Friday 4 July 2008

Jefferson Starship "Nuclear Furniture" (1984) (Revised Review 2015; Originally 'Core' Review #87)

You can buy 'Wild Thyme - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Jefferson Airplane/Starship' by clicking here!

On which the Jefferson partnership goes nuclear, splitting up just as the band’s fragmented vision of new wave rock and proggy concepts finally slots into place on a story about World War Three…

Jefferson Starship "Nuclear Furniture" (1984)

Track Listing: Layin’ It On The Line/ No Way Out/ Sorry Me, Sorry You/ Live And Let Live/ Connection// Rose Goes To Yale/ Magician/ Assassin/ Shining In The Moonlight/ Showdown/ Champion (UK and US tracklisting)

"The voice of reason was buried this morning...When the third world war comes it will be fought not with nuclear weapons but with sticks and stones. And possibly radioactive furniture. Oi, put that green-glowing chair down, this review isn't that bad!"
They may not have had the same anarchic spirit as the Airplane or the poppy million-selling hits of Starship, but this second incarnation of the Jefferson family are still very much worthy of attention. By the time of Nuclear Furniture original Airplane members Paul Kantner and Grace Slick had been joined by noisy but powerful frontman Mickey Thomas, a commercially brilliant songwriting team in husband and wife Pete and Jeanette Sears, a scarily impressive teenage guitarist in Craig Chaquico, an under-rated and under-used 6th writer, 4th lead singer and 2nd alternating pianist/bassist in ex-Quicksilver Messenger Service’s David Frieberg, a new drummer for this album named Danny Baldwin who only stayed with the band for two albums and a whole bank of 80s synthesisers (sadly there’s no Marty Balin by this period, one reason why so many Jefferson fans give this period the cold shoulder). If the Airplane were always described as three bands in one then the Starship in this period were at least four or five and for once all of them seemed to be at the top of their game on this album. Kantner provided the album’s intellectual anthemic and anti-establishment core, updating his radical flower power politics in the Reagan/Cold War period, Chaquico and Thomas provided the retro rock and roll with a contemporary edge, the Sears team provided the thoughtful ballads and Grace Slick added a little bit of all three. All of the Thomas-era Jefferson Starship albums are surprisingly bare, aggressive and new-wave sounding, with Kantner taking the whole ‘prog rock dinosaur’ thing to heart and spearheading one of the most radical changes of style of any artist or band on this list, delivering music that’s a far cry from the Airplane’s spaced-out prog rock and psychedelic outpourings in the 60 or even the ballad-filled production beauties that fill up their early 70s output. All four Thomas-period records are almost equally worth seeking out, although Furniture wins by a chair-leg thanks to its quota of good songs (nearly every one’s a gem) and its rather disorientating variety and unity (not quite the contradiction it sounds, honest). All of these albums are filled with a wide pot-pourri of ideas and styles, heavily coated in 80s production gloss to sound more or less the same, but on Nuclear Furniture that range goes into hyper-drive and no amount of sound effects and synthesisers can cover the eclecticism up.
Until 1984 the Jefferson family had just about managed to juggle all the different styles that went into their sound: the Marty ballads, the Paul politics, the Grace quirkiness, the Jorma blues, the Pete Sears perfect pop songs, the David Freiberg folk, the Craig Chaquico proto-heavy metal guitar, the Mickey Thomas pure pop. But 'Nuclear Furniture' is where all the juggling balls fall down and the band are straining at opposite ends of the leash. In the red corner are this album's pure pop songs, provided by Mickey and Craig and Pete and even Grace - and over in the 'glowing red because it's nuclear' corner sits Paul's concept album about the cold war heating up to boiling point while this album was made. Mickey wants to continue the pure pop of 'Winds Of Change' and with two hit singles he may have had a point that this was what the fans wanted - but Paul, tired of backing up an increasingly diva-ish singer and too stubborn to sell out the last remaining bit of subversive Airplane DNA, had other ideas. For once neither backed down (Paul had been soothed a year earlier by recording his 'The Empire Blows Back' album side by side with 'Winds', with one song swapped between the two records late on in the sessions) and the result is one of the most schizophrenic albums in the AAA collection; one that tells us the world is doomed one minute - and not to worry about it the next. Both factors of the band slagged each other off as 'repeating the same old songs' in this period and both have a point: the 'concept album' feel of this album is a full fifteen years out of date, although by the same token the new wave style pop of the rest of the album was an even older sounding five years old by 1984. (Paul even held the master-tapes for the finished album 'prisoner' for a while,  disliking the artificial 1980s mix that producer Ron Nevison had given the songs; the rest of the band acquiesced eventually but the stake-out took time to solve and was pretty much Paul's last act in a band he'd formed nearly twenty years before, a sad stalemate in comparison to the brotherly love of the band's beginnings). For critics the answer is obvious: neither side is of any worth and the whole of this record is a soggy gibberish mess, but personally I've always welcomed the confusion this record brings. With Paul on his last great prolific outburst there's less room for the rest so they only get their one or two best songs through instead of the filler that clogged up 'Winds Of Change'; at the same time, Paul's return to the heavy philosophy of so long ago offers a much bigger backbone to this album, giving it more of a point and purpose even if the circumstances mean this tale of nuclear war and recovery sounds half-finished at best. Jefferson Starship even come up with the perfect title and album cover: this album isn't quite the nuclear protesting concept album that was so out of touch with the times in 1984 but neither is it the mere 'furniture' that Paul feared the band was becoming, with Jefferson Starship just another pop band always there and making up the numbers rather than offering up anything new. It's here, just as the differences that the band have been trying to keep separate for so long become untenable, that Jefferson Starship become interesting again, their sights set way into the future again rather than being on pop auto-pilot.
It's an interesting point (well, interesting to me anyway) that the state of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship tended to reflect the state of the counter-culture of the times. The band started off in 1965, about the time the Haight Ashbury hippie movement took place, grew to a peak in 1967, slightly lost its way in 1968, grew back to another more universal appeal/political peak in 1969 and then collapsed as the 1970s went on. Even the re-invention of the Jefferson Starship as a punk/new wave act in 1979 (when they scored their first big success in some time with 'Jane') reflects what the hippie movement had grown into: a still rebellious much more cynical reflection of their times. By the mid 1980s though the hippie dream is well and truly over, greed and corruption and dog-eat-dog mentalities making the 1960s seem like one hell of a lot longer ago than just two decades. In 1984 Reagan and Krushchev are playing chicken with the fate of humanity in their hands and death by nuclear war seemed not just likely but almost certain - for the first time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis which all but heralded the start of the '1960s' proper and the call for peace. The Jefferson philosophies of peace and brotherly love have never looked more unfeasible - inevitably this was the point where the band split and that the split would be ugly, a sudden explosion in a cold war the band had been having of their own. Paul was on one side, David following him when he quit the band, and demanded that the band ceased trading and that he owned the rights to the name; Mickey and for now Craig, Pete, Grace and Donny vowed to carry on as 'Starship' (a deal was struck with manager Bill Thompson and between Paul and Grace that all three would have to be involved to use the name 'Jefferson' again; that's why Starship didn't simply become 'Jefferson Interstellar Missile' or something equally apt for the times).
In many ways it's odd that a record this inevitable didn't happen sooner. After all, just think how much political noise the Airplane would have made had America been as close to nuclear war in 1967 as they were in 1984 and unlike some jumping-on-the-bandwagon political albums the Jeffersons had a history of this sort of thing and would have picked up on it earlier than most. Recorded at pretty much the height of the Cold War, with even more mistrust going on between world leaders and their people than the ridiculously untrustworthy Nixon-Watergate days, the old Airplane mantra of make love not war didn’t sound as dated as it would have done in any other period. The 1980s might have been the antithesis of the 60s, making the decade a struggle for most of the groups on this list as their peaceful protests were categorised as naïve and their acoustic backing was labelled toothless (this from a generation who loved synths?!?), but the ex-Airplaner’s blend of peace and militancy served them better than most ‘hippie’ bands. We know now that the Cold War only has about five years to go when this album came out – but in 1983 the ‘Cold’ war was pretty much hitting boiling point and the idea of Russia suddenly falling apart seemingly overnight (to those who weren’t paying close attention, anyway) seemed far less likely than waking up one morning to hear that a leader had pressed a big red button during the night and half the world just didn’t exist anymore. In other words the musical mood of the time was sombre, in a way which hadn’t been heard since the early 70s, with the world settling down to an uncertain future of attrition and stalemates. Nuclear Furniture, more than any other album on this list, is the soundtrack to those times, desperately trying to work out what the future of our planet could be. Many albums from 1984 sound like this, with even the casual pop songs having some sort of underlying threat - though few take things as far as this record.
Even without the Kantner songs 'Nuclear Furniture' is an album devoid of the usual Jefferson landmarks. There's very little hope on this album, very little promise that brotherly love will save us all and even the pop songs are based around guilt, revenge and betrayal. The response of the four main writing partnerships to the present dilemma is particularly interesting. Craig and Mickey sound as if they're carrying on just as before, although the straightforward demands of 'Layin' It On The Line' and the post-spotlight desire to rise from the ashes in 'Shining In The Moonlight' both might be related to the band split. Pete and his wife Jeanette, both sensitive souls, are anxious about doing the right thing and caught in the middle of all the back-stabbing: their apology-song 'Sorry Me, Sorry You' (a rare duet between Grace and Marty that isn't directly about love) might reflect this, ditto the lecture 'Live and Let Live' about how every point of view is right ('Someone hurt you long ago and thwe wounds just did not heal' could be equally true of either Paul or Mickey, both men having had difficult upbringings), while 'Assassin' is like a more straightforward pop re-write of Paul's songs, of how society is broken and pointing fingers of those at the bottom doing rotten deeds because they see no other way out won't help. Grace has a foot in both camps, turning in the single best pop song of the album in the twinkly lights of 'Magician' and the very Kantner-style stark warning of 'Showdown', although Grace is for the moment more interested in working with a new friend , synth expert Pete Wolf (these two songs sound suspiciously like outtakes from her spin-off solo album 'Software' from earlier in the year to me). In many ways Slick is this album’s missing link, a ‘connection’ between the far out liberal songs of her former colleague and the pop sensibilities of the younger members of the band and her two songs for this album somehow manage to fall into both camps at once.
As for Paul, he's at war. Much of the album takes place after some future World War Three, when our planet is ravaged by a nuclear bomb and the population has been so shamelessly silenced and afraid of speaking out they have effectively become ‘furniture’ to their leaders. After spending so much time trying to save mankind Paul's finally given up and kills nearly all of us in one giant holocaust that takes place off stage before the start of this album - but Paul is too much of a natural hippie to turn his back on his race entirely. Just as 'Wooden Ships' followed nuclear annihilation with peace (two soldiers from opposite sides 'accidentally' becoming friends and setting off for a new land of prosperity across the sea) and 'Blows Against The Empire' followed a capitalist take-over with the stealing of a space-ship destination paradise, so 'Nuclear Furniture' comes with a twist. Unlike most hippie Nostradmuses, who only see total destruction in the years ahead, the world doesn’t quite end when the bomb/s go off), the destruction of the old regime simply means a newer and better one can take its place; mankind doesn't crash and burn completely - just enough survivors make it to carry on. A former nobody who could be any one of us fans but happens to be named Rose ('Lightnin' Rose!') suddenly becomes the leader that the planet Earth has always needed, a strong yet sensitive, young yet wise, forceful yet sensitive politician who focuses the people together and helps them re-build again on the people's terms this time ('There's no more MTV! No RCA Victor! No more California! Oh - they didn't touch Cleveland...') If that name sounds familiar then that's because Paul had used it before on the 1979 Jefferson Starship album 'Freedom At Point Zero' (which appears to have the same setting, albeit with the narrator falling in love with her and trying to make her fall in love with him). The story is told in three parts at the beginning and end of each side (except the very opening) as Paul tells us how the 1980s fragmented world was always going to end up like this, with people cut off from each other before 'Rose Goes To Yale' promises a better life with Rose's 'education' and ending with 'Champion' where against all odds the hippie freak flag still flies - the only flag left now, the only possible future for mankind to follow, the path of peace. Rose is now the 'Protector, defender, leader, optimum champion' of the human race and somehow the band pull together one last time with a great band singalong that manages to combine the politics and sociology of Kantner with the pop sensibilities of Mickey and co. The sentiment is clearly this: if we can do this, pull together from the brink at the last minute, when we are so separately opposed then the cold war too can come to an end'. It's a brave statement with which to end the Jefferson Starship 'proper's career, one last moment of unity and one last promise that 'if we sing loudly enough and if we sing strongly enough we can make a difference!', which has been the Jefferson message dating right back to the very beginning. Compared to most ‘Armageddon warning’ records, Nuclear Furniture is surprisingly optimistic, with a new (female) leader building the world of peace and equality most of us secretly yearn for however much we want to 'get one over' on our nearest 'rivals'.
Even though 'Nuclear Furniture' is made up of commercial anthems sitting alongside wildly eccentric bedfellows, there is a similar message working through all of these songs, the idea that we are all in danger on a personal and universal scale unless we turn things around and put them right NOW. In that sense, this record is a far more fitting progression from the Airplane’s earlier work and this is the only Starship album you can still imagine as working as well under the old regime, with the songs unchanged except for the synthesisers and jazzy guitar improvisations and sky-rocketing harmonies replacing the yodelling vocalists. There's 'no way out' unless we're honest with each other, we have to empathise and apologise with each other and be 'sorry' for our mistakes if we're to make progress. We should learn not to be fooled by the fast-talking politicians who get us wrapped up in a mess that's for their ends not ours. We have the right not to take up the prejudices of out 'leaders' - there's no such thing as 'the good guys beating the bad guys' when both sides are equally false ('Both sides were wrong, just too stubborn to teach!') We have the power to walk away from a 'showdown', which far from being weak is actually the harder thing to do. Most of all we need to find a 'connection' with each other, a reason for being together, of understanding each other and supporting each other - or we're lost, finished, no second chances. While all of these points are made about either a personal or a universal level across the album it's interesting how many of these points can be made about both; that a fading relationship can be kept alive by hope and understanding just as much as two sides of a nuclear war. No Way Out is, after all, a song of mistrust and an (apparently) subdued partner finally having had enough of their (bossy) partner and throwing them out after one wrong-move too many (lots of cold war parallels there). Live And Let Live is about a worried character whose whole personality has been derived from their paranoia and inability to let past hurts go (cue a picture of the cold war leaders right here). Trust the Chaquico/Thomas team to completely miss the subtle subtext of their colleagues’ works for the band – and yet even the tracks Layin’ It On The Line and Shining In The Moonlight seem to be deeper than normal, setting the cards out on the table and telling us all the great things we will lose if we return to the days of ‘Babylon’ and throw our present society away. Out of all the 1980s records made by ex-60s songwriters, Nuclear Furniture is the most 60s-ish in terms of message (just read the lyrics next time you get the chance, which suddenly doesn’t quite so dated or naïve in its new context here as it might have done even a few years before with so much at stake - although we don't recommend reading the infinitesimally small print in the CD unless you own a magnifying glass the size of a small house), if one of the more convincing 80s sounding albums too (Starship clearly understood the music of their era even if they didn't always follow it).
The music on 'Nuclear Furniture' is also devoid of another Jefferson trait: humour (unless the pinging 'magic tricks' on 'Magician' count). Instead the humour is held for a typically madcap packaging full of real Jefferson styled nonsense (the first time actually they've done this since the fish-with-false-teeth in the middle of 'Bark'). The album cover is a thermal image of a chair - obvious when you think about it, although the fact that there's absolutely no other album I can think of where this would be par for the course says much for this record! As for the packaging, how many puns can you think of using the word 'chair'? I'm willing to bet not this many, giving even this website a run for it's money (some highlights: new band members credited as Pete Chairs and Craig Chairquico, plus 'I left my chair in San Francisco', 'Chairlies' Angels', 'Conchairto In D Minor', 'Lady Chairterly's Lover' 'ET The Extra Chairesstrial' 'Chairway To Heaven' 'Chairiots Of Fire' 'Winston Chairchill' 'Some Chair Over The Rainbow' OK you had to be there for some of these and these really are the best of many hundreds, honest....).
Surrealistic Pillow or Bathing At Baxters this album ain't, but even without the groundbreaking ideas of old whizzing past you left, right and centre, there’s still more than enough interesting music here to be getting on with for any Jefferson fan. Ignored for far too long 'Nuclear Furniture' is a great way to end the band's long career, better than 'Starship' anyway, with some of the best work from both very different sides of the Jefferson Starship crew. Despote being written off as dated on release and selling a pittance even compared to its predecessors, 'Nuclear Furniture' has aged better than the albums around it, with a strong message well told and the band more or less pulling together for one last great effort - even if its notable how little the full band appear on every track. Nuclear Furniture still has the rough-edged powerhouse playing and intimate songwriting that made the Airplane great and the band have lost none of their hard political edges in the intervening years, but the band can also cut it with any contemporary band too making this a sixties record in eighties clothing. Much as I'd like everything in my collection to have a late 1960s sound, this is exactly how the war of young trendy music buyers and aging hippies needed to be fought, at a halfway ground of safety under the sign of a truce. Given that the nuclear war never actually did happen (not then anyway - goodness knows what will happen in the modern age if David Cameron gets the urge for another war) the fact that the last three Jefferson Starship albums ('Modern Times' 'Winds Of Change' and 'Nuclear Furniture') are still so hard to get on CD is now left as one of the greatest tragedies of our times  (I had to buy my copy of the first and last of these as a pricey American import; even though both are my favourite of the Mickey Thomas-era albums they make for uneasy bedfellows, one generally jolly, one fiercely melancholy until things get put right at the very end). Fond as I am of all the Jefferson Starship records, this one is particularly special - matched in my affections only by 'Dragonfly' as it happened, the other bookending Jefferson Starship release from ten years earlier. Given the changes between the two it seems much longer ago than that.
The Songs:
[210] Layin’ It On The Line is a typical Chaquico-Thomas song that sets the tone for most of what’s to follow on the album; upbeat but somehow slightly threatening, it’s a perfectly constructed rock song tailor-made for playing to stadium crowds, performed with all the force and energy that seemed to have fizzled out of the Airplane as early as 1968. The bass riff in particular sizzles throughout the song, adding a slight menace to the chirping keyboards and killer guitar riffs propping up the framework of the song. Like many a Chaquico-Thomas song, it seems ridiculously poppy and cheerful until you start reading the lyric sheet. In this song’s case behind the we-can’t-go-on-like-this surface message of a couple breaking up, it’s an expression of the need for change now or sooner, calling for a ‘voice of reason’ to save us before the world becomes like ‘Babylon’, a particularly apt reference given this album’s themes about the levels of corruption of those in power and the way that leaders think they are Gods – even though their contempt for their people means they have lost their support and their powerbase. Interestingly – given that the band break up just months after the release of this album and in a big, litigational way too – the Starship sound like a ‘band’ on this record, with each member bringing something to the mix. Chaquico’s typically energetic and quirky guitar solo might well be the stand-out however; the perfect update of Jorma Kaukonen’s progressive-but-60s sound some two decades before. A classy, rather forgotten song, this is one of this writing partnerships’ best efforts and might have been a big hit for a more ‘hip’ band (no teenage Aerosmith loving fan would ever have gone into a shop and bought a Starship record, but that’s plainly the target audience this song is appealing to here – and not just because Aerosmith are downright useless in musical terms after you take all that screaming away).
[211] No Way Out goes for the personal rather than universal approach, with Thomas’ vocal doing love-lorn regretful romanticism well despite his sometimes OTT yelling. A cover of a song by band friend Peter Wolf, it’s strangely straightforward for the new wave Starship and like many songs on this album would have made a fine catchy single, even if not the most original or expressive ever made. Unusually for this album, the narrator is the one who is doing wrong, but he gets away with his extra-marital antics because his partner can’t quite get the full story from him and gives him the benefit of the doubt (is this another cold war allegory, however, with most people of the 80s choosing to trust their leaders out of blind faith because surely they can’t mean to kill us all? Could they?). Yet another example of the theme of mistrust going on in this album, this song is sadly a bit too poppy to work as well as it should and not a patch on some of Peter Wolf’s other fine songs for the group.   
Two Pete and Jeanette Sears songs come next and continue the guilty tone of much of the album’s first side. [212] Sorry Me, Sorry You is a slightly more up-tempo work and the first example of Slick’s vocals on the record. Setting the template for many of their biggest successes to come, Slick and Thomas trade vocals on this simple track of two people bowing down to each other after coming to their senses after an argument. The tone of the lyrics might be conciliatory, but there’s still more than a hint of the drama in the air with the use of a one-note bass riff repeated most of the way through the song and a stupendous Chaquico solo that does it’s best to clear out the cobwebs not once but twice. Interestingly, this tale of a person backing down from a relationship is pretty much what happened at the end of the cold war, sort of – but this is probably the only song on the album not written at least partly with that subject in mind.
[213] Live and Let Live is even more powerful, juxtaposing a mournful synthesiser playing block chords on the verse with a full-blown power-rock choir featuring the whole band playing at their loudest on the chorus. The star of this Sears song is the expressive synthesiser playing, mimicking the cold lonely world the narrator finds himself in and in truth the song gets a little ordinary whenever the chorus arrives for yet another repeat. A conscientious rebuttal of Wings’ Live and Let Die, that uncharacteristically brutal and unforgiving but great sounding Macca James Bond song, this track contains a similar plea to the last track to sort things out and be honest once and for all before something more dangerous happens to disrupt things. It’s easy to see where this subtext is going – this is a good as a petition addressed to Mr Reagan and it would probably do as a petition for Mr Bush too if it were written in the present time.
Next comes a typically sprawling Kantner epic and arguably the core of the album, [214] Connection.  Performed (unusually for a Kantner song) as an ensemble piece with vocals from most of the cast, it’s a strange hybrid of energetic punk rock and arty prog-thinking that no other band would dare try. Following on from the ‘warnings’ delivered on all the songs so far, this track tries to shake the world from it’s head-in-the-sand malaise, showing us how far we have come and what a tragedy it would be to destroy all that hard work. Juxtaposing our past and later our possible future – huddled in caves, robbed of our progress, unsure of what is going on in the rest of the world or even if there is a rest of the world – Kantner blasts insular politics on this track, demanding that world leaders take notice of each other and stop working for their own ends. Some 100,000 years ago, Kantner argues, mankind was actually more ‘civilised’ than we are/were, as at least they are pulling together as a community and dreaming of the ‘great society’ (Airplane in-joke!) they will go on to create, even if they haven’t quite made it yet. Mischievously Kantner even argues that we have been in this situation before and that we have already experienced some great catastrophe that nearly wiped mankind out and set us back hundreds of centuries just as we were on the verge of a better future (shades of the hopeful 60s retrograding into the sordid 80s perhaps – and any hippie worth his salt must surely have questioned those perennial subjects like who built the pyramids and Stonehenge (rebuilt in 1901 incidentally – not that anybody’s been reminded of that fact in recent years), why certain civilisations dotted around the world share the same back-story of a devastating flood survived by one family and a sprinkling of knowledge they just shouldn’t know (the Egyptians and Aztecs had better understanding of mathematics and astronomy than we did until a few years back) and possibly too why NASA went to the trouble of airbrushing pictures of the moon, as if there is something there linked to our past). Huddled in caves, afraid of each other, Kantner reckons mankind fell the first time because they lost ‘connection’ with each other, no longer caring for others but only for our own individual power and the band here warn that we too may be facing that same fate. Suddenly jumping to the present day (well, the 1980s, anyway), the story switches to stories of murderers, rapists, snipers and terrorists, all watched by impressionable teenagers on the news. Explaining how we are making ourselves immune to the hurt caused to our many billion brothers and sisters out in the poorer war-hit world, the song tells us that we are shutting ourselves off from those in pain because seeing images of human suffering on the television so often has made us immune to them as individuals. (See both Give The People What They Want, no 82 on the list, and Amused To Death, no 96 on the list, to find out why Kantner wasn’t alone in this view of world broadcasts and link-ups). A short Grace-sung interlude shows us what the future might have in store (and it’s not good, needless to say), before Thomas turns his sights on religion, wondering whether if Jesus and Mohammed were around today they would ‘walk and speak like philosophers and thinkers’ or join in with the massacre themselves, using the modern tools at their disposal. A complex, daring piece of work, Connection is a little too dis-jointed to work as well as some of Kantner’s other epics on earlier albums, but the song does it’s best to drive home the need for peace and this song alone gives the Jefferson Starship another four or five styles to add to their distinctive sound on this album. Impressive, if hard to follow.
[215] Rose Goes To Yale finds Kantner in a more optimistic frame of mind, returning to his dusty and long-neglected hippie dream that the ordinary people can put things right by refusing to put with the ‘madness’ of the world that’s foisted upon them. Rose is the character that sums up Kantner’s hope for the future, a modern charismatic woman who rises from the working classes and encourages people to break free of prejudices, uniting the human race together again (Whether born of co-incidence or similar inspiration I don’t know, but several other writers have come up with the name of ‘Rose’ to signify their brave hopes for the future too, nearly all in the 1980s – but a good few years after this album came out. The most obvious example of this is playwright Charlotte Keatley’s feminist play My Mother Said I Never Should, which divides the feminist movement into four different generations from the 1930s to the 1980s and looks at different times tin their lives to see how they react to their changing world and to each other’s generation. The youngest, 1980s female, the most modern and most forward-thinking of the play, was called Rose, suggesting some new flower that would bear fruit in the generations to come. The name is particular apt in Kantner’s case, signifying something pretty growing out of the dirt and chaos that gave it life and has already been used by the guitarist on his earlier track Lightning Rose from the album Freedom At Point Zero (1979). This Rose is every bit as modern and far-thinking as the Rose character on Nuclear Furniture, but this time around she’s in a far less influential position, using her free-thinking ways for fun rather than the salvation of mankind (or is this first Rose what the character will be like if the world does not put itself in danger and she is not needed after all?) Typically uplifting (he can be when he wants to be – which hasn’t been for a while in this era its fair to say), Kantner’s best songs are always gloriously naïve, impossible dreams that sound so good that you can’t help wanting to believe in them, no matter how many holes you can pick in them. As an idea it’s terrific, balancing the dark pessimism of the last track – but as a song it’s another uncomfortable hybrid of punk and prog that will probably annoy as many people as it will impress. Grace is in good voice as Rose, however, obviously relishing the chance to play a modern feminist just like she did in the ‘classic’ Airplane days of Somebody To Love and White Rabbit.
[216] Magician is the first real compositional evidence of Grace Slick on the album and she will rather dominate proceedings from here on in. Surprisingly Kantner’s old sparring partner, the daring adventurer and feisty spirit of old, ends their joint career together (till 1989 at least) by trying to lighten the political mood, bringing to the table Nuclear Furniture’s most unashamedly commercial track. Magician is a collaboration between Slick’s witty lyrics and band friend and computer whizzkid Peter Wolf’s dazzling display of keyboard noises. Both aspects of the song work well, with the tune being entertaining and catchy without getting in the way of Slick’s multi-level lyrics about those ‘magic’ people in life who are so charismatic they seem to cast a spell over the rest of us (possibly Raegan again). The track gets even better courtesy of two highly original solos – Chaquico’s typically fluent outburst on electric guitar and a growling, groaning synth that seems to have wandered in off the set of Peter Davison-era Dr Who (it sounds mightily like a Drashig to me, although that was a 70s monster I know before somebody points that out to me!) However, Magician is the one track on here that arguably doesn’t fit the concept of misplaced trust, unless of course it’s a particularly charismatic politician we are talking about here.
[217] Assassin is a quick return to the Sears songwriting staple, with Thomas and Slick trading tales about the secret dark side of an ordinary man who suddenly flipped and killed someone when he was out of control one particularly depressing night. Deciding that we all have inner demons inside us that could equally become uncontrollable, the song quickly becomes a who-are-we-to-judge-him song pointing the finger not at the killer but at the troubled society that created him. With it’s lyrics about ‘casting the first stone’ and an un-named hangman lying in wait to condemn people almost at random, it’s clear this is another song written about the frustrations of living in the we-could-be-dead-tomorrow-and-we-wouldn’t-know-it Cold War era where nobody is really guilty but lots of us are innocent. Some more spooky synth noises complement the song’s menace, although the song is still one of the album’s more commercial tracks (just compare it to the similar Alien and Free on Modern Times – but ironically that record could have been talking about any period; here the music and society-turned-rotten subject matter is spot-on mid 80s protest).
[218] Shining In The Moonlight is essentially Layin’ It On The Line by another name, a welcome return to sprightly rock ‘n’ roll from Thomas and Chaquico that gives us a chance to chill out from the heavier sounds on side two. Thomas’ vocal sounds most at home on this sort of track and Chaquico relishes the chance to embellish his guitar riff with as much playing as he can get away with without drowning the singer out. Like it’s predecessor, this song at first seems to be a deceptively simple love-lorn song married to a great hook, but the more you study the lyrics the more it seems clear that this is yet another Cold War comment, with the narrator possibly huddled in a nuclear bunker dreaming about the great life we were all leading before somebody dropped the bomb. Is it not really moonlight shining at all on the narrator of this song, but something more sinister like radiation? (or have I been listening to too many Paul Kantner spin-off albums recently?...) Almost as good as it’s sister track, this is another under-rated effort that must have gone down a storm in concert, as its designed for stadium-filled shoulder pad-wearing audiences.
[219] Showdown is Grace’s final song on the album and in fact her last for the Starship at all in any incarnation. One of Grace’s many thoughtful keyboard-based ballads, this song tackles the cold war head-on, with leaders ‘too proud to stop’ while ‘war is roaring’, with a final showdown that neither side can win and both are sure to lose. Like Kantner, Slick sees a possible way out that might happen if ‘people have the urge to speak’ – doubtless the Starship were spreading their own peace propaganda with this album. The line 'six minutes and the war is roaring' refers to the length of time it would take for a ballistic missile launched from either side's underwater weaponry to reach it's target (that's not even enough time to listen to the whole of the Airplane's tale of annihilation 'The House At Pooneil Corners', an apt musical choice in the circumstances)  The ending is downbeat once more, however, fading away in mid-line as if it’s business is still unfinished and we do not have the final answer yet – as indeed we still don’t today, 20-odd years on (as Grace says, the most likely ending to this whole conundrum will be ‘insane’ whatever decision is taken). A creepy synthesiser is once more the star of the show, but clever as many of Grace’s lyrics for this song are, her tune isn’t all that memorable compared to the glory days of old. At least the song - Grace’s last politically charged statement self-written or otherwise before her semi-retirement in the late 1980s – proves that the singer’s revolutionary zeal didn’t abandon her after White Rabbit left the charts in 1967.
[220] Champion is a final Kantner song, rounding out the album and Jefferson Starship’s 12-year career, talking to us from one of our possible futures when the human race is almost annihilated in a nuclear attack. The surviving humans are now thankfully older, wiser and above all nicer, mainly thanks to the influence of their new leader Rose who leads her followers and their peace-loving gene pool into the direction they should have gone in in the first place. With its daft Hey Jude-like na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na chorus and its ecstatic list of all the horrible things mankind built that will never exist again (the band always seem to have it in for Cleveland for some reason, turning it into something of an in-joke – although as it sounds from these recordings like the grey and concreted USA equivalent of Skelmersdale that’s perhaps no surprise), the song is a terrific closer giving us a warning and offering us hope that a solution will be found all at the same time. ‘Oh well’ the recording seems to be saying while shrugging its shoulders, ‘that was an interesting interlude in the history of mankind – but where can we take our species now?!?’ Sadly we know the answers now (bye bye Khruschev and hello Bin Laden), but even so its easy to be caught up in this song’s communal moment, one that encourages us all to unite in the name of peace. Just compare this group-filled song to the sheer loneliness and isolation of the last song (which Grace all but dominates), and its ideas of Earth as a desolate wasteland, with no crowds cheering the end of the war even if one side ‘wins’. The song ends kind of strangely though, with a false ending that suddenly kicks off again into a whole new melody – that suddenly fizzles out 30 seconds in and in mid-sentence too! A faulty pressing? A faulty judgement? Or a comment on a faulty imperfect world?!? Take your choice! This is one record with so much possible depth you can study it for hours…
Long dismissed as the stoned ramblings of middle-aged hippies, Nuclear Furniture finds the Jefferson Starship updating their sound and ideas for a new audience, still confident that their message is the right one and needs to be handed down to their new audiences whether they want to hear it or not. Half pretty, half pretty terrifying, it’s the last great album from a group that put the psychological-thinking into psychedelic and the ‘our’ into flower power.
Other Jefferson-related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:


'Takes Off!' (1966)

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968)

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971)

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973)

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

‘Earth’ (1978)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983)

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part Two 1979-2013

Essay: Why Flying In Formation Was So Special For The Jeffersons


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