Monday, 24 November 2014
Jefferson Starship "Modern Times" (1981)
Jefferson Starship "Modern Times" (1981)
Find Your Way Back/Stranger/Wild Eyes/Save Your Love//Modern Times/Mary/Free/Alien/Stairway To Cleveland
What we gonna do about Cleveland? What we gonna do about Skelmersdale (blow it up and start again perhaps?) What we gonna do about rock and roll? What we gonna do about it? Here we got a new site, shining new light that's outtasite, writing all you need to know about the rock and roll and politics and the old bands that drove them all crazy. Atomic swirl in an atomic world. We're telling you everything you need to know about rock and roll and politics. Some people never happy, don't like it, can't see it: who the hell is Max The Dog, we don't understand your blog, your just a wheel in some 1960s-spouting cog, you've clearly been at the egg-nog! Your new dog's crazy, your reviewer's such an asshole... Such a shame, internet trolls everywhere, what you gonna do about it and all the ..........tense moments? What we gonna do about critics who say they don't care, can't read, don't want us to succeed, don't understand our musical needs? People tell me everything about what they had, what they'd begun to forget, what made them laugh, what made them upset, they call me everyone from Hitler to Marie Antoinette. I got a new reader, big eyes, big heart, now losing their eyesight after reading too many pages, they like what I'm reviewing but say it's too noisy! And 'why don't you write like you used to? Like '05? '07? 09?' All the critics said we wouldn't make it, but here we write again, critics say we'd never make it never never never never never never! (Err, they ight be right...) But chaos coming? Keep the archives running! Longer and longer and longer! What you gonna do about it? What you gonna do about the crazy crazy coalition? What you gonna do about the economic price index? What you gonna do about Barack Obama and guns? Sanctioning countries that have done nothing wrong? Shooting civilians and missing targets? Wars for oil? Disability assessment centres with stairs and no lifts? Benefit assessments made by doctors with two week's training? Sanctions left right and centre? NHS cuts? Terrorists inside the country as well as without? Being forced to look for jobs that don't exist? Men hiding in caves who hate your guts even though you hate your Government as much as they do? (Even more because you have to live with what they do?) Leaving the EU human rights act because you can't get your own way? What you gonna do about David Moron Cameron? What are we still doing because of George Bush? What you gonna do about the damage they've caused? What you gonna do about love? What we gonna do about the crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy crazy Spice Girls?!?! What you gonna do about true love and the atomic missiles and everything and everything?!? Fuck you, we write what we want...including reviews of obscure poor-selling albums from 1981! Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah!
Well, it's been a long long road since Jefferson Starship packed up and set out on the road back in 1974, created from the ashes of Jefferson Airplane. With fans still reeling from the sudden u-turn and change in course trajectory that was 'Freedom At Point Zero', Starship took a bit longer than usual to bounce back with this second album from the 'new-wave' line-up. An even harder-edged, streamlined album than before, 'Modern Times' moves the band even further away from the Jefferson traditions of hippie idealism and moody ballads and ever further towards the 'mainstream'. That's generally the point at which reviews stop talking about 'Modern Times', dismissing it as a bunch of mums and dads trying to keep up with the teenagers, but like 'Point Zero' 'Modern Times' is an impressive sounding LP featuring several good songs on it and may well be the best of the 'new wave' albums. It's certainly the band's most consistent LP of the 1980s, with all nine songs impressive in their own way this time around and with the band truly gelling on the ensemble pieces across this album, even if the altitude the band fly at doesn't quite match the peaks of 'Point Zero' or 'Nuclear Furniture' to come.
For a time the Starship's flight path seemed secure. Paul Kantner had fought long and hard for the band to take on a new identity after the loss of the band's two lead singers Marty Balin and Grace Slick in 1978 and the proud shot of the inside cover of 'Modern Times' hints at the new direction of the band: rather than a fading-into-middle-age mixed-gender band who only allowed small pictures of themselves to grace album packaging the Starship are now a young punkish and decidedly male band, staring out the camera like all good new wave groups. However there are two major changes between the last album and this. The first is that Paul Kantner is one of those writers who always seems to be either inspired to the extent that he takes a band over or suffering from writer's block. After sorting out the band's new sound by writing or co-writing a good two-thirds of 'Point Zero' and very much shaping the way forward , Kantner takes a step back, co-writing just three songs on this LP. The good news is that means the Starship are now much more of a democracy: Mickey Thomas gets his first writing credit, the husband and wife team of Pete and Jeanette Sears and guitarist Craig Chaquico get much more to do (and do it very well). Once again, though, David Freiberg seems to have been silenced - all the odder since he was the principle writer behind 'Jane', the hit single from the last LP. Surprisingly all of these very different writing styles come together very well, to the point where you have to be a real Starship nut to work out who wrote what without looking at the sleeve (compare to just two albums ago when the lines between the 'Marty' 'Paul' and 'Grace' songs were obvious, with the odd cameo from David, Pete and Craig along the way). The bad news is that nobody writes like Paul Kantner, meaning that his updating of psychedelic themes for a modern era (the single most interesting aspect of 'Freedom At Point Zero') is largely lost, restricted to a song about a girl with 'wild eyes' (an old Kantner favourite) and two similar songs about the problems with the modern world.
The second change is that despite that moody all-male shot, Grace Slick is back in the band. History is still hazy as to whether she left the Starship of her own accord in 1978 or was pushed into it; what we do know is that by Grace's own admissions she was really struggling in this period, caught in a love triangle between her ex-husband Kantner (on stage with her every night) and the Starship's lighting man Skip Johnson, behind the stage with her every night (Grace married Johnson in 1976, staying with him till 1990 - much longer than anyone around at the time expected given she was a decade or so older than him). Grace's addictive personality left her hitting the bottle every night to cope during the Starship's last days with Marty and matters had come to a head on stage one night in 1978 when she gave up singing and went to watch the band from the front row of the audience, having first picked out a man she felt had 'rather nice nostrils'. By 1981 though she had cleaned up her act - her gorgeous solo album 'Dreams' in 1980 having got a lot of guilt and angst off her chest - and was looking round for a way back in. Most of the band (Paul included) welcomed her with open arms: Grace was 'one of them', they enjoyed being with and would help ease the transition between the Starship's 'prog rock' and 'punk rock' years and her added audience draw wouldn't hurt. She even charmed her way into the affections of new drummer Donny Baldwin (listed in her autobiography 'Somebody To Love?' as 'one of my favourite people' - and there aren't many people Grace said that about!) so that was alright. But new lead singer Mickey Thomas was furious: he's joined the Starship under the condition that he would be the de facto frontman and would be part of a move towards making the band contemporary; singing duets with a famous singer twenty years his senior (who potentially could have been his mother) wasn't his idea of a way forward. This grumble will roll on for the rest of the pair's time in the band (including the Kantner-less years when the group became known as just 'Starship') when the pair will end a turbulent decade working together (and singing joint leads on some of the biggest selling singles of the 1980s) in acrimony and ugliness. For now, though, Grace's addition to the band is a bit of a 'last-minute' job. The band have clearly worked out the arrangements for their songs already, so rather than add Grace's songs or give her a track to sing lead on she merely appears on 'backing vocals' and isn't listed with the rest of the band in the 'musician's list' on the back sleeve. Grace is very much present, though, her spiky harmonies adding a nice kick to the sound on tracks like 'Save Your Love' 'Alien' and 'Stairway To Cleveland' which was missing from the bands' sound on 'Freedom At Point Zero', however good that record was.
By 1981 the cold war is getting really quite chilly, the paranoid not-talking-to-each other chess game going on between America and Russia the antithesis of what the Jeffersons and bands like them once stood for. While there are always wars going on somewhere, all the time, the early 1980s seemed to be a particular worrying time: The Gulf War, The Falklands War, all sorts of fighting in the Middle East and a feeling that, sooner or later, our luck would run out and someone would press the button (after all, even JFK - the 1960s' hero - had nearly been led into war so what hope did we have over war-mad Reagan doing better?) Nobody knew in 1981 that communism was in its death throes or that this would be a short interim before the longest lasting peace in the Western world for a century; the backdrop to 'Modern Times' isn't so much that sexy looking android on the album front cover with the 'wild eyes' but a threatening landscape of guns, atomic bombs and people at each other' throats. The 'Balin' era Starship clearly don't belong in this world - but the 'Thomas' era does: hard, brittle, increasingly desperate rather than laidback. Many of the songs on this record reflect that change of mood - and the overall tone of the record is best described as 'defensive', maybe even a little 'sulky'. People hadn't taken to the new look band as much as the band had hoped (although the single 'Jane' - followed on this record by her 'twin' 'Mary' which I think is actually a better song - had been a strong seller) and the band have gone from sounding cocksure about their new sound and seemingly more alive than they'd been for a long time to surly and snarky.
That rant we printed up top is our re-working of the wonderful anger-venting 'Stairway Of Cleveland', a song of complaints about the era the record was released in that we feel ought to be updated every generation or so and was loosely inspired by people who didn't understand the Starship's need to change (the band really were moaned at for not sounding 'like you did in '65 ''67' '69' and 'why don't you sound like you used to?' was the big charge laid at the band's door by Rolling Stone Magazine, even though 'Point Zero's new ideas were a lot more convincing than 'Earth's recycling of old ideas; we remain convinced that had The Spice Girls been around in 1981 the Starship would be singing about them too as a sample of the modern world's ills. We're less sure our mascot Max The Singing Dog would get a mention but, hey, he has his own following too from our AAA youtube videos and we have to keep them happy). Kantner's other main song 'Modern Times' has the band proving that they 'know' what it's like to live in the modern age and that it might be even worse than their era ('Woah woah woah nobody to convince me that everything is just gonna be ok!') and looking back on their own time of idealism and hope in the 1960s as 'some sort of strange mythology'. 'Alien' may be about an extra-terrestrial but it sounds like a figure the world doesn't understand. The pounding 'Stranger' tries a similar trick: a figure the world doesn't appreciate that sounds as if it might be a 'cold war' tale of strangers passing on hidden messages. We said in our earlier review for the Airplane's 'After Bathing At Baxters' that the Airplane were unique among 'hippy' bands in that they demanded peace and love rather than asking for it and came with a harder edge that suggested danger and militarism rather than the normal sleepy hippie ethos. 'Modern Times' is an updating of that sound for 'Baxters', less psychedelic and less about embracing the new.
Elsewhere the album follows 'Point Zero's trend of looking at the up-coming heroes and heroines who might be able to get us out of this mess. All of them are underground figures, including the 'alien' and 'stranger', figures who haven't been corrupted by living in the Western world. 'Wild Eyes' might be considered part of this same group, praising a girl for having her eyes 'wide open', another mysterious figure dangerous because her 'dreams are intact' (quite possibly Paul's last love song for Grace - the pair clearly have a history, 'linking arms and singing with our fists in the air' which sounds very much like a Jefferson concert to me). 'Find Your Way Back' and 'Save Your Love' also try to add a bit of hope and optimism into proceedings (both songs delighting at getting a second chance - 'save the dreams you had when you started' so you can use them again) and 'Free' has a go at adding a bit of energy into the album, celebrating how great it would be to be truly 'free' of world Governments, human error and the whole litany of things holding us back in 'Stairway to Cleveland' (although compared to the similar 'Freedom At Point Zero' this song very much takes place in the present day, not the future). In fact, forget what we said above - in many ways this album is 'Baxter's polar opposite, pleading with the world to hang on to what was once important rather than simply 'updating' that original sound. Typically Jefferson then, offering a tall-it-like-it-is reading of modern society along with some possible solutions to help us escape.
That's the songs, a more consistent but perhaps slightly less adventurous bunch than on 'Zero'. But what really sticks in the memory about this bunch is the sound. By now Jefferson Starship are a truly streamlined outfit. All of these songs sound as if they're played live and, good as a majority of the songs are, it's the as-;live performances that make this such a powerful album. Mickey's now fully integrated into the band and his vocals suit these generally harsher, more aggressive songs better than the hippie idealising of 'Point Zero'. Craig is in his element, with some of his most stunning guitar solos (his one at the end of 'Save Your Love' is his greatest virtuoso moment lasting a full two-and-a-half thrilling minutes. Pete Sears and David Freiberg are doing another grand job of keeping the band moving and adding colour via bass and keyboards (once again the original sleeve proudly lists which of them is playing which instrument at any one time). Donny Baldwin's drums are heavy, thudding with real weight and tension in comparison to Johnny Barbata's lightness of touch: again that technique only half-worked on 'Point Zero' but it suits this harder-edged oppressive album. Paul gets a bit lost and Grace is barely here and 'Modern Times' isn't often regarded that highly by fans for simply those reasons (of all the albums released by the two versions of 'Starship' this is the one with the least links back to the band's old sound as the Airplane). But if you come to this record as the second album by a promising 'new' band that are firmly 1980s rather than looking for any remnants left over from the 1960s ('Why don't you sound like you did in...') then 'Modern Times' is still an excellent record with the band's 'second row' on peak form.
Overall, then, 'Modern Times' might not be the greatest thing ever released under the Jefferson name. Old fans will miss Marty and Grace and even Paul to some extent, fans who were there at the time were slightly disappointed that the album didn't quite match the peaks of 'Freedom At Point Zero' and fans who've joined in since might miss out a lot on an album that's very much shaped by the Cold War. However, this is still a very strong album with a lot to offer the world even now (especially now with so many skirmishes going on that might or might not lead to all-out war), a record describing 'modern times' that sadly isn't as dated as the participants want it to be (sadly it's the more negative, rather than the positive, elements of this album that came true). Many of you will wonder what I can possibly find to enjoy in such a noisy, unmelodic album and will have given up on the Starship after 'Earth'. Fair enough - but I still like 'Modern Times' (the record, not our modern times we're living in now: that would be silly!), a record that manages to run with the same political content the best Jefferson records always had, updated for a more modern era and played by a cooking band. More Grace and Paul would have been nice, the record is perhaps a couple of songs short of a classic (at only nine tracks this is rather a short album even with a couple of songs with long running times) and the lack of variety in the sound is a problem (one ballad would have been nice - although that said I find this and the other three Thomas-era Starships around it are all very useful records for 'getting things done', with no pauses for breath and a nice lot of riffs to get working to; back in my student days these four were my albums to 'clean' to, with the added bonus that turned up loud they kept my messy flatmates out the way till I was finished!) In all, 'Modern Times' is like the times itself: occasionally repetitive, derivative and downright glum, but sometimes brave, sometimes daring, sometimes thrilling and full of intrigue and mystery.
'Find Your Way Back' is the opening song, a catchy song written by Craig Chaquico with his occasional writing partner Tom Borsdorf that, despite not being released as a single, is generally agreed to be the album's 'hit' song (it registered an impressive #3 on the new American 'mainstream rock' chart on radio requests alone). The song starts like old-fashioned Starship, with a lovely flowing acoustic guitar effect that really bounces round the speakers with the echo on the production reflecting the idea of 'returning' over and over. Then the drums hit in and the song gets heavier as Thomas soars on a song well built to his personal style. A nice sense of open space allows this song to get 'epic', a word more often used for the 'last' Starship, even though this is actually a very simple song about the narrator wanting to return to a relationship that has broken down and start again. 'I guess it's too late now' he sighs early on, but as the song grows and grows in size so does his confidence, with this song turning into a rallying cry of hope and faith. One senses that this rallying cry is for the band as much as anyone, an attempt to off-set the 'ho-hum' reviews that greeted 'Freedom At Point Zero'. Of all the writers in the Starship Chaquico was the one who 'got' their style in this period the best: this song manages to give everyone lots to do and offers something a bit deeper than the usual 'heavy rock', although it doesn't sound 'alien' to the other tracks on this album either.
Pete and Jeanette Sears' 'Stranger' was something of a live favourite, thanks to a throbbing bass line, a tricky drum pattern and some more duelling guitars. Mickey and Grace perform this song as a duet throughout - the only song they do on this album - and it's the first of many to come (even though both singers had something of a problem with the idea!) The sound is one of unsettling menace rather than full-on rock, with a typical Jeanette Sears lyric about being an 'outsider' looking (on at a confused world (memorably suggested by the bass and drums being out of step with everybody else). Lyrically this is 'The Other Side Of This Life' updated 1980s style - a world where anything can happen, but instead of being a cornucopia of psychedelic delights the things that can happen here are shadowy and harsh. Still it's hard not to get excited at the narrators' offer to 'come walk with me through the unknown', especially when the 'unknown' comes in the shape of a ridiculously virtuoso Chaquico guitar solo. This is far from the Sears' best song for the band or even on this LP, but there's a strong hook at the heart of this song and a memorable band performance that does a good job of sounding like a big cat stalking its prey, turning from glimpses in the shadows to full on pounce with a curl of a guitar lick.
'Wild Eyes' (subtitle 'Angel') is Paul Kantner's first song on the album. Unlike most of those written for 'Point Zero' he gives it to Mickey to sing and while it's typically Paul with its futuristic setting and humour ('Even telepathic children have to eat their vegetables'), not to mention the memories of hippier days ('We used to sing with our fists in the air!'), it's amongst his most successful songs writing for the 'new wave' version of the band. Like close cousin 'Girl With The Hungry Eyes' it's really a song about lust, with a fixation on the eyes - the 'windows to the soul' remember - pointing to pure unadulterated adventure. Formed around a hypnotic bass riff that just won't let go and which again starts off at 'excited' and ends up somewhere around 'aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrggghhh!', this song just keeps on getting bigger and bigger, adding a mass band chorus, a gonzo guitar solo (even by Chaquico's standards) and some power riffing for good measure. As we said above, I'm convinced that Grace Slick is in there somewhere: especially the middle eight's memory of 'linking arms' and 'asking for more', while the lines about 'nobody tells her what she does or where she goes' and the opening line about a 'girl with her eyes wide open' is as good a description of Grace as any other (the fact that 'Blue Angel', one of many nicknames for 'Wild Eyes' in this song, is also the name of a drink could be another clue). It could be that Paul was missing his old mate in the band and that this song could be written as an 'olive branch' to her after Grace overcame her alcoholic excesses (her solo album 'Dreams' is the loveliest 'apology' card ever written). Then again, we're left with a problem: 'The Girl With The Hungry Eyes' is clearly not about Grace but someone the narrator has only just met; was that a memory too or is this song an inter-mingling of two people? Whatever the cause, 'Wild Eyes' is a song that sounds like a lot of fun to play, with a great riff, a catch all chorus ('I want it...now! now! now!') and another great band performance that sounds like it was recorded live in the studio vocals and all (with Grace just about audible in the background). One of the highlights of the album.
The turbulent 'Save Your Love' suddenly sounds more serious somehow. Pete and Jeanette Sears are one of rock and roll's longer lived partnerships, marrying in 1979 and still very happily married now after 36 years (at the time of writing), but they had a knack for writing songs about break-ups that sometimes feel more than just imaginative. The theme of this song is to remember why the couple fell in love - and keep on remembering it even through the hard times. On this song 'your heart knows when you're lying' and 'running from me now', with Mickey turning down his usual power-pop vocals for a more sensitive reading of the lyrics than usual (his barely audible whisper 'oh no' into the first, shorter guitar solo may well be his best moment with the band). Like many a Sears song to come, the line between 'right' and 'wrong' has been blurred, the narrator sighing that they've been hoping that one day 'it's all going to make sense' but they kind of secretly know it won't. Some nice band interplay finally gives way to Chaquico's solo at around the 3:30 mark, a brilliant ride that gets gradually more and more out of control and about to unravel as the song goes on and eventually lasts a full 2:25 before the song finally fades, the couple in the song still strangers and as apart from each other as ever. The guitar solo is the bit everyone talks about but even before that the song is something a bit special and another of the highlights of the record.
Sided two begins in punk thrash style with Paul and Mickey's co-written title track 'Modern Times', a neat update of what's usually a 1950s theme about wayward youths. The narrator's been a naughty boy: 'When I was a young boy I drove my father crazy, when I was a young man I drove my teacher's wild'. The song's angular riff and the middle section about how things 'aren't the way you always thought they were - did you?' sound like Kantner's and the 'woah woah woah' chorus and lyrics about rebelling and a love song thrown in for free ('Never gonna leave ya!') sound like Thomas'. Interestingly the two pillar opposites of the band go together really well here: while the 'love' part of the lyric sounds thrown in the rabble rousing youth and the hippie idealist do sound like one and the same person, both crying on the one hand that 'there's nobody to control me!' and the other that 'there's no one to convince me that everything's just gonna be ok!' The song is titled 'Modern Times' but only really touches on that in the middle verse (when 'Reality Anonymous' - surely a Kantner phrase - 'is coming up to me' and 'outside 12 year olds are carrying machine guns'): otherwise this is a timeless song about how institutions know nothing about how individuals live and how hopeless life sometimes seems (after all, this narrator is living under the cloud of nuclear war - what do homework and missed lessons count for when compared to that?) Another strong band performance, based around twin 'flanged' Chaquico guitars, drives the song along nicely and while the 'woah woah's soon get irritating this song sports another classic riff and some rather good lyrics. Paul and Mickey should have written more songs together, as here at least both sides have taken away the worst excesses of the other: Kantner's 'over-written' style and Thomas' 'under-written' one. Altogether now for one of the album's two ultimate arm-waving singalongs: Machine gun!!!!!
'Mary' is Chaquico and Jeanette Sears re-writing 'Jane' from the last album, written around the dopey hookline 'I'll never marry Mary!' and a similar grungy no-frills riff. The result is a tie: this less serious song is much more fun and once again the slinky riff is a good one (had a more 'fashionable' band like Led Zeppelin or even Kiss had done this they'd have been praised to the hilt!), but 'Jane' sports the more memorable melody and has a little more depth to her. This song could easily have gone wrong, in fact, without much going on in it at all even by this period of the Starship's standards but the band are clever enough to throw us off guard just when we think we've got to grips with it: just as the band seem to get all heavy and go for the jugular in comes....a xylophone-style keyboard solo! The restless music also does a good job at matching the simple lyrics about wanting to break free from an impending marriage. Throughout, though, the narrator protests that he's still very much 'in love' with her - but that the relationship has lasted as it has for 'too long' and he doesn't want to change it. It seems odd in retrospect that this catchy but lightweight song wasn't released as the single: it's very much in keeping with what was in the charts across 1981, sounds near enough like 'Jane' to appeal to the same audience that Starship had already proved existed and would surely have done rather well, even though Mickey putting on strange accents and messing around with the song over the fade-out suggests the band didn't treat this song too seriously.
The opening verse of 'Free' is thrilling: a killer rock and roll riff - perhaps the best on an album stuffed full of classic guitar hooks - comes sithing in as Mickey plays the 'bad' narrator who takes his girlfriend out on wild dates despite the stern disapproving stares of her parents. The pair delight in being 'free' - a philosophy so in tune with the Airplane's 1960s beginnings that a Grace Slick cameo intoning the title over and over suddenly sounds not so much a jar after one-and-a-half all male albums but perfectly in keeping with this band's heritage. Craig's double-tracked guitar gallop and melody lines are excellent and Mickey's lyrics aren't bad, conjuring up a situation in a few lines Chuck Berry Style (it's a curious style that the band member most 'in touch' with the sounds of the 1980s writes songs that almost always sound like they should have been released in the 1950s; then again there is a lot of crossover, with Shakin' Stevens' cod-Elvis act going down well, the opening of nostalgic 1950s diners and the sense that just enough time has gone past for teenagers to celebrate the goings on, not of their parents - that would be weird - but their grandparents). Alas after such a promising start this song has nowhere to go except round the houses again. The lyrics get gradually sillier ('She's full of surprises, living in the danger zone!'), the riff gets more and more repetitive and the whole song starts to lose its lustre by the time yet another noisy Chaquico guitar solo kicks in. What a shame: the conventions of having to structure the song the way most fans will recognise it and in a way that fits in with the rest of the album has, ironically enough, stopped 'Free' being 'Free'.
The moody 'Alien' makes a change from all those guitar histrionics and riffs. The Balin-era Starship would have made a good job of this one, a prog-rock style epic that's more about atmosphere than riffs and takes an age to get going (a bad thing when every track on an album did it - as per 'Red Octopus' - but a nice change in pace here). The Sears' last song on the album once again deals with an 'outsider' and perhaps the ultimate 'outsider'. Rather than taking the obvious approach (being the alien), instead the narrator tries to talk to the extra-terrestrial but doesn't get much of an answer (instead 'I feel you touch my mind!') Reflecting on the fact that aliens have been around a long time (must be those clandusprods from the Zigorous Three galaxy again - see any of our 'April Fool's Day' editions for more!), Mickey's narrator longs to 'tear down the shroud' and let the public see what he's known for a long time. Interestingly while Mickey continues singing in the third person, his duet with Grace in the chorus has her singing in the first person (is 'she' the android seen on the album sleeve? - That's the character I mean by the way, not the singer; Grace wore many outrageous clothes but none that tight!) A scary ending, featuring a battle royale between Craig's screaming guitar and Donny's pummelling drums, suggests that he's done just that. Then again, like Abba's similar song 'The Visitors (Crackin' Up)' from 1982's 'The Visitors' album (their best work by far - especially this opening scary track) the lyric is ambiguous enough to mean simply 'invader'. Given the cold war backdrop to most of this album this could be a brainwashed FBI/USSR stooge passing on hidden messages in secrets (though then again 'Are you from this Earth?' does suggest a close encounter). A nicely moody backing, with the group (especially Paul) chanting 'alien' over and over while Mickey sounds more and more scared, makes for another excellent recording rescuing a song that, on paper, could easily have gone another way (and been 'silly'). Thankfully everyone's playing this one straight, on a song that re-connects the Jeffersons to science-fiction (or is it science fact?) for the first time since 1976's 'Spitfire'. Listen out for two shocking edits at 1:15 and 4:27 in (after the first line 'Are you an alien?' and during the very end of the brief drum solo) - is this here for effect? (It's rather in keeping for a song about distortion and may reflect the 'jumps in time' common to many alien abduction). Or is this too neat a solution: did the band simply mess up? If so that would be unusual for a period where they seem more in-tune with each other than any line-up of the band since about 1967.
And here we go with the ending already, the outrageous take-no-prisoners crazy crazy crazy 'Stairway To Cleveland'. Inspired by a damning review of 'Freedom At Point Zero' in Rolling Stone Magazine (the 'rock and roll magazine that said we couldn't make it'), Kantner pours out his angst, grief, worry, doubts and fears over whether he's doing the right thing - and concludes that he is; he doesn't need anyone to tell him what to do and delivers the message 'fuck you - we do what we want!' to his critics after being tickled by comic/guitarist Paul Warren using the phrase (although whether that's enough reason for the ever-generous Kantner to give Warren a co-write for one line he could have picked up from most children's playgrounds is another matter!; This raises a difficult point that occasionally gets aired on this site. We are of course the very sort of critics songs like this one loves to hate; the difference is we fully believe in Paul's or anyone's right to release the songs they want without outside pressure from us; we just have an equal right in sticking in our two pennies' worth occasionally and hopefully giving readers enough detail to work out whether they like a record enough to buy it or not. We can laugh at ourselves though): the satirical 'Stairway To Cleveland' is a typically funny Kantner damnation of the human race and all the pressures heaped on it. With a rousing 'what we gonna do about...Cleveland?!' (an American town in Ohio much picked on for its lack of distinguishing features, although they had the last laugh - at least in the first few years when the acts were interesting - as the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame was based there later on in 1983!) Mickey and Paul set off on a duetted song about having a 'new face, a new band', the criticisms they face ('Your new drummer's crazy and your manager's an asshole!') and a lyric which uses the 'f' word three times for good measure. The concerts of this period tended to end with this song, a defiant 'fuck you' to the band's doubters that tended to end with an improvised rant from Kanter every night, walking off stage to collect a newspaper and comment about the latest day's stupidity ('And now the West is complaining about the Far East whose complaining about the East East. Doesn't it all drive you fucking crazy? This has got to be a test!') Like the record, the concerts touch on a raw nerve about human weaknesses and the long list of pressures (some serious, some silly - check out the way the band sing about 'the economic price index' and the song comes to a reverential halt)is a good way of getting modern living off your chest (sadly the lyric is just as apt today, dated only in the mention of Walter Kromke, presenter of CBS News between 1962 and 1981 - he was in the news when this album was being written for leaving his job after twenty years as a sort of national figurehead, once named 'the most trusted man in America' in a deed poll; John Lennon's death in December 1980 was one of his last news bulletins, although he's best known for his teary glasses-removal reading out the news about the death of JFK in 1963 and most loved for telling the Government where it hurt that Vietnam wasn't working - Lyndon B Johnson's announcement that 'if we've lost Cronkite we've lost middle America' was a key part in the turning of the tide against the war). The only thing wrong with this blast of pure noise and defiance is that the band didn't include a 'karaoke' verse for fans to add their own version to get things off their chest too...
Overall, then, 'Modern Times' is an interesting album. None of it is bad, most of it is good, parts of it ('Find Your Way Back' 'Wild Eyes' 'Save Your Love' and 'Stairway To Cleveland') is top notch. The most consistent of the four Mickey Thomas Starship albums, I like 'Modern Times' a lot more than a lot of fans seem to, who dismissed it as a noisier and less interesting version of 'Point Zero'. I toyed with the idea of adding it to our 'core albums' actually, but 'Nuclear Furniture' (an album from 1984 with higher highs but lower lows than this album) just beat it for sheer originality. In truth this quartet of albums come as a series anyway: if you like one you'll like them all; ditto if you hate one there's no real point trying another (though even by the standards of the other three 1983's 'Winds Of Change' is a very odd album...) My take on these records have always been that with Balin gone and the band as uninspired as they sounded on the god-awful 'Earth' record something had to change; my poor battered ear drums and my over-tired tapping foot might disagree but I still think this 'version' of the band was a good call and that 'Modern Times' was a strong album in a poor era that does a good job of staying true to the original band's core values with a heavyness and a grunt that's very of the period. Unlike that Rolling Stone Magazine critics I do like it, could see it - I just wish that a couple of tracks going somewhere different had been added for variation and then 'Modern Times' would have been even better.
Other Jefferson-related reviews from this site you might be interested in reading: