Monday, 26 June 2017
Jefferson Starship "Earth" (1978)
Jefferson Starship "Earth" (1978)
Love Too Good/Count On Me/Take Your Time/Crazy Feelin'/ Skateboard//Fire/Show Yourself/Runaway/All Nite Long
'When I was small I used to stand with my hand on my heart and sing to you...but maybe you're just getting too OLD!'
Back in 1967 Jefferson Starship were the punkiest kids in the psychedelic class. Even for the day they were the weird outcasts of the school, snarling behind their breath when everyone else was talking about peace and love, pointing out hypocrisy and injustice when their classmates were handing out flowers and getting detention for scrawling pro-drug graffiti all over the toilets when everyone else was being subtle and 'cute' about what they were carrying in their lunchboxes every day. The Jeffersons were known as being mad, bad and dangerous to know and came with an anger, an energy and an aggression that made their classmates just that little bit scared of what they might do next (their teacher was often found after class whimpering behind her desk and the Grateful Dead had to be let out the cupboard again after bullying, while they even tried to lace the 'headmaster' with 'acid' on an escapade the school still talks about long after they were 'expelled'). Now fast forward to 1978, with Jefferson Starship (name changed after a custody battle) about to enter adult life at university level. Suddenly the whole place is over-run with punks, every second kid has a mohican haircut and the pupils carry much heavier drugs with them openly now. Everyone is desperate to shock, outrage or surprise, posting notes that say 'no future for yooooo!' on teacher's back when they're not looking or setting the campus guinea pig on fire. Jefferson Starship distantly remembers her wayward youth and smiles - she's still a rebel, but here surrounded by so many natural rebels she's calmed down, lost her edge, just wants to get on with living and make everyone happy. Those lectures on peace and love? Suddenly she 'gets' it. Whisper it quietly but she's now the tamest, squarest kid on the block. What happened?
In truth it was a gradual unravelling. The most punkish kid in the psychedelia era became the most psychedelic in the punk era not because of one particular thing but through a gradual album by album series of changes. The biggest of these had come when Jefferson had changed her name of course, after a 'custody' battle that scared her. Suddenly she was quieter, gentler, more desperate to please. But even then there was an inner anger and energy that made her different from her peers - a kind of crazy look in her eyes that meant you didn't mess with her, even when she was the kid getting high Grade As with her tales of red octopuses and essays about 'Miracles' setting new heights in the college system. Here though, just before another big custody battle, she's coasting. Everything she says is merely re-iterating what everyone else in the playground was saying and often saying better - you know the sort of thing, songs about boys, songs about girls, songs about love as a 'fire' and songs about partying - oh and a song about 1978's biggest craze, skateboards. People who used to know Jefferson were disappointed even as her pay-master teachers breathed a sigh of relief: what happened to the fire in her eyes, the young girl who was going to start a revolution and re-shape the world? Ah, she grew up. Why? For the first time in her life she was popular. Sure she'd always been respected and some of the hip cool things had even flirted her once, round about the time when she was dropping drug lyrics and white rabbits into her essays, but it was a passing moment of notoriety - somehow Jefferson always felt safer in her own corner of the playground making 'v' signs at Vanilla Fudge, beating up The Monkees and laughing at Pink Floyd's attempts to blow up the chemistry lab. Being popular went to her head more than she would ever let on. I mean people were 'square' weren't they? The mainstream was, gulp, full of 'normal' people. But as time went by Jefferson got hooked on the attention and craved it, being afraid to rock the boat or lose her place in the top forty. Suddenly, even in a climate when old stick-in-the-mud The Rolling Stones (sent down for yet another term when everyone was expecting them to 'graduate' at last) and fellow oddballs The Kinks (who'd stayed on for yet another PHD in the 'human rebellion condition as experienced through traditions and cups of tea') had 'got' what was happening in the outside world and 'woken up' to punk, not just in the 'year zero' but the year after, here were Jefferson Starship still trying to be popular and yearning for affection. Well, everybody needs somebody to love, after all.
'Earth' is a funny old album. As late as predecessor 'Spitfire' the Starship were still a band with things to say and things that none of their peers would ever dare to say, with an anger and fire and passion lying behind their latest prog rock takes on Ancient Greek myths and Chinese dragons. But this album has no ambition to be anything other than a 'success', aping their biggest hit 'Red Octopus' to such a large extent that the anger has been turned into forced smiles, the fire has been extinguished and the passion has been hidden under banks of synthesisers. Generally in an album the size of the Jefferson-somethings (usually seven members, sometimes eight) somebody has something to say and takes over the direction of the shop, be it Marty Balin's glorious ballads and social protest, Paul Kantner's sci-fi epics and social protest or Grace Slick's oddball rants about being a human in a world that isn't humane - an idea that lends itself well to social protest. But Grace is distracted, her attention taken up with the new man in her life, Starship lighting director Skip Johnson, while trying her best to stay away from a band that's largely taken her ex Paul's side. She's about to leave the band for good after an escalating drink problem sees her spending half the tour supporting this album flirting with the band's audiences and the other half actively assaulting them ('I didn't mean to hurt him officer, I just wondered to myself if I could really fit my fingers up his extra-large nostrils. And he was in the front row' is surely the weirdest defence clause ever submitted to an act of alleged assault). Paul for his part is barely here, eschewing the custody battle of the band he'd fought so hard for so he can sit on the sidelines, glaring, fed up with the whole thing and wondering himself where the band's fire has gone. And Marty? He's fed up of being in this band anyway. Even after scoring the new-look band's biggest two hits nobody listens to him, nobody cares and he only ever said his 'comeback' was temporary anyway. Marty will leave, just weeks after Grace is encouraged to quit too, just in time to deliver the single most mainstream move the Jeffersons ever made: an appearance in the 'Star Wars Holiday TV Special' so poor it's been blotted out the minds of even passionate fans (on which they mime this album's song 'Fire', a sound which is about as convincing as an ewok ninja running for president).
'Earth' is the Jefferson-anything's emptiest album. It's a record that has nothing to say and band members too distracted or too emotionally wrought to say anything. We get, by turns yet more Slick songs about her and Paul's daughter China growing up (but not as original as before), comedy songs about skateboards and generic songs about 'fire' that couldn't be more wet and parties that couldn't sound less 'fun'. Everything about this album seems fake, from the photo-shopped (or whatever the 1978 equivalent is) of Earth on the front cover to the air-brushed photographs on the back (where everybody looks extra-handsome. Compare and contrast this to the front of 'Surrealistic Pillow' where everyone is aiming for 'weird' not 'pretty' or even the similar back cover of 'Spitfire', an amalgam of the two which comes out 'pretty weird'). This is an album designed to be hung on your bedroom wall to gaze adoringly at, not one with a lyrics sheet full of fingers to 'the man' or 'the headmistress' or whoever. It's an album to be enjoyed and then filed away, not an album to be pored over and discussed for hours during morning assembly because it's a work so important it's worth risking detention for. The best things here - the only things of any substance - are the two songs at the start written by outside writers and that's probably not a coincidence. Worryingly, though, even though they're the best things here by a country mile they're easily the worst songs from the 'Gold' compilation cobbled together from the first four Jefferson Starship albums to plug the 'gap' between records and the band re-fit in 1980 and the ones I always skip. You get the sense that everyone in the band want to park the Starship by now and go their separate ways.
Well, the Airplane guys do anyway. Actually this is quite a strong album for the Starship guys in the back row who all still very much want to keep the band afloat, even agreeing to the Paul Kantner-led changes in store that will make next album 'Freedom At Point Zero' sound like it's come from an alien planet. Craig Chaquico remains one of the best 1970s guitarists ever and he provides the fire and fuel that the frontline can't or won't, as well as the music for a novelty song about skateboarding which, melodically at least, he somehow manages to make sound the most interesting song on the album. His guitar solo on 'Fire', a gonzo mix of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, remains the single most interesting moment on the album, brief as it is. Pete Sears is the 'bass player' in the band in more ways than one, fulfilling both the musical function of keeping the band together and the much harder sociable one of keeping them afloat too. He's the only band member willing to go out on a limb to make Grace still feel a part of the band, he and Craig playing out of their skin on Grace's cover of 'Love Too Good' and writing the music for one of Grace's songs and one of Marty's. Drummer Johnny Barbata is about to leave the Starship too along with Grace and Marty but unlike them it wasn't by choice or a lack of belief. Instead poor Barbata will be involved in a nasty car-crash that will leave him incapacitated for a few years and came at just the 'wrong' time when the next line-up of the band was being put together. His playing here though is amongst his best, warm and soulful and inventive in contrast to the lazy writing and vocals. Poor David Freiberg still gets too little to do, largely demoted to piano on an album suspiciously low on keyboards (a glorious solo on 'Love Too Good' aside) in a band where he used to be the band's 'third vocalist' before Marty re-joined full time. This should have been his chance to shine; instead a co-write on the 'it took two minutes to write' song 'Fire' is all he really gets. As for the guys we usually talk about, well, Grace is just Grace but sounding less sure of herself than ever before, Marty is just Marty and sounds just as sure as ever but sadly falling too neatly into his band role as 'the romantic commercial one' and Paul is barely here, one lyric and co-vocal aside.
Far from encompassing all of 'Earth' and beyond this record is one of those albums that has precious little in it when held up to the light. There isn't, for instance, much of a band theme at all for perhaps the only time in the band's catalogue (even the reunion album had a half-theme about aging!) There is, if you really wanted to look (and I do - I've got way too much space to fill to get this review up to length!) a half-theme about romantic betrayal. It's not, though, the stinging attacks of the Airplane in the past but more a soggy apology. Grace, via a Craig Chaquico song, opens the album by apologising for not being good enough. Paul, the person in her head she might be apologising too, bookends the album with his response: he didn't notice, he was out chasing girls and getting drunk. In between Marty promises the 'fire' he felt for an old 'flame' isn't over and he's sorry, Grace offers a new partner that they'll be great if they just take it slow and she's sorry for rushing things and Jesse Barish's outside songs 'Count On Me' (which offers to make amends) and 'Crazy Feelin' (which promises an old feeling is still there) also hint at this theme. Only Grace's acerbic 'Show Yourself' about celebrating originality and uniqueness (which sounds oh so wrong played with generic late 1970s prog-rock dom on one of the late 1970s' most prog-rock albums) risks rocking the boat and then it's with a lot of tut-tutting rather than armed with a pistol like yester-years. The second most original and Jefferson sounding, substantial song? It's about a skateboard. Seriously. 'Woah man you took a bad fall...'
The Jefferson Elephant (jumbo jet?) in the room is clearly the disintegrating relationship between Paul and Grace. The pair hadn't been getting along for a while and both were drifting on to partners new. In a very grown-up 1960s way they agreed to equal custody of their daughter China (made easier given how much their jobs overlapped). In a very immature 1960s way, though, their relationship was often full of name-calling and bitterness. The rest of the band, unwilling to choose between their two most recognisable members, were somewhat trapped in the middle. The fact that Grace's permanent someone new was the band's lighting man made band meetings difficult: it must have been tough for Paul and China to watch their bandmate in the arms of someone new so much of the time. Paul got his 'own back' with girls of his own, but none were as lasting just yet. Though the two will make things up, to the point where Grace is greeted back into the Starship no harm done in 1981, at this point in time their relationship which stretched all the way back to 1967 was never lower. Both exes turned to drink and drugs to see them through the pain of losing each other - and characteristically Grace turned it into a competition. She's not just out of the band the following year but seeing a psychiatrist, her next move the glorious and guilty solo album 'Dreams' that shares this album's sense of apology and helplessness but also has an open-ness and frankness that makes it one of the single best things she ever did. Paul for his part, is already planning his 'coup' to skip punk and make the Starship a 'new wave' outfit, with contemporary sounding songs this sleepy line-up of the band could never have managed. The future looks rosy then - but the 'present' has an ugly whole at the heart of this album that no one can fill - least of all Marty, who never wanted the pressure of being a 'band leader' and will quit rather than fulfill that role.
The end result is an album that's crying out for the sessions to be delayed and the band to be overhauled. That will come, with Paul's disdainful lyric on the next album 'I've been too long without being on the run' surely aimed squarely at this flabby, bloated, 'safe' LP. But Jefferson Starship had already delayed this record two years, not passionate enough to do it properly but equally not passionate enough to break the band up either. So instead they drift into their weakest effort (at least until the last in 1989 or the mainstream 'Starship' albums packed with hit singles), a record that has nothing to say and no new way of saying it. Along the way we get the sort of music that could get made by anyone with a glossy production outfit and an access to generic outside songs, full of soppy not-written-for-a-real-person songs about being in love, being out of love, wishing you were in love, wishing you'd never been in love, partying and skateboards. Despite the presence of the loudest, angriest recording on the album there's no 'fire' here, just a bunch of soggy songs nobody believed in when they wrote them sung by a band who didn't believe them when they recorded them and released for an audience who didn't believe them when they heard them. Jefferson Starship have been prematurely grounded, 'earthed' even, not because they have nothing to say but because they have oh so much to say but don't want to say it in public yet (actually Paul and Grace will remain amazingly kind in their songs, with their sniping about each other kept for the tabloids not their lyrics - the closest they come is Paul's songs on the next album about meeting a 'Girl With Hungry Eyes' who reminds him of how Grace used to be and Grace's 'Black Widow' about eating up weak men for breakfast who can't keep pace with her). Jefferson Starship (as opposed to the Airplane) always reminded me very much of Fleetwood Mac: a band that started in a completely different form before hiring new members and concentrating on classy catchy 'hits' and who had more than a few 'relationships' within the band at different times. Recorded at a time of break-up and heartbreak a parallel universe 'version of 'Earth' is their 'Rumours' full of songs written by band members about each other and offering an honesty and integrity behind the gloss. Instead, this album has eight pieces of nothing and a ninth song about a skateboard.
Sorry Jefferson, I understand your need to be popular and that being jilted by your boyfriend coupled together with your need to keep up your street cred left you unable to concentrate in your homework as much as normal. Those excuses don't wash with me though and this record scores a 'D'. See me after class.
The best recording by far on the album - and the one that sounds as if it had the lion's share of the album's finances spent on it - is 'Love Too Good', a collaboration between Craig's music and his friend Gabriel Robles' lyrics. When the song starts off - as a slow, epic cousin to the band's hit 'Miracles' with strings bouncing across the horizon - you assume that this is going to be one of Marty's feel-good romance songs. In the album's only surprise it's Grace who steps up to the microphone and despite not having a hand in the song she clearly identified with the lyric which isn't so much loved-up as shut-down. In a mirror of her own fragmenting relationship with Paul she plays the part of a narrator who knows that she has got to let her ex go if she loves him as 'you and me are in too much pain' and she apologises for her half of the power struggle their relationship has become. Grace, so used to shouting in song to get her point across, sings one of her best vocals on this humble song, a track that's guilty and whispered as she sounds like a cross between a trapped wounded animal and a prisoner begging for their freedom. No one has told the rest of Jefferson Starship this is meant to be a 'sad' song though and instead the backing sounds like the sort of romantic hazy bliss Marty made his trademark. Rather than this being an angry, shouty song about two lovers that have to part, this sounds like paradise still mocking Grace as she pleads to be let go, not from 'prison', but from 'paradise'. Paul's gently nagging backing vocals (one of his rare appearances on the album) are astonishing in context, both fighting and joining in quiet harmony with his ex; Marty's too as he gently glides away at the front of the song and at key moments across it, hinting at a romantic idyll. Pete Sears' electric piano and David Freiberg's slap bass are the perfect mid-1970s prog rock sound (there's even a Sears synth part that's pure Pink Floyd), gliding by on a gentle bed of Chaquico guitars, the sort of cosy song Grace would usually be fighting against, especially during a lengthy solo and fade - instead she sadly ad libs 'can't you see? Set me free!' The result may not be one of the Starship's more typical songs or one of their very best (given her circumstances Grace invests these straightforward lyrics with a lot more care than they perhaps deserve), but it's a great performance of a good song.
'Count On Me', the obvious choice for a first album single, really is a sort of sequel to 'Miracles', although again it's an outside song that just happens to sound like one of Marty's ballads. Band friend Jesse Barrish wrote the song as a sort-of quieter, spacier sequel to 'Miracles' where the two lovers who met through fate against all expectations are learning how to still love each other in the 'real' world. Marty's narrator is keen to show that he's going to love his girl just as much as time passes by and that he will always be there for her to count on, no matter what. The song has a great slow-burning verse leading to a shouty chorus, a strident Balin vocal that does exactly what you expect it to and a nice flamenco flourish from Craig Chaquico mastering yet another guitar solo. But this song feels slightly less special somehow, all too obviously the work of a band barely speaking to each other and maybe passing by each other in the canteen at best.
At last a song fully written by the band, although Grace and Pete's 'Take Your Time' doesn't sound much like anything the Starship have put together before either. It's a cosy song of domesticity, a million miles away from even the relatively edgy 'birth' album 'Sunfighter' as Grace turns her back on drugs, rockstars and making music to take advantage of the unexpected break in band affairs (Marty asked to stay at home rather than go out on the road in 1977) to simply bask in being a mother. Grace is, for maybe the first time since her childhood, bored. She doesn't feel the restless creative spirit, she doesn't have any deadlines to meet and she's not interested in meeting up with the band socially after so many years on the road. So she has to find a new way to make 'an hour last just a few minutes' and busies herself doing nothing. In her new world she's swapped 'making a rhyme' for 'plenty of living' and learnt the lesson she spouts in her lyrics about 'plenty of giving' by taking care of someone (who is it she watches 'lie down and take your fun?' It could just as easily be new boyfriend Skip as China). There's a slight sense of tension when people keep telling Grace to 'slow down and take it easy!' and - characteristically - she refuses on principle, snarling 'I'm gonna keep giving till it's done!' And yet the sound of this song is more passive surrender, with Sears' slow-burning groove of a backing track taking it's time to not only stop and smell the roses but pick them, arrange them, have them submitted to a flower arranging class and get eaten along the way. We're used to hearing piano ballads from Grace, but not like this one - usually they're block pounding chord kinda songs, stomping around her inner madness and trying to come to terms with some dumb things mankind is up to now. This song, with Pete at the keyboard, simply trickles with delight, slowly unfolding a layer at a time. Sadly I don't have quite enough patience to go through all the layers as by Jefferson standards this is a very muted, lazy, forgettable sounding song, but at least there's a lyric that fits the melody like a glove this time and once again the Sears-Slick combination proves to be the real 'dark horse' of the band.
Jesse Barrish also wrote 'Crazy Feelin', thus getting more credits on the album than Paul Kantner! It's a slightly more up-tempo song that sounds well suited to Marty Balin's crooning voice as he implores a loved one to keep going because their love is just getting good! Considering that stopping is exactly what they're doing, it's odd to hear Paul and Grace singing together - for pretty much the last time without someone else in the middle, usually Mickey Thomas - duetting on the Fleetwood Mac style 'don't ever stop-pah!'s on the backing. This is Marty's show and it's a song that would have sounded limp without him - though the lyric is a silly generic tale of wanting to be with your lover 'day after day', Balin's vocal is utterly committed. He even drops the song into a sudden plunge of a middle eight as he reflects on how some things should be constants in our life ('Oooooh, turning like a wheel!') that should sound horribly out of place but somehow works. What this album doesn't really have is the same sense of scale and depth that Jefferson Starship usually bring to their music and as the third single taken from the album predictably flopped.
Woah, man, this album's taken a bad fall! 'Skateboard' must be one of the weirdest songs in the Jefferson canon, with a melody by Craig and a lyric by Grace that uses the metaphor of a skateboarder for love for a full song! Most people dismiss this song as a novelty and you betcha it is - this song is deliberately silly and lacks all ambitions, instead cashing in on the latest craze. However, I've often wondered, is Grace really writing about the band here, not a marriage? Jefferson Airplane famously gave their full reasons for breaking up in 1972 as 'Jorma and Jack wanted to go speed-skating in Europe so we couldn't do an American tour!' That was clearly an in-joke; though the pair did like skating, it was more the bad blood in the band they couldn't wait to skate away from. Here, in 1978, another Jefferson band is falling apart at the seams again. Perhaps the 'old' split was on Grace's mind again as she put together a lyric about the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the ride and the power-surge of taking off into the dangerous unknown and never quite knowing if it's all going to go right or all going to go wrong. That, surely, is the perfect metaphor for the white-knuckle-ride that was the Jefferson story, when the band were amongst the loosest players on a rock stage and traditionally headed in different directions but on the moments when it all came together - flying in formation - sounded magnificent. Unfortunately the skater narrator has got too full of herself. 'Dare me!' screams Grace as she goes for a spin she knows she's not going to get away with, winking at the listener that she's doing it to get attention from a lover she both loves and mocks and can't stand ('You know I'd train a fool for that man, I'd train a fool for that fool!') You can see where this is going: she hits the hill too hard, comes off her skates and someone (Craig?) is left to speak-sing that she 'took a bad fall!' This surely is the Jefferson story, the band not expanded to a Starship anymore but reduced to the tiny power of a skateboard, as various band members quit or threaten to quit and the marriage at the heart of the band tips that heart out by the seams as Grace and Paul compete for attention once too often but still can't live without the speed or excitement. Fittingly this silly, stupid song with its 'woah mama!' chorus is the most Jeffersony sounding on the album, with the only full-on rock attack on the album and the stop-start sections nicely nailed, while Marty's hysterical backing vocal works nicely in contrast to Grace's unusually contained lead. Well, that's my take on this song anyway. If it isn't a clever metaphor about the Jefferson story then I have to accept that it's a stupid novelty song about skateboards by a band in their later thirties/early forties and what would you rather think?!
'Fire' is the album's weakest song. A track written by committee (Pete and David wrote the music, probably out of a jam from Freiberg's bass line and Sears' piano chords I would guess, with Marty and yet another outside writer Trisha Robbins 'writing' the lyrics, such as they are), it's a case of one too many bland re-takes robbing the song of all excitement. What should be a song of passion and energy, sounding not unlike a Doors track with the heavy keyboard groove, rattled percussion and a vocal that leads from one line to another repeating itself rather than telling a 'story', ends up sounding like Marty shouting hysterically for no good reason. Come on baby light my fire this isn't though, turning out something of a damp squib with too many overdubs and too much chaos. OK, so he feels a burning fire in his heart for his lady - but that's not enough of a basis for a full song is it? We want to know questions like who, why, when and where - instead all we get is the what, as Marty tells us that he's 'hot' and just can't be 'stopped'. The only part of the song that succeeds is Craig's ridiculous guitar solo which somehow manages to be both prog rock and heavy metal all at the same time, before ending up at the end doing a spot-on impression of a fire siren. Oh yes there's a string part too but - typically of this album's production throwing good money after bad - you only hear it play five notes in total, right on the fade of the song. Ok, Marty, we know you're alight, but calm down will ya?
Grace's last solo Jefferson song until 1984, 'Show Yourself', is another album oddball. Lyrically it's the most Jeffersony song on the album as Grace calls on misfits and the oppressed everywhere to stand up for themselves, no matter how hard it is, to stand and be counted. 'I don't care if you're eight or eighty!' Grace cries, 'Expose yourself, I wanna see ya!' So far so good - if ever there was a band who were about giving confidence to the unconfident to do their own thing it was the Jeffersons and it's good to hear them end their most 'indetikit' years celebrating individuality the way the Airplane did. But this song does not do what you expect. It starts off as a dig at a family member that Grace used to admire when she was small. She really meant it when she stood with her hand on her heart and sang with all the power her little lungs could she manage and she thought the person listening meant it too - but now they don't. Grace could perhaps mean America here, as reflected to her during school assemblies which (Gracie being a posh kid in a posh school) taught her how America would never let 'her' people down (or the rich down, anyway). That certainly fits a second verse as she castigates the land of her birth for events '201 years ago' (circa 1777, The American Revolutionary War) when Uncle Sam 'promised one great gift of freedom' in the constitution - and yet African Americans, Latinos, Women, Muslims and goodness knows who else are still fighting for equality all these years later. So this is a political song then (good, haven't had one of those in a while!), but it's very much sung in the mode of Grace's 'family' songs, especially that opening about being a 'child' and 'getting old' and cynical (Grace is by now thirty-nine) without the passion of Grace's usual rants until she and Craig come rushing out the blocks at the end. Even the song has a twist, as Grace turns nasty on her record labels, asking them to do more for the band and put themselves out a bit, not just for the Jeffersons but for the country they made their millions in: 'Are you RCA? Are you standard oil?' At its heart it feels as if this should be a straightforward song about prejudice in the present day, but the time-jumps, the 'family' feel and the in-joke of record label at the end make this song feel more confused somehow. It's also mixed a little oddly, with even that famous Grace Slick vocal somehow sounding muted and understated, even though she's giving her all by the second half of the song and for once there's not much other productions muggins to fight her way through. This song could have been the highlight of the album, but it got weird too quick - it's a song that, ironically, needed to 'show itself' a bit more clearly.
On yet another outside song, the mysterious 'N Q Dewey' provides Marty with a third commercial breathy ballad in 'Runaway'. This may, actually, be the second best song on the album (and did respectably as the second single), a charming song of love and adoration that rings more true than 'Crazy Feelin'. Marty excels as he urges his wannabe-bride to run away with him, pleading 'you don't know how much I love you' and asking to 'come and see you', to close the distance between them emotionally as well as geographically. Even this song isn't 'normal' though: oddly the next line is 'I love you like a son', even though it's clearly written about a girl. A strident middle eight interrupts his coo-ing as Marty reflects on missed opportunities and growing old and impatient and alone in his tiny flat as the seasons change outside his window as he continues to pine away for his lost love. 'Well, here I am' he sighs. 'Missing you', before having one last great chance at changing her mind with a chorus ripped straight out of Del Shannon's better known song 'Runaway' ('We can run, run, runrunrunit!') There's a crib from Hollies hit 'The Air That I Breathe' too when Marty sings about how 'I need you like the air!' Nowadays he'd probably get done for stalking and given an ASBO, but this song is sweet enough: especially the ending where he - apparently - extends the song longer tha anyone was intending with a 'one more time, baby just one more time!' You can hear Grace and Paul and an overdubbed Marty then trying not to get the giggles behind! You'd never say this was the greatest song Jefferson Starship ever recorded - and it's certainly not the most original - but it gets by thanks to an excellent recording where Marty at his most passionate and Craig at his most under-stated both take the biggest bows. I know I'm certainly tempted to 'runaway' after hearing this song. What's Marty's number again?!
There are hopes, then, that the album has turned around and is going to end on a high but - nope! 'All Nite Long' sounds like umpteen previous Jefferson songs stuck together, which might be why all the band gets a credit somewhere for lyrics or music. Paul is clearly in charge of the song though and it sounds much like one of his with an emphasis on keeping a 'feeling' going and the power of music to heal. Unfortunately this re-write of 'Rock and Roll Island' is all washed up, sounding like the most dullest party you've ever been to. 'waiting for the next wave, wondering what it's going to be' Paul ponders, not yet guessing at the new wave of the next album, lost and pleading for 'just a little light to get home' in a phrase he's all again recycle whole-sale for 1984's 'Connection'. Intriguingly, the weakest Jefferson album yet (of them all?) which sees almost half the band leave overnight ends with Paul's yearly report in which he tells the band they aren't good enough, that he's lost 'in the ruins of a once famous castle' and struggling for a light switch now he's made his way through the latest 'doorway' music has offered to him. He kind of has a point, given that Craig is playing that lick, Marty is singing that backing vocal, Grace is doing that warble, Pete is playing that bass solo and Johnny is on auto-pilot, like a sampler of every Jefferson Starship record there's ever been. But Paul is the biggest problem: he's not joking when he says that he's feeling lost and uninspired and this may well be his weakest song in the Jefferson discography (so bad the others had to finish it for him?) Lacking the joy of 'Rock and Roll Music' (while sharing similar lines about the power of music to heal), lacking the exoticness of 'St Charles' (with which this song shares many tales of history and myth-tory) and ending up musically like a weak man's 'Ride The Tiger' (the song with which Jefferson Starship re-ignited back in 1974), struggling to limp itself home, this is an over-long six minutes of nothing. Paul even seems to have lost the ability to spell given the official title (which is just a bit too 'Slade' and un-hip by 1978 standards).
Things clearly have to change - and quickly! Sometimes 'Earth' demonstrates this by being so cosily familiar you may as well be listening to one of their earlier three albums. Sometimes it shows this by proving that the only things the band can do now are light fluffy songs that in the past would have been unworthy of their time and prestige. Sometimes it shows it by talking about age, with wars against politicians still un-won and time passing the characters by. Sometimes it shows it by weird metaphors about skateboarders. And sometimes it shows this by being, to be frank, a bit crap. Both 'All Nite Long' and 'Fire' are the Jefferson family at their worst and most misguided, shouting about nothing because other bands can get away with it, even though they're clearly not like other bands. Even at their best, Marty has become one-dimensional, Grace has lost her originality and uniqueness, Paul swaps his mysticism and tales of future past for a song about dancing all night and the rest of the band edge ever more from 'gimme more' to 'yuck, MOR!' 'Earth' is an album nobody sounded that interesting in making and lacks the fizz and sparkle of the four 'new-look' Jefferson Starship albums to come - effectively the work of a whole new band (they should have re-named themselves 'Jefferson Intergalactic Cruise Missile' or something, just to keep these two very different halves separate) they'll lose this era's subtlety and focus but gain in power and drive. To anyone who ever wondered why the band ever changed so drastically this is the answer: 'Earth' is an album out of time, out of synch, out of practice and out of ideas, with three of the band members out to lunch after making it for all sorts of different reasons. 'Dragonfly' escaped it, 'Red Octopus' dipped it's toe into it and 'Spitfire' delightfully recovered from it, but this is a Starship that's on full cruise alert and heading into anonymity, in the middle of the road (as much as intergalactic spaceships have middle of the roads!) This is a band that always sounded more comfortable in the bushes anyway, but it's a shame too given the best of this album (and especially the three before it) that this band's production shine, unity, brilliance, depth of layers and occasional lyrical nugget of gold is jettisoned through the hatch right here in favour of a noisier, more contemporary attack. As the song says though, maybe it's better to show yourself than waste your time doing what everyone else is doing.Back to school? Again? Well, there's always more to learn isn't there?...
Other Jefferson-related fun and frolics from this site includes: