the cover songs of retro 50s cars and soul crooning sound like they all belong on entirely different albums - as if the 'spitfire' has been built out of second hand leftover parts sandwiched together. For all that, though, this album still has 'wings' and soars better than most, by virtue of the three magnificent Paul Kantner songs alone. 'Spitfire' is also home to some of the best band performances of any Starship record after 'Dragonfly' , with a rhythm section perfectly in synch with each other and a guitarist as great as any 70s player around (and still only at the tender age of 20, here, remember). Grace might be subdued, Marty might not be quite at his best but Paul is having his best album in years and that's just about enough to drag 'Spitfire' up into the top half of Jefferson-something releases, almost all of which are well worth your while. And if the idea of an album embracing using in cars, dancing with dragons and chinese horoscopes, a mystical seer in a dream and a song based on a piece of romantic poetry sounds like something to laugh at rather than listen to - especially on release in 1976, the year of punk - then remember that people used to laugh at the spitfire planes too when they first saw them. Overall rating - 7/10