Friday, January 29, 2016

If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From… Jefferson Airplane and/or Jefferson Starship

These classic rock stars have to stop dying on me.  But since Paul Kantner has passed, let’s take a look at these two bands.

And these are two completely different bands.  Jefferson Airplane was purely a 1960s band (although they lasted into the 1970s); bluesy and folky, anarchic, and totally unpredictable.  Jefferson Starship was more a product of the 1970s (although they lasted into the 1980s); more corporate, more focused on hits, more predictable. 

I'll be the first to admit I don't have a lot of any version of either band.  I’m not going to pay much attention to Hot Tuna, the blues-based offshoot of the Airplane, because I don’t know them well at all.  I’ll touch on Starship, the sequel band to Jefferson Starship, much later.  And I’ll also point out that if you want one product that deals with all three bands, well, that option is on the table too.  But just looking at chart and critical history, some choices are clearly better than others.

Let’s start with the Airplane.  Surprisingly, an album that was released over 35 years ago holds up as the best option today:

The thing about the Airplane was they didn’t want big AM hits.  They wanted to surprise people, make them think, make them feel.  So they only had two big hits (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” both of which Grace Slick brought with her from her previous band, The Great Society, and both of which hit top 10); they had six other songs that made the Billboard Hot 100 but couldn’t crack the top 40.  All but one of them are here (“Pretty As You Feel,” from 1971’s Bark; both that album and Long John Silver were released after The Worst first appeared in 1970).  Other important nonhits such as “It’s No Secret” (from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, with Signe Anderson as the lead female singer; she left after this album), “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” and “We Can Be Together” are represented as well.  It’s not perfect, but at $6.86 on Amazon for a 17-song one-disk release ($9.99 for the download on either Amazon or iTunes, so go for the disk), it may be all you ever need.  Classic rock radio usually never plays anything from this era but “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” anyway, so you might want to be careful about what you get to start.  If you love this, start buying the studio albums.

Other options (links lead to the Wikipedia entries when available):

Early Flight (1974) is a mishmash of leftovers from 1966 and 1967, plus a few songs from 1970.  It doesn’t appear to be available for download, and is only on disk as a two-fer with the live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland.

Flight Log (1976) looks more interesting – it starts with Takes Off as well, and includes assorted solo singles, plus material from Blows Against the Empire (a Kantner album with a lot of friends that took the name Jefferson Starship years before it was used for the actual band), plus a couple of real Jefferson Starship tunes.  But it’s not available for download, and $15.38 for the import two-CD set, given some of the early editions apparently don’t have great sound quality, seems a bit of a risk.

2400 Fulton Street (1987) is for bigger fans, as it contains a bunch of songs not on the original albums and such oddities as Levis commercials.  (I should point out even at the height of the counterculture, these guys always had one toe in the mainstream – Grace Slick sang a bunch of songs for the first year of Sesame Street.)  It’s out of print on disk, but $16.99 for the download isn’t unreasonable, given it was three vinyl albums worth of music.

Jefferson Airplane Loves You (1992) is a three-disk box more for completists; it has a bunch of live version and alternates, along with solo releases before the band came together.  It appears to be out of print on CD (Amazon seems to have it on cassette, although why anyone would want to buy a pre-recorded cassette version is another story altogether), and it’s $24.99 for the three-CD set for the download.

Platinum and Gold Collection (2003), compiled by RCA in its death throes, would be a mistake.  The Platinum and Gold sets were generally strangely compiled – they’ll have a few hits, but they’ll… always… be… missing… at… least… one.  In this case it’s “Pretty as You Feel” again, but this contains 12 songs (compared to Playlist’s 14 or Worst’s 17), and goes for $9.99 for the download, so I’m missing the logic.  $11.39 for the CD.

The Essential Jefferson Airplane (2006) was released not long after Sony acquired RCA’s backlist, and like most editions of The Essential series, it seems pretty decent.  Not much in the way of rarities (although there are a few songs that never made it to albums), but all of the hits are here through all of their periods, and the price is right at $13.94 for the CD, $16.99 for the download ($19.99 from iTunes).  Again, probably more than the serious fan will need, but it’s probably worth streaming to find out.

The Woodstock Experience (2008) is primarily live versions of their hits from that festival, but there are a few studio cuts in there as well.

Playlist: The Very Best of Jefferson Airplane (2012) is another set assembled by Sony, and it’s worth considering instead of The Worst.  It contains “Pretty as You Feel,” which Worst does not.  However, it’s more expensive on CD ($7.29 on Amazon) for three less songs, and is not available on iTunes for whatever reason (the download is $7.99 on Amazon).  Certainly get this before Platinum and Gold.

I should point out there are piles of live albums out there by the band that were only released in the last decade, plus some other oddities (White Rabbit and Other Hits, which is at $7.99 download for less than 22 minutes of music, can’t be a good idea).  Look before you leap.  And stream as much as you can – I’m not that familiar with much of the Airplane’s music, so there may be songs on some compilations that aren’t on others which are undiscovered gems.  Virtually every set out there should have “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.”

On to Jefferson Starship, which originally contained two of the primary songwriters from the Airplane (Kantner and Grace Slick), but not Jorma Kaukonen or Jack Casady, who decided to make their offshoot band Hot Tuna a full-time gig, nor Marty Balin, who was intent on a solo career after having left the Airplane in 1970.  Instead, David Freiberg (Quicksilver Messenger Service), Pete Sears (Rod Stewart’s band), John Barbata (The Turtles), and Craig Chaquico, who was just 19 when he joined as lead guitarist, were added, along with Papa John Creach, who joined the Airplane in the early 1970s.  Balin did a guest shot on the first real Jefferson Starship album, Dragon Fly, and joined in full time on Red Octopus, which gave the band its first real #1 hit with “Miracles.”  There were still a bunch of changes (Barbata was replaced by Aynsley Dunbar in 1979, who gave way to Donny Baldwin in 1982; Slick was forced out when her drinking became a problem in 1978, although she would return a few years later; Creach was gone after Red Octopus; Balin bailed out at the end of 1978), but the base of the band held fast until Kantner left in 1984 following the release of Nuclear Furniture, concerned it had become a pop band.  (Which it would do the following year.)

Anyway, the best buy for the money this time is a pretty recent one:

Playlist: The Very Best of Jefferson Starship

Jefferson Starship put 17 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, and there’s no one set that has them all.  This comes closest; it has 15 songs overall, 13 of which were chart hits.  The two non-chart hits are Marty Balin’s “Caroline,” which was a big AOR favorite but was never released as a single, and “Love Too Good,” with Grace Slick singing lead.  As time went along Marty Balin, and then Mickey Thomas, became the lead voice of the band, with Grace receding into the background (well, as much as Grace Slick ever recedes, I suppose).  There are four songs that made the charts (none of which made it into the top 50) that aren’t here:  “St. Charles,” “Crazy Feelin’,” “Light the Sky on Fire” (notable for its inclusion in The Star Wars Holiday Special), and “Girl With the Hungry Eyes.”  $7.99 for the download on Amazon (iTunes doesn’t have it), $10.76 for the disk.  I should warn it does have the album version of “Miracles,” which is somewhat NSFW (actually, I can’t find the single edit anywhere).

Other options that are exclusively Jefferson Starship:

Gold (1979) – Issued in January 1979, which is odd in itself; usually albums are like movies in that you want them out there in time for Christmas gift giving.  With Marty Balin leaving and Grace on hiatus until she sobered up, RCA (understandably, to some extent) probably feared the group was on the verge of collapse and issued this one quickly.  On vinyl, it was quite a package – foil stamped and embossed gatefold cover, with “Light the Sky on Fire” (backed by the never-a-hit “Hyperdrive”) included as a separate 45.  However, since it doesn’t include anything after that (and since those two songs are placed on the CD out of chronological order), it’s less interesting now.  But it is cheap on disk - $5.89 to buy the CD at Amazon, $9.99 for the download on Amazon or iTunes.

Platinum and Gold Collection: Jefferson Starship (2003) is as unrepresentative of this band as Jefferson Airplane’s version.  12 songs, four of which were never singles, and “With Your Love,” which peaked at #12, is left off, along with three other top 40 hits (“Find Your Way Back,” “Be My Lady,” “No Way Out”).  It’s kind of galling that Sony is keeping these available when they’ve got so many better options available, but maybe they’re testing H.L. Mencken’s theories.  $9.99 for the download at both Amazon and iTunes, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Super Hits (2007) is super cheap at $5.15 for the disk (no download available), but while the song selection is all from the Kantner/Jefferson Starship years, the cover photo is clearly from after he left (i.e. he ain’t in it), so it doesn’t look like this was well thought out.  10 songs, but only five of their nine top 40 hits are there, so “Super” is a euphemism for “should only be bought at a truck stop if you’re run out of other CDs to play.”  Don’t get this instead of Gold to save 74 cents.

Hot Tuna, which was the Kaukonen/Casady spinoff band, is represented by two hits sets (one and two disks each):  Keep On Truckin’: The Very Best of Hot Tuna and The Best of Hot Tuna, respectively.  Again, I know nothing about the band (I’m not even sure if they released any singles, much less charted them), so I will stream them first.  They do have a couple of songs on the aforementioned Flight Log, which might be a decent starting point.

As for solo compilations:  there are no real ones.  Marty Balin had a few solo albums (some of which are rerecordings of earlier songs on cut-rate labels, so be careful what you’re getting into), and so did Grace Slick, but no hits sets for either.  Paul Kantner never released a solo album under just his name, but there were a few disks he put out without the full complement of Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship (Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter, Baron Von Tollbooth, etc.).

In 1986, Kantner, Balin, and Casady reunited to form The KBC Band, releasing a one-shot eponymous album on Arista (which somewhat surprisingly is still available for download), while in 1989 Kaukonen and Slick returned (although none of the drummers – Skip Spence, Spencer Dryden, and Joey Covington – were invited back) for their own one-shot (and somewhat derided) reunion album, Jefferson Airplane, on Columbia (which not at all surprisingly isn’t available for download).  Since then, Kantner continued to reform Jefferson Starship (with Casady, Balin, and Slick occasionally participating) on various minor labels.
And as for Starship, this band was called just Starship for a reason:  when Kantner made his exit in 1984, he took a relatively small amount of money as a parting gift, as well as an agreement that the current band couldn’t call themselves “Jefferson” in any way (and if “Jefferson Airplane” ever reunited, it would only be upon agreement with Slick).  Thus the name change, and a move even further away from its roots – this was a pure pop/rock band. 

Starship deserves a side note not because of its music (they did manage as many top 10 hits as Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship combined, including three #1s:  “We Built This City,” “Sara,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”), but because of the band history.

  • 1984 (when Kantner dropped out):  The band’s lineup is Mickey Thomas (vocals), Grace Slick (vocals), David Freiberg (keyboards/bass), Pete Sears (bass/keyboards), Craig Chaquico (guitar), Donny Baldwin (drums).
  • 1985: Freiberg drops out after songwriter Peter Wolf (not the guy from J. Geils Band) is playing keyboards for Knee Deep in the Hoopla, which was supposed to be Freibergs instrument. He would later play with Kantner’s reconstituted Jefferson Airplane.  Replaced by touring/studio musicians.
  • 1987:  Sears bails out right around the time sessions for No Protection begin.  He would play with Hot Tuna for a decade.  Replaced by touring/studio musicians.
  • 1988:  After finishing No Protection and the tour, Grace Slick finally bows out.  (I remember hearing “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” repeatedly in the spring of 1987 and asking myself, “How is it that she’s not foaming at the mouth over how stupid this song is?”)  Slick would rejoin Kantner et al for the one-shot Jefferson Airplane reunion the following year, and then more or less retire, saying “All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.”  Replaced by touring/studio musicians.
  • 1989: During the tour for the subsequent Love Among the Cannibals, singer Mickey Thomas and drummer Donny Baldwin get into a fight at a bar; the tour stops while Thomas undergoes facial surgery, and Baldwin is fired.  Baldwin subsequently plays for Jerry Garcia’s band (not The Grateful Dead, of course) and Kantner’s revived Jefferson Starship.  Replaced by studio/touring musicians (notice a pattern?).
  • 1991:  Chaquico resigns (he’s since been a pretty successful smooth jazz guitarist, with 12 albums to his credit) – which means the only member left in the band is Thomas.  Thomas still wants to tour and record with nothing but touring/studio musicians, but manager Bill Thompson (who had been around since the Airplane days) told him and RCA that they were done.  Thomas, however, has still been touring with Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas since then (in fact, they’re playing a show tonight as I write this – 1/29/16 – in Bossier City, Louisiana, if you happen to be in the neighborhood).

That took awhile, huh?  Anyway, there are some Starship-only compilations out there.  Playlist: The Very Best of Starship appears to be the cheapest, but it’s missing a couple of minor hits; there’s also The Best of Starship, the inevitable Platinum and Gold Collection: Starship, a suspicious Starship: Greatest Hits of the ’80s which iTunes helpfully notes is made up of nothing but rerecordings, and Greatest Hits/Ten Years and Change: 1979-1991, a poorly-selected 12-song set that also includes some Jefferson Starship hits from 1979 to 1984 (but skips “Be My Lady” and “No Way Out” in favor of two more recent Mickey Thomas songs).

Me, I would skip all of these – and in fact, I have – in favor of a set that combines Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Starship hits all in one package.  (Just so you can get the inescapable thrill of hearing “Crown of Creation” and “We Built This City” back to back on shuffle play.)   VH1 Behind the Music Collection: Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship is what I have, at $9.99 for either the disk or the download; six Airplane, seven Jefferson Starship, and five Starship songs make it a reasonable starter for the first two bands, and most of what you’ll need for the third.  If you require more, Hits (which was rereleased as The Essential Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship after Sony took over RCA’s back catalog) has 17 Airplane songs, with 12 by Jefferson Starship and six by Starship; it’s $13.00 for the disk (or $16.99, if you’re foolish enough to insist on Hits instead – why two different prices for the same album, Amazon?), $14.99 for the download on either Amazon or iTunes.

Now I'm going to spend the whole weekend streaming this stuff.


  1. I've got "2400 Fulton Street" and think it's pretty fantastic, front to back.

  2. Being a totally weird music lover, "After Bathing at Baxter's" is my favorite Airplane LP. But, I agree, if you're only going to get one, "The Worst..." is a great one to get.

    Great blog post on this. Their history needs a family tree type time line, just to keep the incarnations and comings & goings straight.