Monday 10 October 2016

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship "Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra" aka "The Empire Strikes Back" (1983)

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

Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra/She's A Telepath/Circle Of Fire/Mount Shasta/Lilith's Song/Transubstantiation //Esperento/Science Friction/The Mountain Song/Declaration Of Independence/Underground (The Laboratories)/The Sky Is No Limit/Let's Go!

'I want your heart, even if it's a little broken...Please tell me Mr singer, are we ever going to make it out of this planet alive?'

Back in 1971 'Blows Against The Empire' was the last of the rag-taggle hippy records dreaming of a better future and peace for all humanity and beyond. And why not? It was the ultimate declaration of what the hippie philosophy was all about: the concept of several san Franciscans hi-jacking a starship intended to colonise and capitalise on distant planets and instead spread love to everyone is the ultimate album of thought to grow out of the summer of love. Though the concept was Paul's many of the shining moments on the album were by other people - to name a few Grace Slick was in peak voice, David Crosby sounded stunning and Jerry Garcia is so multi-talented there isn't anything on this planet (or any other) he can't do. However times change and, twelve years later, the tale is a very different one. The Empire, so utterly crushed in the first record, is back because by 1983 we know that empires never sleep for long and hunt down their rebel young, no matter what it costs (the fact it references the second Star Wars theme is probably more than a coincidence too, but sadly there never was a 'Return Of The Jedi Hippies'). The hippies haven't escaped - although they have another go at the end of the record - because after Watergate, after Nixon, after Reagan and the 'other' star wars and after way too many years of the Vietnam war we know that escape isn't that easy. Hippies may have believed in peace and love, but by 1983 that wasn't enough - you had to fight to stay a hippie in the face of a culture that focuses on wealth, power and material success. Though again the concept is Paul's many of his old friends drop in to say hello but here too the hippie dream is in a mess - to name a few Grace Slick had divorced Paul a few years before and fighting an alcohol addiction that saw her kicked out the Starship for a while, David Crosby is in prison for his own safety on drugs possession charges and Jerry Garcia is just three years away from a diabetic coma that nearly kills him, while already even the biggest Deadhead was becoming aware just how hard it was for Jerry to play anything, anything at all.

This was the worst possible time to make a sequel in other words - and yet that's the whole point of this brave, take-no-prisoners-unless-they're-fellow-hippies record. It's an original concept cleverly updated for a whole new age when the same life principles don't apply anymore even though everyone involved in making it really really wants it to. You know that whole thing about sequels are rarely better than the originals? Well sadly that's not true here (few albums have ev-uh been better than 'Blows Against The Empire') but usually when a sequel falls apart it's because it either repeats the original too closely or gets too syrupy and self-indulgent. By contrast' 'Blows Back' is a much tougher, nastier record than its predecessor. It would in cinema terms be the low budget version of the original blockbuster, had it not featured so many epic production synthesisers in contrast to the free-flowing low-key beauty of the original. Paul Kantner got some of the worst reviews of his career with his record, at least when anybody paid any attention to it at all, because everyone assumed he still wanted to play the same old hippie and he hadn't granted that the world's landscape had changed at all. Far from it - insightful as he always is, Paul knew that the world didn't care about hippies in 1983 - and that, of course, was exactly why the world needed them most.

To be fair the plot is more rambling than its predecessor (and plot was never the best thing about 'Blows' anyway, given that you can sum it up in a sentence) and the incapacity of many of the key players means that you get synths where we used to get sound effects, drum machines where we used to get glorious rhythm section battles and smooth feedback gloss where we once got glorious feedback screech. Paul revealed years later that he actually wrote this book as a novel first and a soundtrack later (we did get a very limited version of the novel which included a soundtrack 'list' that ran a lot longer than this album; a re-issue would be nice one day hint hint!) but that seems odd as this record was never going to win the Hugo science fiction prize (which is odd, because 'Blows' actually did!) Set decades after the first story, one side one (the 'Americana' side) the hippies have been rounded up and executed (or made to listen to The Spice Girls perhaps) and the empire has locked down all communications - to quote the Jefferson album released back to back with this one ('Winds Of Change') now the only fire is from the light of the burning books. Suddenly, though, mysterious children are being born to the people with 'hippie genes' still within them - telepathy - and suddenly the young are having all sorts of groovy conversation about how nice the universe would be if we were kind to each other but without having to say it out loud. Particularly successful are The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (actually the name given the loose affiliation of players from the Jefferson, Dead, Quicksilver and CSNY memories who often jammed on each other's records) who don't say what they mean but whose songs are subversive and full of hidden meanings all the same. They even have telepathic amplifiers - work that one out!

Over on side two (the 'Oz' side) the orchestra have been hounded out of Planet Earth's main cities until their only home is the Australian outback, still as bare and derelict as in 'our' day. There they discovery a colony of 1500 hippies who got left behind from the starship hi-jack - the same poets, philosophers, thinkers, moon children and 'people who don't know quite where they're at yet' advertised on the rear sleeve of the original record. Unfortunately the American Government gets wind of the telepathic amplifiers and tries to steal them to spread hatred, war and general aggression across the universe in order to make planets easier to conquer. However the Government officials don't know about the hippie telepathy children who come out of hiding from all around the globe to cut the settlement off and suddenly we're in space spreading hippie vibes across the universe again, not from a starship this time but from a floating piece of Australian landscape! The empire can blow all they want, but by the 1980s hippie dreams have had to have been built on the back of strong stuff and the dream is still alive - it just needs a new 'race' and a new human evolutionary development to make it so. It's all very Paul Kantner - an aggressive, realistic piece where the baddies oh so nearly win that still finds time to float away on a piece of unlikely hippie psychobabble and where hope always triumphs over everything; fate, reality, economics, even plot logic.

Musically there aren't as many stand out pieces as on the first album (where nearly everything was good) and the plot occasionally gets in the way. Having enjoyed the unlikely success of getting two audio verite sound effects onto a best-selling album in 1971 Paul tries the trick again and again and again, but with 1980s compared to 1970s technology. You don't have to be a telepath to know that's not going to work, especially when we all time-travel through to the 21st century. Some of the tracks are far sillier than anything Paul and co really were writing in the summer of love ('The Sky Is No Limit' and the one song here featuring the full Jefferson Starship line-up 'Circle Of Fire') and bring out the weaker side of Kantner's songwriting - his sloganeering side, rather than his humanistic, philosophical side. The guests don't gel as well as in 1971 either - Croz is missing of course for reasons he couldn't help but then but so is Nash with 1983 the year he was trying to distance himself from his summer of love chums and go solo without much success; of the Dead and Quicksilver members so integral to the earlier records only an ill Jerry and an always-underused David Freiberg (still a member of Starship in 1983) appear; the Jefferson family are in ruder health with not just the noisy modern band but the hipper hippier band around too, with original bassist Jack Casady playing with Paul for the first time since 1973 (though sadly he's all but inaudible in comparison to the first record where his bass was so loud it blew away everything!) However Grace is on prickly form, still feeling hurt after having to claw her way back into the band and after their split not quite as behind her exes' vision as before (she has much more fun making 'Winds Of Change' by the sound of things). Even Paul doesn't sound quite himself, often drowned out on his own record. Together with the 1980s production there are many reasons why the people who, like me, so adored the 'Blows' album that they felt disappointed after probably spending a fortune and several years tracking it down (I know I did!)

However, if you set your sights a little down from the stratosphere and more towards, say, our fading holy ozone layer then there is still much to get excited about. For perhaps the first time ever on an AAA album an AAA rockstar gets positively shown up by their children. China, once the cover star baby of Paul and Grace's 'Sunfighter' is by now twelve years old herself and interested enough in her daddy's work for him to bounce idea off her; before too long she's taking lead vocals and wiping the floor with some of the greatest vocalists of her age, playing things cute in a way her 44-year-old mum just doesn't want to be anymore, while she's been joined by younger brother Alexander from Paul's second major life relationship. Sometimes Paul's wild visions for the future and hippie dreams of the past result in the perfect vehicles for the Jefferson family too - the noisy, urgent, sparkling pop song 'She's A Telepath' beats most things off the period Starship records (and unlike many fans I like the period Starship records!), Grace pulls together one sparkling moment of beauty on 'Lilith's Song', which is hilarious if you know your ancient myths (Grace wasn't the love of Paul's life as he thought in 1971 but the exotic mistress doomed to keep enchanting him which he could never get away from! She was 'made' to be Adam's wife but was expelled from the Garden of Eden first for refusing to 'obey' him...), The Mountain Song is a new recording of a bona fide Garcia-Kantner 'Blows' sessions outtakes (although it sounds far better in copious period bootlegs than it does here) and 'Let's Go!' wraps things up with typical Kantner ease and swing. You might find yourself wishing this hippie sequel would get a move on sometimes and didn't spend so long noodling around with sound effects, but when this album works the vision of the original and the updates that Paul brings to his original concept are hauntingly beautiful and other-worldly almost as much as the best moments from the original record. And that, after all, is a very high ask of any album.

There is a feeling, though, that maybe we didn't get the best album we could have done and not everyone is giving as much to this album as Paul is. Some people of course can't (Croz in absence, Garcia spirit willing but with weakened flesh etc) but the bigger problems seem to stem from Paul's own band and record label. RCA had never really understood the anarchic niceness of the Airplane and even less the realistic fantasies of the Starship - they certainly didn't understand hippie albums fifteen years past their sell-by-date and 'allowed' this album to die a bigger death than the Haight Ashbury utopian ideal. Paul's own band, too, weren't too sure a record this far out of time could ever work and wouldn't it actually hurt sales of the main band albums along the way by representing what some of them at least were trying to get away from? Mickey Thomas especially was butting heads with the band's founder and pulling in a different, more commercial direction - there'll be an irrevocable split between Paul and the rest of the band after 1984's 'Nuclear Furniture' and it's already brewing and blowing away here too. Given Paul's limited input into 'Winds' it seems likely that the harsher 'She's A Telepath' was intended for that band record (Paul does a great spoof of Mickey's occasional 'demented' vocal style- was it a demo he refused to sing?) and that album's much more polished 'I Came Back From The Jaws Of The Dragon' for this one - that's what we're saying anyway (it's also one of many 'extra' songs listed in the 'full' imaginary soundtrack in Kantner's novel). If so having your concept album pulled apart is clearly not what you need as a creative visionary. The worst thing about this album isn't that it misses the point or that it could never have worked because hippiedom was a stupid idea - it's that nobody believes in hippies anymore, hand on heart perhaps not even Paul Kantner, and it's that feeling that scuppers what could have been a great album rather than a patchy one. Well that and the interminable sound effect-laced instrumentals.

One other thing that could have improved this album was making it a double. Yeah I hear you, that incense must have leaked through to my brain as this one features more filler than an original Star Trek episode featuring tribbles, but Paul's list of songs 'intended' for the ultimate deluxe edition of this album (which sadly never happened) reveals some interesting alternate additions - some of which, to be fair, may have been written after the album came out (they were included with the 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' book a few years later). 'Girl With The Hungry Eyes' had already featured on 'Freedom At Point Zero' in 1979 and would have fitted in well in this tale of telepathy; 'Planes', the sweet song of parental love and cycles found a home on the self-titled 'Jefferson Airplane' reunion album in 1989 and would have slotted in fine here; the uplifting 'America' was released in 1987 on the 'KBC Band' (Kantner-Balin-Casady) album; 'Teaching The Computers To Dream' (a sweet ballad that evolved into the weaker 'On The Threshold Of Fire' on the 'Jefferson Family Album' 'Tree Of Liberty'; not to mention re-recordings of past Jefferson tales of doomed utopia like 'Wooden Ships' and oddly enough 'Good Shepherd'. Hearing that lot intermingled with the best of this LP and with the interminable instrumentals removed would have made for a fine single album - and a far more revealing double record too. But nobody seems to have given this poor album a chance even in cut down diluted form. Perhaps we're lucky we got it at all - and unlucky indeed that Paul never got to complete his trilogy. Can you imagine what a final LP from another fifteen years later (1998 ish?) could have been like? The 1960s were back in vogue a little in the 1990s; the starship would have probably been converted into a slim broken-down Red Dwarf model but the hippie politics would have survived the transition just fine - doubly so if it had hit the crest of a wave that was Britpop and Tony Blair before both new-old tastes turned sour.

So do you need to own this expensive sequel album (only briefly released on CD?) Not really. Especially not if you can get hold of the better parts of the album from Youtube - oddly for such a plot-driven work you really don't need to hear this album in strict order to understand it and feel it. This album certainly won't change your life or your politics the way the first album well. But if you, like me, signed up to the back-page advert (I was a 'don't know what you are yet', naturally) and are still waiting for the grand voyage into space (they were meant to be 'building up in the air ever since 1980' remember, they're running late!) then this album will certainly pass the time; at its best it will transform time and become the glorious timeless band we always knew all over again. Albeit with synthesisers and half the cast missing. 

They were the past. But they are also the present. Maybe the future. Pay your dues and get out of the way because they weren't the way they used to be when we were all very young. But they are still something new and you sense they always will be.

'Turn up the band, turn up the power and start another story!' 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' is a strong opening, a kind of 'Sgt Peppers' title track for the hippie world. Performed in the story by the fictional band, this is basically a 'hello, we're here!' kind of song, but there are a few extras thrown in to the lyrics that reveal just why this album was written. 'Where have all the people with the eyes gone and where have all the people with the sighs gone?' asks Paul and Grace and a cast of thousands (well, thousands of synths anyway). In this work the 'people with the eyes' are those born with telepathy, but clearly they're a metaphor for the hippie movement, the people who saw through 'real' eyes  what was going on in the world and cared enough to want to make it better. Paul also talks about wanting to 'go outside and play' - as we've seen in so many past Jefferson songs people work in the week but they live at the weekends as if mankind has things the completely wrong way round. Musically this might well be Kantner's theme song: the chorus is hard, punchy and aggressive, but there's a wistfulness on this song too with a pretty keyboard riff that nods away as if calling the characters involved away from their earthly plight and towards the stars. Craig Chaquico turns in a fine fiery guitar solo too and his sound has almost as great an impact across this album as Jorma did on the original although the two couldn't be more different: Jorma is an instinctive player, going wherever the muse takes him but dancing to the beat of those around him' Craig is aggressive, moulding the rest of the track around him.

'She's A Telepath' updates us about the biggest change in the 'Blows' universe since the first record - the new people born with amazing insight. Paul sings the song in a curiously sarcastic aggressive voice (which as we've said might well be his impression of Mickey Thomas) while the backing is more like your typical period Starship material than anything else from this album - it's aggressive pop music basically that just happens to have sci-fi overtones. Paul is so desperate to meet a female 'telepath' in his vicinity that he 'wants her autography', but like many a star he also marvels at just how 'normal' and human-looking she is. The telepath is also the latest version of Paul's dream girl that he's been searching for across many albums and songs - she's a fiesty heroine who dances her to her own tune and just likes dancing full stop, doing it whenever she can oblivious of whose watching. She's no carefree girl though - she's 'seen darkness' and knows how to pass on the lessons she's learned from it - 'she can shape you and mould you!' screams Paul, by now fully besotted. The full Jefferson Starship appear on this and the next track but this quirky update of 'Girl With The Hungry Eyes' is easily the better of the two.

Alas 'Circle Of Fire' is a waste of good Starship. An ugly retro song that starts off with a very 50s sax part before getting uncontrollably futuristic and wild, it's lightweight by Paul's standards and sounds like lots of past songs stuck together at random. The song it most resembles though is 'Jaws Of The Dragon' from 'Winds of Change' - the 'I came ba-a-a-a-a-ack' riff is the exact same one as 'Circle of F-i-i-i-i-i-i-re'. Paul has already written better 'songs to the sun' than this too, although it's not always clear exactly what the circle of fire is - at times it's a physical phenomenon the starship can pass through and which can be 'steered'; at others a lazy metaphor for love. Though Paul sings lead he's out-screamed by both Mickey and Grace and shown up by the banks of keyboards and another stunning Chaquico solo. The band are now 'faster than light, faster than God!' but considering that, the constant shouting and the aggressive rock and roll/heavy metal riff underpinning the whole thing this is a strangely dull and unmoving experience.

Next up is 'Mount Shasta' which features some unintelligible vocoder messages delivered by Paul and kids and Grace warbling as only Grace can. The 'real' Mount Shasta is an dormant volcano in California after which a Native American Indian tribe was named. It was also one of the last places in America to be explored by man (a mountaineering team only reaching the summit in 1877) although whether Paul chose it for a metaphorical reason (as one of the last 'homes' of the Indians before Europeans wiped them out) or is simply sight-seeing is unknown. More of an effect than a song, it runs on for far too long at three minutes and the synth noises and jungle sound effects aren't as impressive as Ned Sawyer's work for a far smaller budget in 1971.

'Lilith's Song' is the clear album highlight, the last song that Paul wrote for former lover Grace. In the context of the work it's about a pair of young telepaths who finally recognise each other after years of having to live with 'ordinary' humans and their inner loneliness when they're gone again so soon. In the context of the Jeffersons of course, it sounds like a tribute from Paul to his former 'dream lover' and the bond they used to share as they danced to a different beat to the rest of the world.  Perhaps writing about Grace's full-time return to the band in 1983 after time apart, Paul sings about the curious mixture of feelings he holds for someone he used to love and know so deeply but now feels almost like a stranger. They are no longer together, they have their own lives and their own true lovers who understand them more - but once a flame is sparked it never really dies whatever happens between two people and the 'winds' (which feature a lot on this album and on 'Change') sometimes blow it into full-scale burning again. The cry of 'dammit, he's gone!' suggests Grace feels the same as she performs what is (along with 'Black Widow' recorded at the same time for 'Winds Of Change') her last truly great vocal, souring, spinning and caterwheeling in a way that no other vocalist can. In other words Paul has found his 'Eve', remarrying not long after his split with Grace, but he still wonders about and cares for his 'Lilith', the independent feminist soulmate cast out from the Garden of Eden for not playing by the 'rules'. A lovely free-flowing melody, that works just as well when crooned in a whisper or sung with the might of a whole army, is also one of the best on the album. Much recommended and the only 'new' song here truly up to the inspiration and ideas of the first album, even if it actually has very little to do with the album's 'plot'.

The end of Lilith's Song grows into a curious coda named 'Transubstantiation', which is a three-part epic full of clonking synthesisers and howling wordless Grace vocals. Even more unpalatable and atonal than 'Mount Shasta', it's basically an excuse to sing as atonally as possible until we finally get a reprise of Lilith's Song'. 'Love love in the air, dance dance dance in another land...' Grace carries on, over and over, while above the Gods are moving their wheely bins and making it thunder with a spectacular storm. Next up is a brief 'French' moment, as an accordion and lots of wailing French accents gets extinguished by a sudden shot of water and a screechy siren synth chord.

Thankfully the song all this finally settles down into (the 'Science Friction' part) is much better and another of the better songs on the album. Grace, via Paul's words, tells us about how they came 'of age'. The world killed their mother, brother, love and even took their president (surely JFK whose assassination in 1963 changed American politics for good) and it wanted them to conform. The 'machine' never explained just how great and equally how awful life can be - it just made people's lives all the same, their selves 'eaten up by the heat of the machine', Paul's latest metaphor for capitalism. However the telepath-hippies refused: for 'one brief shining moment' they saw the world as it should have been lived and that's good enough for Paul, even if the peace he dreamt of couldn't last. A lovely sleepy melody and some terrific Jack Casady bass playing (far too low in the mix but still central to it as in 1971) make up for some slightly dodgy lyrics about rising up 'against the might of the machine'. Sadly at just under two minutes this section of the song is far too short to contain everything Paul wants to say and it's a shame there isn't a 'second' climax to build up to here because the song sounds as if it needs it (more than the quirky opening anyway).

Back in 1971 Paul and Jerry had an idea about updating some of the old folk songs they used to sing; one of the more famous bootleg recordings of it has David Crosby joining in too as they trade lines around the idea of living in the mountains as a hermit. 'The Mountain Song' is a typical mix of Garcia in his late 'country' phase, all mountain ranges and country living, with Kantner's love of the bigger picture and messages of a different way of living. The song never really got much further than a 'make the mountains be my home' chorus on the original, but it was turned into a full song for the album building on the other tracks. The telepaths have escaped to Australia (a land more usually famous for its deserts than its hills) and the song takes the place of 'Have You Seen The Stars Tonite?' on the original record. 'As Woody Guthrie once sang I am free!' yells Paul before telling us that a 'real' life living in the mountains is where life is really 'at' - 'trial by wilderness' but also 'trial by tenderness' as nature looks after her own much more than man ever can or will. The track's sing-songy folk lilt is a delight and Paul and Grace alike have more fun with this song than most of the album. Unfortunately we also get another mountain range of synthesisers here underneath everything and Jerry, once the hero of 'Blows', is too poorly to appear on the re-make of his own song. No song conjures up the difference between 'then' and 'now' more than this re-make of an original outtake and this song's strengths and weaknesses are the album's in microcosm. Paul should perhaps taken his own advice and kept things rustic - then this track could have been great rather than good. The song is rather sweetly dedicated to 'David C, Jerry G, Graham N, Grace S, David F, Billy K and Mickey H and to one summer when all of our schedules almost didn't conflict!', namechecking the various members of the Airplane, Dead and CSNY families who helped out on the original (albeit it Graham Nash, Jorma Kaukanen and Jack Casady's names are conspicuous by their absence).

'Declaration Of Independence' hints that the hippies are the 'real' successors of the American spirit, declaring their independence from a nation whose got it wrong. This is China Wing Kantner's vocal debut and the future MTV presenter is sensational as she sings her and her father's joint lyrics about a young girl rebelling against everything and everyone. All she wants to do is 'sit there in the noon day sun' and 'play with the panda', ignoring her elders' requests to take naps, eat her dinner and do what they want. China's narrator dreams of a future when she can do what she want and imagines her tormentors being 'thrown away with the garbage - with the covers on!' China's delivery is perfect, off-key whistling and all, cute but real just like her parents, and she even makes her younger brother Alexander laugh.  Paul and Grace's spirit clearly lives on, which is what this album is all about; China might be feistier than your average hippie on the basis of this track but her generation have learnt her parents' generation's knack for digging below the surface to see what life is really about. This is the track, out of all of 'The Empire Blows Back', that brings hope that maybe, just maybe, the hippie spirit isn't dead but sleeping and that - just as telepaths are hippies for a new era - so the youngsters of the 1980s have a little of their parents' spirit in them. This song, strummed to Paul's banjo, is certainly a lot more convincing than 'The Baby Tree', the equivalent song from 'Blows Against The Empire'.
Unfortunately we then get two minutes of 'Underground (The Laboratories)', which is a part of the plot I've never quite worked out. This is clearly the 'machine' hard at work (or a machine anyway given the sound effects) and yet the tune seems to be a 'happy' one - so is this the ;telepathic amplifiers' being made instead? In which case, how on earth did the hippies make enough money to run a whole huge factory of warbling Graces?!? There's more to think about in plot terms than there is music-wise as truly there isn't much happening here at all - just three minutes of weird noises and a synthesiser 'pulse'. Even Grace's warbles are pretty off-putting for once, screechy rather than soaring and any mix that puts a synthesised threshing machine further up in the mix than one of the greatest singers in rock and roll has clearly got something very wrong somewhere.

Thankfully 'The Sky's The Limit' is one of the most impressive songs on the album. China asks her daddy if she can go to the sky one day and Paul replies with a song that doesn't say 'no' as much as 'I'm still trying to get there myself!' A sad, slow, mournful track this is as close as Paul ever came to admitting that the hippie ideals he believed in almost all of his life might not quite work. All these years on, all these sad developments in human history and yet he still believes utterly and completely that he'll reach the stars one day. Which makes him a w what - A visionary? A fool? Paul pleads with the universe to 'let him run free' just the way that he once promised we would on 'Blows', desperate to be a child again. The best use of synths on the album adds a mood of bleakness and desperation to the album and act as the weights tied to his feed while in the distance sonar stars 'ping' away enticingly. The song's lethargy erupts into a snarl: either 'I won't go and I wanna know why' or 'I wanna go and I wanna know why' (probably the latter) - either way Paul questions himself and his impulses which still beat so strongly even after all this time. The rest of the world put away childish things and stopped dreaming of being hippies a long time ago - so why the hell can't he? The answer, of course, is that the heavens still sound so utterly devastatingly beautiful, no wonder they haunt him so. Surely the question isn't why Paul continued believing in peace in space so much as why everybody else stopped believing it and gave up with every obstacles they faced. A true tearjerker for anyone who ever believed even a little bit in the Jefferson ethos, this sort of thing is what sequels were invented for - to show not just why the original story was 'impossible' to achieve, but also why that made it the best we could ever have believed in.  sadly though this requiem is over way too soon (with one hell of a quick fade), replaced by the cry of...

'Rock and roll!' ''Let's Go!' is another Starship-style song even though few of the band members actually appear (Paul, Grace and Craig basically). Effectively a 'closing credits' song, this track is a summary of both the album and the hippie spirit: it's good to have dreams, even if they cause us sometimes to 'walk much further than we should'. In a world where the 1960s now seems like a fading memory, with bitter financial struggles and a dog-eat-dog philosophy in politics, Paul is growing impatient to see the change he once felt so sure was in the air. Giving people a choice between his original vision in 1971 for peace and prosperity and what the world was like then/now, clearly there's no contest. Paul is 'dreaming of freedom and thinks I've found her' - it may only be in his head and in his imagination, but that's plenty real enough,. You can just imagine Paul wondering out of his house to look up at the stars, again, and imagine his future self up there in the world. He also calls to his old bands and by association his old fans - 'Airplaners, Starshippers...what you say?!?' Paul urges us to follow his lead and make change happen, while also urging the 'gatekeepers' who keep us 'trapped' on Earth to let us go 'and spread another story'. Earth is claustrophobic and we've learnt all we can living alongside each other - so lets' go and explore space is Paul's message. He also throws in a few snippets from past album songs as the song naturally segues back into the chorus of 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' and finally ends on a sad last cry from China, who is still refusing to do what she's told and is out there, in the noonday sun, looking up at the stars and dreaming, ignoring her responsibilities, the next generation one last chance of hope before it's too late for all of us. As with 'Blows Against The Empire', you might never view the stars quite the same way again.

'The Empire Strikes Back' is a patchy record then that lurches between disaster and brilliance most of the way through. At its peak, though, it reminds you of everything that made Paul and the original Airplaners great, even if it falls occasionally into what made the Starship awful. It's great to hear Paul still so committed to his grand vision and the moments when he studies the differences between 1983 and when he wrote his first record twelve years earlier are highly impressive; no one was a better or greater critic of where the 1980s went wrong than Paul and at last he's free to say exactly what he thinks, without the need to write pop and new wave songs for the band in his day job. At times Paul's imagination runs away with him - the plot is hard to follow, the instrumentals drag and there are way too many of them and some of the poppier moments are flimsier than any of Kantner's actual contributions to the 1980s Starship records. At times this album pitches things too low and too 'simple' and 'sells out' so much that time-travellers who wanted to hear both records one after each other would have been horrified; at other times this is exactly what fans of the first record had been hoping for - another dose of hope to get us through the dark days of a dark period, tinged with darkness and melancholy that the dream of the first album turned so easily into a nightmare. This isn't a 'down' record though, impressively so considering the empire is 'winning' for most of it, the original cast have been decimated mainly by their own hand on cocktails of drink and drugs and the only way Paul can get this album made is to include as many period trappings as he can. The best thing about this album is that, like 'Blows', that vision and that longing for something all of us surely secretly want even if we think we can't get it (peace and love and freedom) remains undimmed and unbowed, shining on despite everything the world tries to throw at 'us'. Hippies aren't dead, just sleeping and waiting to have another go a generation or maybe two or three later - and then the rest of the world, with their guns and prejudices and xenophobia and ego trips will see how right we were. Just as with my review of 'Blows', eight years old as it is now, I still make that pact with you, dear readers - save me a place on that Starship who ever gets there first and I will make sure both of these records are packed and ready to bring along so that we can at last find our true vocation somewhere out there in the stars. Please, whoever is up there first, with the aims of spreading the human race out into the universe or maybe lifting the whole of Australia into the sky using the wonders of telepathy (?!), save me a seat – I still want to see if space is really as good as it sounds here. And maybe one day, dear reader, we can sit there in the noonday sun and play Jefferson albums together. I'll meet you there one day. Maybe Paul will too - maybe he's already there working on 'Return Of The Jedi-Hippies' as we speak? You sense that even death won't have stopped Paul following his dream or his vision. And, free of record company politics and a band who thought he was wasting his time and the earthly frailties of all his old supporters, it probably sounds even better than this second album. 

Other Jefferson related adventures in time, space and spirit available from this website are:


'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