Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Do We Prefer an Airplane Over a Starship?

January, 2016 has turned out to be probably the worst month for rock-music deaths since February, 1959.  

Just a week or two ago, came news that Glenn Frey of the Eagles (or rather, “Eagles”, as there was no definite article before their name) had passed away, from cancer, aged 67. A day previously, Dale Griffin, the drummer for the ‘70s band Mott the Hoople, was also 67 at his death (he had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease). 

Jimmy Bain, the bass-guitarist for hard-rock band Rainbow (founded by guitarist Richie Blackmore after his departure from Deep Purple), died on the 24th. 

 The most famous of the batch was probably David Bowie, who also suffered from cancer and passed away on January 10. Just before the New Year, too, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, lead singer and bassist with Motorhead, died from cancer. 

There was also the tragic passing of Animal, the manic drummer for the band on the Muppet Show. 

Paul Kantner.
And then just this week, Paul Kantner, singer and chief songwriter of the Jefferson Airplane / Starship, passed away aged 74 of what is being called “multiple organ failure.” 

Kantner’s obituary on the web site of Rolling Stone reminded me of thoughts I coincidentally had recently about him, and the bands that he lead. 

First, though Kantner wrote the vast majority of the material on Airplane / Starship albums, and was the lead male voice on most of their material (especially after the departure of founder Marty Balin), he was scarcely a household name. 

 Given that the lead singer was Grace Slick, it is no wonder that the other crewmembers of the Airplane / Starship were virtually anonymous to the general public. 

An even more interesting puzzle, though, is why nowadays the Jefferson Airplane remains so well known while the Starship version of the band is virtually forgotten. But during their career, the Jefferson Starship were far more popular than was Kantner’s earlier band. 

According to Wikipedia, three of the Starship’s albums released between 1975 and ’78, achieved “platinum” status (as recognized by the Recording Industry Association of America), with sales of one-million records or more (one of these, Red Octopus, achieved sales of two million or more records). 

Four more Starship records released between 1979 and 1984, sold 500,000 copies or more (thereby achieving the RIAA’s gold-record award). 

As for the Jefferson Airplane, the only one of their albums to go platinum (again, according to Wikipedia) was the Worst of the Jefferson Airplane, the 1970 compilation album. The releases with original material released during the Airplane’s “classic” period (when Slick had replaced the original lead female singer, Signe Toly Anderson), only ever achieved “gold” status. 

The Jefferson Starship was more popular than the Airplane, when these acts were active recording artists. I remember this well from my own youth, when the Starship was so popular, and very occasionally, I would hear the name “Jefferson Airplane”, and think, “Isn’t that supposed to be Jefferson Starship?” 

In the ‘70s, the Airplane seemed an antiquated, forgotten version of the then-current version of the band. However, it is the Airplane, and not the Starship, that people remember today. The name of the Facebook that I belong to which covers the careers of both phases of the band, for example, is named after the Jefferson Airplane, with no explicit mention of the Starship. 

Was the Jefferson Airplane really that much better of a group than the Starship? I don’t know, actually, because although I have seven of their albums, I discovered upon rechecking my disc collection while writing this entry, that I don't have a single Jefferson Starship album (excepting the earlier solo album by Paul Kantner that was backed by all-star band called “Jefferson Starship”). 

I can name several songs by the Airplane – such as White Rabbit, Somebody to Love, or Volunteers – that have significant radio airplay. 

Hey, Grandma.  You're so young.
But Jefferson Airplane hits that are played on the radio these days? Perhaps they are played in places where I don’t live. 

But I would be hard-pressed to name a Starship song (besides We Built This City) to save my life. 

It isn't out of any hostility to toward the Starship’s music that I have failed to buy any of their albums. If I had seen available, new or secondhand, I would have checked them out. Again, it is as though that variant of the band has faded into obscurity while the Airplane has become all the more prominent. 

It is a lesson on the capriciousness of fame. I'm sure there is something bigger here about culture and popular culture that the latter-day obscurity of Jefferson Starship could tell us, but I'm not sure what. 

Signe Toly Anderson Ettin.
Photo from Facebook page.

Postscript: while preparing these writings for publication, I discovered that the aforementioned original Airplane vocalist Signe (Anderson) Ettin, has also passed away. Like Paul Kantner, she was 74 years old. 

A cruel month indeed, January 2016, for old rockers.

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