Monday, 8 June 2015

Jefferson Starship "Red Octopus" (1975)



Jefferson Starship "Red Octopus" (1975)

Fast Buck Freddie/Miracles/Git Fiddler/Ai Garimasu (There Is Love)/Sweeter Than Honey//Play On Love/Tumblin'/I want To See Another World/Sandalphon/There Will Be Love

"Ooooh it's only a fast buck, but it's so hard to make that kind of money!"

Dear readers, I've noticed a bit of a pattern in our reviews recently now that we're getting towards the end of our little 500 album review journey. Namely that most of our recent reviews can be boiled down to 'gee, I wonder why this particular album didn't sell better/become well known/become the launching point for a whole new era/laughed the Spice Girls out of town'. 'Red Octopus' however has the opposite problem: it's one of those rare AAA albums that sold well into the millions and yet leaves me wishing that in many ways it hadn't. Now it's not that I loathe and detest 'Red Octopus' - like all things Jefferson there are parts of this album that I adore: the hit single 'Miracles' and the shoulda-been-a-hit-single 'Tumblin' is Marty Balin at his finest, 'Fast Buck Freddie is Grace Slick at her wittiest and 'I Want To See Another World' is another fascinating Paul Kantner song way out of step not only with the rest of the album but with everything else released circa 1975. Even the cover and title are funny and very Jeffersony simply because they have nothing to do with the album whatsoever (there I was expecting a concept album about an octopus with communist sympathies - believe it or not that would have been quite 'normal' compared to many Jefferson albums!) No, my problem is that this amount of success came so fast and so big that the band weren't quite sure what to do with it - even though Jefferson Starship are only on their second album under that name, it all but kills their momentum for the rest of their career.

After all, this is a band who in their first incarnation as Jefferson Airplane didn't take to success easily and were often at their best when their backs were up against the wall, fighting Government officials, reviewers and even fans who dismissed them as anachronistic and outdated. Jefferson Starship were organised from the first to be a softer, gentler, tighter, more  accessible band than Jefferson Airplane - but not that accessible; debut album 'Dragonfly' still packs a weighty political punch at times and even though the settings tended to be more built for singing along there was still that certain...something that all Jefferson Airplane and solo spin off albums had, a wild wackiness that allowed you to instantly know it was them even though they touched down on so many different styles. As we've said 'Red Octopus' isn't bad and some of it is great - but it's also the first 'safe' album Jefferson anything made - the first that could, Grace and Marty's distinctive vocals beside, actually be made by somebody else. What's more it's the first Jefferson album that reflects it's times -  prog rock was just at the point where the elastic was about to stretch too far and snap into the shorter bursts of punk and even after a career of prog rocking it with the best of them 'Red Octopus' is in many ways their most prog rock LP. Many of the songs are long (though admittedly not as long as next LP 'Spitfire'), there are two space-filling instrumentals that are so anonymous could seriously have been recorded by any band who could play in tune and there's a peculiar gloss that's spread out over everything: even the embossed octopus 'heart' logo on the front cover looks a little like a tin of polish from a distance. Had this album come later in the band's run, when the group were running out of steam in the early 1980s perhaps or instead of the wretched 'Earth' in 1978 (an album which tries hard to repeat this album's success but fails) I might well have liked 'Octopus' better. But the problems is the overwhelming success of this album when the band are, by their high standards, on auto-pilot means they just stop trying - and a few high spots aside don't really start trying again until re-inventing themselves as a younger, meaner outfit in 1979 (it may have been this album that Paul Kantner was thinking of when he wrote 'I've been too long in the  green fields of rapture, I've lived too long without being on the run'). The fact is Jefferson Starship didn't need to - and the harder they tried over the next few years the lower their sales dropped. This record's tentacles will last until the end of the band's run, the 'Dragonfly' ethic of being right on the cusp of 'catchy but deep' to recycle our favourite website term now being caught between two very different sides that don't belong on the same LP.

To be fair, this album couldn't have been anything but successful. It's a well crafted, well made album that for once in Jefferson history is perfect for its times and the emphasis on Marty, the softening of Grace and the quietness of Paul all seem to have come along at exactly the tight time in terms of the band's commercial fortunes. At least when this band sell out they do it with class: the catchy singalongs on this album aren't mere pop baubles but lavishly made with a lot of care and love and do have something to say in there somewhere. This album remains the only Jefferson-something in my collection where my family and friends will go 'gosh, that's rather nicer than I thought - are you sure that's them' rather than 'dear God what were they thinking' or 'turn that racket down' (heathens dear readers - I live with heathens). What's more this is a real band effort, with everyone but drummer Johnny Barbata getting a co-credit somewhere - and not in a 'band jam everyone gets credits' type way either - nearly all this album is written in pairings, some of them the start of lifelong writing partnerships that will last the test of time (Grace Slick and Craig Chaquico will be a particularly potent one in years to come, with Slick and Pete Sears not far behind), friendships that have already stood the test of time (Paul and Marty follow up 'Volunteers' and 'Caroline' with another song together) and others that will never ever happen again (mores the pity in the case of 'Tumblin' by Marty and David Freiberg, two of the band's most under-rated members. That can only be a good thing, moving away from the Paul and Grace and friends billing of the last album 'Dragonfly' and moving somewhat closer to Jefferson Starship waking up one morning and becoming a real live band with a whole eight different styles to play with and limitless possibilities. In times to come, as early as the next LP, Jefferson Starship will fall into a rut - but for now the band are doing the right thing to maintain momentum and help get off the ground.

The biggest change since 'Dragonfly' is that Marty has gone from a cameo to the starring role. That's particularly surprising given that Marty had already had the starring role once  - the Airplane were 'his' band as lead writer, singer and all round sex symbol - and largely given it away, running out of steam and feeling more and more ostracised from the band as Paul and Grace came up with so many ideas for the band. Marty had left the Airplane altogether in 1970 after recording 'Volunteers', sitting out the next two Airplane albums and most of 'Dragonfly' before returning, reportedly stung by the other's rejection of his more straightforward material and disliking their wilder direction (I did have a scenario here that said Marty was McCartney and Kantner was Lennon but I've just realised that makes Grace either George or Ringo and I'm not sure that's quite right so ignore that for now!) It says much for the 'family' feel in this band though that Marty's return was seamless and as if he'd never been away - the chance to prove himself with a well received if poor selling side project (with the band Bodacious DF in 1973) had cleared Marty's head and the fact that the Airplane had been sliding into obscurity without his steady hand at the tiller might have led to a smile or three. Marty made it clear to the band on his return in fact that it was only temporary, a relationship of convenience while both sides needed one another - in the end he'll stay for three years. The lovely 'Caroline' from 'Dragonfly' notwithstanding, this is Marty's finest hour since 'Surrealistic Pillow' back in 1967 - not co-incidentally the Jefferson's last big hit album (the Jeffersons must be lucky with second albums - even the second pure Starship album was their best-selling too) . Marty's ballads may be more 'mainstream' than what the band were used to playing but that doesn't make them lightweight by any means: both 'Tumblin' and 'Miracles' are exquisite pop nuggets, identifiable and deep as well as lush and hummable. The same for Marty's slightly more uptempo (read walking pace) finale 'There Will Be Love' - although 'Sweeter Than Honey' is perhaps a cliché too far. Still, if you're looking for a reason why this album in particular became 'the one', then Marty's four lead vocals (more than he's had on any Jefferson album in eight years) are a good clue. That's great for Marty, who deserved the success and the chance to look a little smug at how the band he formed couldn't do it without him, but it's bad news for some of the rest of the band - especially Quicksilver Messenger Service's David Frieberg, a key part of the success of albums like 'Baron Von Tollbooth' and 'Dragonfly' who goes from being the band's third most important member to an inaudible occasional writer cameo at best from here-on in. While the Jefferson would have had more talent than most bands with even half the amount of members, this is a real waste.

By contrast the Paul and Grace story that's been at the heart and soul of Jefferson Thingies since the latter joined the band in 1967 and which has lasted through three excellent duo/trio albums alongside the main records is coming to an end. With daughter China, introduced to the world on 'Sunfighter' three years earlier, is now a toddler and the split between home life and touring is taking it's toll. Grace's half-revealing, half-obtuse autobiography 'Somebody To Love?' really comes into its own in this period: in between the funny crazy stories of life on the road, the arrests for being rude to police officers and heckles from the audience comes a real sense of frustration and isolation, the fear not so much that Paul doesn't need her now that they've had their child together but that her daughter has a closer relationship with her daddy than she will ever have (one family portrait included in the book, with Grace staring at the camera and the other two at each other with the caption 'Guess which one's the outsider?' is far more heartbreaking than any amount of falling sales or drunken regrets). Any creative talent splitting from a partner they've shared any amount of time with finds it hard - but Paul and Grace had the added complication of being in the same band and unable to escape from each other whatever they did. For now Grace is doing what she did in the early days of the Airplane before she threw her lot in with Paul - testing the band, sounding them out one by one, challenging them, working with them, bu8ilding up new relationships to see what works and what doesn't. Her strike rate on this album isn't quite as high as when she was largely working solo on 'Dragonfly', but it's plenty good enough. Paul, however, is uncharacteristically quiet. The past seven years had seen him become ridiculously prolific, stepping out of Marty's shadow to become the unlikely spiritual leader of a band who were notorious for not wanting to be led. He'd navigated the last few difficult years of the Airplane, set up his own solo and duo careers in parallel that were just as strong if not more so than anything the band was releasing and had successfully established a worthy successor with the Starship's 'Dragonfly' (which is very much a Kantner album - he even received top billing above the group's name). By contrast he gets just two co-credits on this record and just one vocal - only 'Earth' will feature him less. There's a few possible reasons for this: while Grace tends to get chattier during a crisis Paul tends to get quieter and broodier, more thoughtful and aware of the long term gameplan; on the other hand Paul may have just felt written out after holding the band together for so long - and with so much more of the band now writing and an extra voice in Marty, Paul may simply have felt as if he wasn't needed as much as before.

If that was the thinking though, then it's a rare case of Paul being 'wrong'. We keep saying that there's nothing 'wrong' with 'Red Octopus' and that's certainly true of the half of the album that works and makes the most of the return to a simpler, more commercial sound. But in truth there is something 'wrong' with a band who are so stuffed with talent (eight very creative people - even Johnny Barbata wrote some good songs in later years) that they cannot do better on an album than the self-indulgent whimsy of instrumentals like Papa John Creach's 'Git Fiddler' (a track even the other half of the Airplane in Hot Tuna would have thought twice about releasing) and 'Sandalphon' (remember those weird synth instrumentals Benny Anderssen used to stick on the end of Abba records simply because people were too polite to tell him not too? This is Pete Sears having a go). Thankfully, despite the album's jaw-dropping success (the band's only #1 hit on Billboard!) the Starship will never again do something quite this cheap or crummy. Not that some of the songs with lyrics are much better: 'Sweeter Than Honey' is a rotten track, reducing one of the greatest rock and roll acts into a pub bar band who can't get beyond a stroll - we've long been told that punk was invented for a reason and while I'm not so sure it may have been invented just to get rid of insipid woolly clichéd tracks like this one. Grace doesn't get off Slick-free either: whilst 'Fast Buck Freddie' is a near-perfect pop song and 'Ai Garimasu' another inventive entry in her line of piano ballads, 'Play On Love' is her weakest and most pointless song to date: it simply doesn't have anything to say and just sounds like every other Grace Slick song there's ever been. In fact that's the one major sticking point with 'Red Octopus' as a whole; nominate any fan of the Jeffersons who doesn't know this record (difficult I know) to come up with their own plan of what would be on it and this would be it: Grace at the piano, Marty being romantic, Paul being political and the rest of the band playing catch-up. Most annoyingly of all I know what's coming next and a bit of a rally around the under-rated 'Spitfire' aside the band won't be trying even this hard for quite a while.

However perhaps it's wrong to blame 'Red Octopus' for the mistakes that come to be made. As a one-off it still comes down largely on the balance of 'success' rather than 'failure' even if the overall judgement is 'mixed'. There's a real joy felt on this album that could be better demonstrated at times but is infectious on the half of the album that 'works'. 'I'm through with all the drifting, the dreaming' sings Marty on 'Tumblin', a song about having reached absolute bottom - and then found a way back up to the surface again. 'I was thinking that maybe I should be singing along' chimes in Grace on 'Fast Buck Freddie' as she turns in perhaps the happiest Jefferson lyric on their favourite theme of corruption and greed (which sounds more than a tad ironic given the 'mainstream' feel of the album!) 'Miracles' believes so strongly in miracles that a real life one actually arrives containing 'all the answers to my prayers'. 'Ai Garimasu' may be the 'end' of the Kantner-Slick love songs (it's the first written for somebody else - possibly lighting director Skip Johnson, already on the scene in this era and Grace's next full-on relationship, one that made the 'family' strain in the band even harder to cope with for all concerned) but it's also Grace's most romantic song - poignant and hopeful, far more tender than we'd ever heard from her so far (even though many inferior copies are to come that shouldn't take away from how good or how genuinely happy this lovely song is). 'Sweeter Than Honey' might be dementedly happy rather than naturally happy, but it's happy all the same. 'Play On Love' is about every sentence you speak ending up being about how in love you are - and if that isn't happy I don't know what is. 'There Will Be Love' then rouses the troops one last time by promising, if not quite the hippie dream, then something rather good and joyous all the same. Only Paul's 'I Want To See Another World' points to the melancholy that's been floating round the Airplane ever since they went all sci-fi and bonkers on 'After Bathing At Baxters' back in 1967. While too much joy without much depth can become wearing, a good half of the album gets the balance right - no wonder this album sold so well, the Starship don't sound here as if they could put a foot wrong even if they tried.

Overall, though, this is one of those albums that's useful for kick-starting interest in a band rather than for what it stands for per se. It's the Jefferson discography's equivalent of Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours', Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' or even Paul Simon's 'Graceland' or The Beach Boys''Pet Sounds' - records that aren't actually as good as the obscurer stuff if you're a 'proper' fan who knows a band's whole discography inside out but has just enough flavour of a band and just enough reflection of its times with nothing too awful included to put people off to become a big seller. In many ways we're back to where we were with 'Surrealistic Pillow', with all the hard work done on the first album and all the pieces in the right place again to just launch off into the distance - except that the band aren't young and hungry anymore and the possibilities of going anywhere however daring and exciting have been replaced by how easily the band can get a record out without compromising so much they hurt sales (the back cover of this record and the front of 'Surrealistic' tell you all you need to know: the 1967 album came with the band proudly holding an assortment of instruments aloft; this picture from eight years later has the band sitting on a posh but anonymous looking bench of the sort you see in stately homes). To be honest 'Red Octopus' is the least consistent Jefferson Starship record of them all - which puts the album ahead of consistently awful records like 'Earth' and 'Winds Of Change' but isn't exactly an advert for greatness. For my money it's 'Dragonfly' that deserved to sell the most copies and make #1 on Billboard with 'Spitfire' close behind, both records completely overshadowing this one in terms of artistic progress and cohesion. However, as we've seen so many times on this site (usually for the opposite reasons given here, because I'm cross that a great album hasn't sold) artistic brilliance and commercial sales are so often two very different things. Take nothing away from Jefferson Starship though: it's not that this album doesn't deserve its success so much as that many of their other albums deserve it much more, definitely one of rock's most under-rated bands even in the post-Airplane era.

Hold that dollar bill up to the computer and I'll show you something funny (*insert Spice Girls joke here*). How strange that the biggest sell out of the Jefferson's careers should start with a song about money- and not in the 'capitalism is evil' sense of the Airplane days but almost an apology. 'We have to do this to survive' Grace seems to be saying in 'Fast Buck Freddie', 'sing it now while you still have a song - grab on now while you're still feeling strong...I was thinking that we should be singing along'. Given the sentiments I really ought to dislike this song - but Craig Chaquico's music is genuinely inventive and is the perfect rocker for this era of Starship. Grace's lyrics too have their moments - the oh so Jefferson description of a rich man's horror at what she's up to as looking 'like a gun that's going to smile'. As so often happens in Grace songs we switch gears somewhere to sexual innuendo, the change in culture towards money 'coming on while it's soft and strong'. A clever 'think fast!' riff then seems to take the over tack in the last verse - was Grace laughing at the millionaire all the time? Has she suddenly realised what she's doing and realised that this lifestyle is 'wearing thin?' Suddenly by the very end of the song it doesn't seem to matter anyway, as if Grace was trying to write a parable and lost track of which character she was siding with: 'Who cares, you know, you can, you will, you know you can...'. This sort of vague contradictory song can so oh so wrong so quickly but the strong melody and a great performance help, both of which make good use of the full eight-man Jefferson sound with Papa John's fiddle particularly good here, mimicking the false laughter of the song.

Marty's 'Miracles' was a huge hit for the band when released in edited form shortly before the album (#3 in America - 'Count On Me' was the only other Jefferson Starship song to go top ten), which was a miracle in itself given that the band last had a bona fide hit with 'White Rabbit' a full eight years earlier and this songs sounds nothing like either the Grace-sung pair of hits the band had had or anything else they'd done up to this point. Marty is on top form on this solo-written soft rock song which is tailor made for his elongated phrases and a sweet and subtle string overdub that manages to stay just the right sound of saccharine. I'm less sure about the Starship's backing vocals (Paul and David together, plus Grace singing deep makes for a very bass-heavy choir) which are raw compared to the sultry backing, but this song and performance has so much going for it even that can't interrupt the flow. Interestingly the lyric seems to be the 'upswing' to a previous Marty-Jefferson song 'Young Girl Sunday Blues' which was, in our interpretation of it at least, about depression and possible suicide. That song seemed to arrive at the time when Marty began withdrawing from the band - just as this song spells the end of his time in the gloom and back into the spotlight. In the basic yet heartfelt lyric Marty longs for his beloved to believe in miracles as strongly as he does because then they'd 'get by', with increasing promises to 'move heaven and Earth' to show her. Whilst admittedly this lyric is fully in keeping with Marty's lyrics of the past it's interesting that he should be writing this now, as if he's writing to the band about what they can do together (Marty, remember, had already had a cameo singing on and writing the lyric for 'Caroline', a slightly more intense version of the same lyric suggesting that 'making up' was on the singer's mind). Songs like this usually become a drag after two or three minutes - there's not really much variation and the recording relies a lot on Marty delivering one of his greatest performances - but this one last for nearly seven in the album version and doesn't last a second longer than it deserves to, Marty so overcome by the beauty of what he's believing that he naturally finds himself falling back into the lovely chorus at a second' notice. Even though this song has nothing to do with the sound of 'Dragonfly' or any of the Airplane recordings (even 'Caroline' was an overly dramatised big budget version of these events more in keeping with the Jefferson family - this is a low budget near monologue) it still had the right appeal to become a big hit. The strangest thing though isn't why this song is here at all but why the Starship never tried anything similar until the very end of their career in the mid-1980s when Marty was long since gone, with only this record's 'Tumblin' ever coming close to the same intimate cosy romantic feel.

'Git Fiddler' is a Papa John instrumental that like 'Wild Turkey' from 'Bark' will push your love of violins to the limit. Unlike some fans I'm rather keen on Papas John's playing when there's a reason for it to be there - the fiddle sounds great as the grinning demon in 'Devil's Den' from 'Dragonfly' for instance or as the cheeky wink of 'Fast Buck Freddie' from earlier. But on this track that's almost all there is, a few solos for Craig on guitar and Pete on piano aside. Of course this isn't new for the Jefferson family - Jorma and Jack were always doing this sort of thing towards the Airplane's final days - but 'Dragonfly' was notable for the absence of this sort of self-indulgence and not many of the Starship albums to come will try the same thing. Really this is a throwback to the 'Hot Tuna' half of the band who are no longer there - and this new lineup, while all good players, just aren't 'funky' enough to convince with a blues instrumental. By the way listen out for a cheeky lift from Papa John's fiddle part on the last album's 'Devil's Den'. 'Git Fiddler', alongside the later 'Sandalphon', probably don't feature any of the three 'leads' (Paul, Grace and Marty) at all and is probably here to give the album a feeling of 'unity' as all band members get the chance to show off. However this backfires slightly: while the actual songs give the band lots of chances to shine these instrumentals don't really prove a lot except that the band can kick up a groove - and we knew that from the songs themselves anyway. Give it a miss.

Luckily 'Ai Garimasu' finds Grace on form again with a piano ballad that would have sounded right at home on the more personal album she made with Paul in 1971, 'Sunfighter' with that same cosy, low key vibe (until the end anyway when Craig, Papa John and Johnny all get into a fight to see who can play the loudest!) The title is a loose Japanese translation for what Grace sings in the chorus - 'There Is Love' - but it's only a vague translation; perhaps a better alternative might be 'To Exist In Love' although that is a bit more of a mouthful to sing. What's interesting is that Grace should want to translate the title at all: in the past she's often had fun with different languages but usually only to poke fun at censors too lazy to work out what she's singing (even though she knows fans might try and find out) - 'Never Argue With A German If You're Tired' being the obvious example. This time, though, the song is much more straightforward in songwriting terms even though for Grace it's something of a breakthrough. In all the years Grace was with first The Great Society and Jefferson Airplane, married to guitarists Darby Slick in the first and longterm partner of Paul Kantner in the second, Grace never ever wrote a traditional love song. Up to this point all of Grace's 'romance' has been subverted through something: Joycean prose on 'Rejoyce', cannibalism on 'Silver Spoon' nature on 'Hey Frederick, sci-fi drama on 'Hyperdrive', maternal feelings on most of 'Sunfighter' or more often writing songs about lust rather than 'love' the way, say, Marty would sing it ('Milk Train' amongst lots of others). But this the exception and it ushers in a whole new brave era for Grace's songwriting that's much more 'heartfelt' rather than thought out on the one hand - and much more 'normal' on the other. For now that's not a problem as 'Al Garimasu' is one of the loveliest pieces in her canon, a warm intimate song that features her always under-rated characteristic block piano chord playing and a sensitive lyric that tries to come to terms with these new changes within her and how love tastes 'different' with each partner ('Some feel like steel, some feel like candy'). However Grace comes to the conclusion that she can't express everything that 'love' means in a simple pop lyric (perhaps that's why she'd never tried before) but acknowledges that love is universal, 'the same in any language, the same in any name'. So why does a notoriously un-private person decide to translate their key lyric? Well, part of it might well be to emphasise the 'universal' fact at the heart of this track - that love goes beyond language or border - but if that was so Grace is more than clever enough to have switched the title round to a different language every time she sings it. To me it looks as if this is an early confession of her feelings for A N Other who isn't Paul Kantner (whose noticeably absent from this track once again - he probably only plays on three or four of the songs) and wanted to keep that fact quiet for now (possibly Skip Johnson). The other thing to add is that there's a lot of maternal love wrapped up in this song again, the proud mother watching her now four-year-old daughter China grow and her being impressed that despite the feisty genes from Paul and Grace inside her she's already learnt to 'lean towards kindness'. It's only a small step from 'China' to 'Japanese'  - perhaps the phrase in Chinese just didn't 'sound' right? (It's 'You Ai' as it happens, which is close to what we have here but doesn't scan quite as well). Of course if you happen to have any Chinese or Japanese friends you'll soon know what a gulf of difference there is between them, but the traditional lazy European/American view is that they're close cousins like England and the United States so that might be coming in to play here. Whatever the cause of the title, it cuts a shade deeper than pretty much everything else on this 'surface' album and Jefferson Starship were a band who always played better when they had something to get their teeth into: Grace's harsh yet cosy vocal is spot on what she needs to do, bringing out intensity as well as the lovey-doveyness of the lyric, whilst Craig turns in one of his first bang on the money guitar solos for the band, charged with longing and awe (doubly impressive considering that he's all of 21 here and yet seems to instinctively grasp what Grace seems to have just realised at age 36).

After a side that's largely played it slow and sweet it's odd that 'Sweeter Than Honey' should be the grit in the ointment at the end of the first side (rather than the beginning of one of the LP sides where it would make more sense). A noisy unfocussed rocker that doesn't have much to say beyond the obvious, it's the Starship's only three-way co-write between Marty, Craig and Pete. Given the billing my guess is that the song started off as a jam based around the distinctive piano-guitar riff that Marty slotted some words to in a hurry (Craig gets an additional credit for the lyrics, suggesting he helped out with them). Had the band kept things raw and simple this could have been really something - but instead this simple riff-based rocker is, as it happens, 'sweeter than honey' and has been saccharined by the production into a noisy mess that's lost the sheer oompah of the riff that made it so good in the first place. At their best the writers in Jefferson Starship were real poets, especially Marty (see 'Today' 'Comin' Back To Me' 'Young Girl Sunday Blues' or 'Caroline'), so how on earth did we wind up here with a chorus that reads like a bad heavy metal song? ('You're sweeter than honey baby, warm as a piece of the sun, darker than night to a blind man, softer than starlight shinin' - that doesn't even rhyme!) While Marty is usually great at these rockers (see 'Plastic Fantastic Lover') he trips over himself early on, over-sings to compensate and then never quite regains his balance. The end result soon becomes a muddled mess of noise as multiple guitar overdubs, a thick heavy chorus and massed percussion over-balances what could have been a simple and funky song. Only Pete's bass slap part stands out amongst the crowd.

Grace's 'Play On Love' is more musical, but somehow similarly unfinished. The chorus runs 'Play on Love! Play on Love! Play on Love! Play on Love!') even though the natural line scansion is 'da-doo da-dee dee dee'; even as talented a singer as Grace can't get those two opposites to fit. Oddly this is only Grace's second 'love' song, although it's quite different to the first, being less heartfelt and sung with doubt. This time Grace is laughing at herself for daring to write a romantic song - what more can be said 'when it's been said before a thousand different ways' and keeps opening her mouth hoping that some other word will come out instead; alas the only word that fits everything she's feeling is 'love'. Grace herself has pointed out the flaw with this song: this is the sort of material that's been done before and better in a million different ways and there's nothing new or edgy to get our teeth into: the song just kind of sits there taking up 3:46 of the album without really sticking in the mind (even the riff is lacklustre and while Craig gives it a good go there's nothing here for him to get his guitar teeth into either). The first Jefferson song you could imagine Barry Manilow or John Denver recording - that's not a compliment by the way - 'Play On Love' may well be Grace's first ever 'bad' song. Unbelievably RCA stuck it out as a follow-up single to 'Miracles', after which any song could surely be expected to do well - instead it died a painful death. Jefferson Starship won't have another hit until 'Jane' in four years' time.

Marty's second ballad 'Tumblin' isn't quite as special as 'Miracles', despite sporting another lovely melody and being co-written by two heavyweights in the always under-rated David Freiberg and the Grateful Dead's lyricist Robert Hunter (who last worked with the band on 'Harp Tree Lament', from the Paul/Grace/David album 'Baron Von Tollbooth' - sadly this second credit is also his last on a Jefferson family album). For Hunter this is a very 'normal' lyric, without any of the poetry or intellectual metaphors he's best known for, although it's still pretty deep for a 'mere' love song: the idea that love can 'tumble' from an imagined high down to the 'truth' of a partnership after the early rosy glow wears off. Marty probably brought in the 'next' bit of the lyric which, like 'Miracles', urges his partner that this is no reason to stop loving - that 'meaning' can come back again and if the pair can overcome all this they'll get 'stronger and stronger, and it won't be much longer'. Marty's so convincing you believe him and it's great to hear Grace in the background answering him just like the good ol' days (the first time the pair of singers have really done this since 'Crown Of Creation' back in 1968). Another cosy Craig guitar solo, which overshadows the 'interruption' of reality as demonstrated by papa John's squealing fiddle, is particularly lovely and on the money though once again this song wouldn't be half as strong without Marty's soulful lead which is just the right side of saccharine.

The most 'normal' song on the album is Paul's lone vocal on the political sneer 'I Want To See Another World'. While Marty and Grace feel all loved up, Kantner is still angered at the death of the hippie dream when it seemed as if they all came so close. The song comes on like a four minute coda to 'Blows Against The Empire', merging politics and science fiction as Paul argues that this world full of hate and injustice isn't good enough: he wants another world 'for me and my child, my old lady too - and maybe for you'. Note both the reference to Grace (who he still clearly feels is his partner, though not painted on the most flattering terms - Grace was always sensitive about being the oldest in the band) and to doubt about whether the audience will follow: till now the Jefferson story has absolutely been a 'discussion' between band and fans ('Blows' even comes with an 'advert' telling fans to be ready to sign aboard the Starship when it becomes real and hippies take it over) and there hasn't been any doubt that both speak with the same mind (after all, why buy their records if you don't agree with their politics?) However now the music world has shifted and for all of Paul's careful ground-laying on 'Dragonfly' this is no longer 'his' band in the way that the late Airplane were - and it won't be again until Grace and Marty leave in 1978. As a result this turbulent rocker, which would have been a real highlight of previous LPs and takes the usual Kantner route of offering us doom and destruction for most of the song before repealing it with a plea for peace in the fade-out, sounds so badly out of place it's hard to judge it's worth. However in many ways it's still the best song here, crackling with energy and danger even with that same surface production sheen. Craig doesn't just play one guitar part, he triple-tracks it sound to sound huge. The choir (a rare case of Grace, Paul and Marty being on the same song - the first time since 'Volunteers' back in 1969 in fact - who sound great together still) don't just sing platitudes, they yell - with Paul's less commercial voice standing out more than ever on an album that's otherwise the band's sweetest vocally. After basically playing along for the past seven songs Johnny Barbata finally gets the chance to show off why he's a great rock drummer (and a so-so ballad drummer) and turns in some great gutsy drum rolls. The lyrics aren't just less straightforward than the album's 'love' songs either  but deliberately fascinatingly obscure even for Kantner and at times sounds more like a theme tune from 'Game Of Thrones' : 'Snowy silver dragon sing the songs, flying straight up to the sky, great singing engines sigh and drive this metal fragment into time'. It's all a long way from 'if you and me believed in miracles we'd get by'. Many fans think this song is the one song on the album that doesn't work, simply because it's so different to the rest of the album - and it's certainly true that in the context of the album it sticks out like a sore thumb, with Paul at his most edgy and paranoid just as his bandmates are getting all loved up. However song by song, whenever I hear these album tracks muddled up with others on 'shuffle' for instance, I'm with Paul - this is the sort of song Jefferson Starship did better than anybody and while it's hard to compare 'best' between very different objects its easily the album's 'bravest' moment, the one track on this album you couldn't imagine any other band performing. What's interesting too is how much the band 'belong' on this song: Paul is naturally at home and we've already spoken about the new lease of life for Johnny, but Grace and Marty sound genuinely committed and Craig turns in another great guitar solo, full of rage and frustration that the dream hasn't come to pass for another year. Amazingly even though fans seemed to hate it and the next two albums all but ignore it, it's this edgy more aggressive futuristic-yet-hippiefied song that will set the tone for most of the rest of the Jefferson's career starting with 'Freedom At Point Zero' in 1979. And by then the hippie dream will be so far gone that the band's can't even get away with the 'get along with each other, sister and brother' chorus Marty sadly sings here.

By contrast 'Sandalphon' is the emptiest song on the album, a Pete Sears masterclass in overdubbing  that sounds like a cross between Rick Wakeman and The Who's proggier moments. An instrumental that could have been a lovely 'song' had the band given lyrics to it (Grace was his usual writing partner in this period before wife Jeanette got involved - it's odd she wasn't asked), as a melody it's even less interesting than 'Git Fiddler' and keeps changing tacks too many times from pompous fanfare to groovy blues riff. However this song does have two things going for it: Pete is a far better and more natural piano player than he's given credit for (especially given that he 'shares' this role in the band with David, who plays bass on this one) and the production sheen on this album finally makes sense on this one, making what's actually quite a simple piece sound big and majestic. Once again Craig is a fine foil for what the composer is trying to say and adds some catchy guitar work without getting in the way, sliding round the rest of the band as if 'dancing' with them. However this is the sort of thing B-sides were invented for and it's place on a multi-million selling album seems unwarranted. It speaks volumes that, despite this album's success and a couple of times in the future when the band were pushed for time and ideas, they never again resorted to releasing an instrumental while the band still had 'Jefferson' in its name.

I'm still not quite sure what I think of closer 'There Will Be Love', a song title suspiciously close to Grace's own 'Ai Garimasu' (did she in fact change that title to hide the fact that this album nearly had two songs with the same name? I've only just thought of that and I've had this album decades - strange how I'd never seen it before. That octopus on the cover must have distracted me). Paul and Marty's co-write - only their second in six years along with 'Caroline' - is a real combination of the two talents: Marty's directness and Paul's epicness. My guess is that Marty wrote the 'Miracles' style chorus ('Whatever I do there will be love in it!') and Paul wrote the rest, including the sudden leap into full throttle rock and roll and a hard-to-hear middle eight that once again is sci-fi in feel ('I made an ark from the light of the stars, and I hewed two mesas of bright shining metal, that sang in the sun like a wail in the wind, and I weave my way back to you'). The good news is that both halves are strong in their own right: Marty's singalong chorus is excellent, especially the way the song's confidence and power tails off into minor key doubt on the line 'even as I close my eyes...' suggesting that the song of love and togetherness is really only taking place in his head. Paul's section too adds only the second burst of belated power to the album, with some strong guitar solo-ing from Craig once again (who also gets a co-credit, presumably for his inventive solo) and a real frisson of excitement 'Red Octopus' could have done with more of. Unfortunately, while both writers are singing about 'love', they clearly have very different ideas of what 'love' is: Marty's is straightforward love but Paul's is more universal and brotherly. While Jefferson fans have learnt to take these two very different definitions on the same album and sometimes across neighbouring tracks, it's a very contrasting story bunging them in the same piece of music. The result is not quite one thing or the other and ends up being neither - which is a shame. The band's usual fine playing seems to have let them down slightly too: while Craig is right where he should be everyone else seems to lag behind just a little, as if they're not quite sure whether they should be performing this like a love song or a concept suite. As a listener I'm not quite sure either - 'There Will Be Love' is arguably an ambitious step too far, though it's nice to hear the band at least trying to break barriers across this record.

In all, then, I think I know why 'Red Octopus' was such  a success - the general public had been hearing about Jefferson Airplane for so many years whilst being 'afraid' of their counterculture politics and jagged solos and had been missing the band ever since their twin success stories in 1967 ('Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit'). At long last the band release a single in 'Miracles' that could be played on the radio without warnings or censorship of a hippie slang dictionary and most of the rest of the album followed, all wrapped up in a warmer, more commercial production sound - of course more people than normal were going to 'bite' as 'Red Octopus' has wider appeal. However many bands have fallen foul trying to do this sort of thing whilst losing touch with their essence entirely, making an album that just sounds like so many others out there - while it's a close run thing there is just about enough of the old Jefferson sound about this album to make people aware that they were getting a record with a great heritage and which didn't quite always play it safe. However 'Red Octopus' is easily the weakest of the first three Jefferson Starship albums ('Earth' doesn't even have this much going for it) and for old time fans like myself causes something of a problem: I'm glad it did well, I'm glad the band got some reward after a difficult few years not always their own fault and as it meant the band could keep going for another decade or so from here I'm willing to forgive this album anything. However it's always a sad day when your bravest and best bands - the ones who were always there to stand up and say what they thought, whatever it cost them and who broke acres of musical ground every time they went into the studio - reduced to the point where they're only really doing what every other band did, a bit of political muttering aside. We mentioned it earlier but this really is the Jefferson equivalent of Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' - it's just about good enough to get by rather than great and it's a shame that about 90% of music lovers think it's all the band can do after a far worthier if less commercial start to life. The Starship has been taken over and is under new management, it's suddenly started taking 'pop single' sponsorship on its sidings and it doesn't go anywhere near the new and daring places it used to go and while the band can still fly it will only do so in safer waters for a few years until a sleeker re-haul circa 1979. The wonder really is that the next album 'Spitfire' managed to be as good as it was by straddling these two worlds - although it speaks volumes that that album barely outsells 'Dragonfly' despite the boost to sales with this album. This was a one off, a unique event when band and music tastes came together and the band won't truly reap the rewards until re-stylising themselves as simply 'Starship' in 1986, by which time most of the present crew will have retired or mutinied.


 Other Jefferson Thingy articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2014/03/jefferson-airplane-surrealistic-pillow.html

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-15-jefferson-airplane-after.html

'Crown Of Creation' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/jefferson-airplane-crown-of-creation.html

'Volunteers' (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/jefferson-airplane-volunteers-1969.html

'Bark' (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/news-views-and-music-issue-91-jefferson.html

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-44-paul-kantner-and-jefferson.html

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/paul-knatnewrgrace-slick-jefferson.html?utm_source=BP_recent

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/paul-kantner-grace-slick-and-david.html

'Dragonfly' (1974) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/news-views-and-music-issue-51-jefferson.html

'Spitfire' (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/jefferson-starship-spitfire-1976-album.html

'Modern Times' (1981) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/jefferson-starship-modern-times-1981.html

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-87-jefferson-starship-nuclear.html



No comments:

Post a Comment