by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Freedom at Point Zero (1979, Grunt/RCA)
A near-complete overhaul of the band, both in terms of its sound and lineup, Point Zero marked a new beginning for the group. Slick and Balin were both no longer in the lineup (though Slick would re-join the band in time for the next record), and the band had found a new lead singer in Mickey Thomas (best known to this point for singing lead on the massive Elvin Bishop hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”). Drummer John Barbata also left and had been replaced by rock journeyman Aynsley Dunbar (fresh off a three-year stint as the drummer for Journey). This new incarnation of the band turned away critics in droves (mainly for the presence of Thomas, whose soaring tenor fit in perfectly with the band’s newly-reinvented sound but was never likely to go down well with critics who preferred the folk-influenced psychedelic-rock of the Airplane), but the band, finally free of Balin’s mid-‘70s tendency toward schmaltz, seized the opportunity to rock harder than it ever had in the past, becoming, in essence, an arena-rock band, albeit a really, really underrated one. The new lineup likely appeals much more to your average classic-rock buff than the earlier, Balin-era albums. The band wasted no time, making clear that this was no soft-rock band anymore, kicking the album off with the aggressive guitar rock of “Jane,” perhaps the hardest-rocking song in the band’s catalog. Chaquico and Dunbar both showing a new level of intensity in their playing, the song was deservedly a Top 40 smash. The album never quite reached that same level of intensity afterwards, but it remains a fun listen throughout (even Kantner—who had never written a Top 40 hit for the band before—shows off a newfound way with a hook, both co-penning “Jane” and writing three of the album’s catchiest cuts in the title track “Lightning Rose” and the downright fun rocker “Girl with the Hungry Eyes”). The band clearly sounds re-energized and newly inspired, even if the critics didn’t exactly take to the new music and its thunderous production.
Modern Times (1981, Grunt/RCA)
Every bit as fun and hard-rocking as its predecessor, opening with the stadium rock of “Find Your Way Back,” Craig Chaquico’s finest song to date, and one given an intriguing and chill-inducing production by Ron Nevison that makes the song sound simultaneously spacey and cavernous; never before has the band employed synths to better effect than they do on this cut. Grace Slick returns for a guest appearance on the stark, eerie rocker “Stranger,” featuring Thomas on joint lead vocals and sporting great performances from Chaquico, Sears, and Dunbar. Elsewhere, the band plays around with various styles, even dabbling in light reggae on “Mary” with Chaquico on steel drums, and Kantner contributes the incredibly fun stuttering rock of the album’s title track. The album ends on the fun and gutsy—albeit also profane, so be sure not to play it in front of kids—“Stairway to Cleveland,” perhaps the most nakedly direct kiss-off to music critics ever written, even hilariously incorporating attacks on the band (“Why don’t you sound like you used to in ’65, ’69, ’75?,” “Your new drummer’s crazy,” etc.).
Winds of Change (1982, Grunt/RCA)
While still a fun disc, Winds of Change feels like a step backwards, if only because Kantner, perhaps sensing that “Stairway to Cleveland” may have been a bit too over-the-top, seems downright apologetic here and seems to have absorbed and been affected by the band’s criticisms, taking the opportunity in his own compositions here—“Out of Control” and “I Came Back from the Jaws of the Dragon”—to revert to the psychedelic rock and countercultural acid-folk of Jefferson Airplane. They’re both hooky, at least, but the lyrics are just a bit too eccentric for their own good, especially on the latter. On “Jaws of the Dragon,” the band, for the first time in years, seems helplessly behind the times. Slick is once again a full-time member, though, and her larger presence helps to redeem the album, especially on the Top 40 title cut, a duet between her and Thomas, and the sinister-yet-sultry “Black Widow.” Thomas also dials it back on the album’s biggest hit, the Top 40 ballad “Be My Lady,” which hearkens back somewhat to the Balin era of the band in its melody and more laid-back vibe, while still retaining just enough of a soft-rock vibe to keep it from approaching the schmaltz of old.
Nuclear Furniture (1984, Grunt/RCA)
Nuclear Furniture ended up being Kantner’s final record with the band (who would go on with the shortened name Starship, under the leadership of Thomas and Slick, to even bigger success—and, naturally, even worse reviews from critics—scoring number one hits with “We Built This City,” “Sara,” and the Mannequin theme “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” alongside several other now-lost-to-time Top 40 hits such as the former Major League Baseball theme “It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over,” and the fine ballads “It’s Not Enough” and “Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight”). Just as was the case on Winds of Change, Kantner is still back to writing material more reminiscent of the Airplane days, such as “Rose Goes to Yale” (which is nonetheless still pretty catchy, even if its bizarre lyrical content instantly rules it out as a potential single), though he makes more of an effort here to make his songs sound a bit more contemporary musically, sparing him from looking entirely like a man out of step. Still, the schism between his own songs and his bandmates makes it very unsurprising in hindsight that he left the band after this disc. All the same, the band chemistry as a performing unit is still there. Even if the overall set of songs is slightly weaker than that on its predecessor, the best songs here make for better singles than either of the two hits from that album. The element of fun that’s been present on the previous few platters is still intact, especially on the propulsive, drum-heavy album opener “Layin’ It on the Line” (easily the catchiest song from the Kantner era of the band to not make it into the Top 40), which showcases new sticksman Donny Baldwin (Dunbar departed just before the promotional tour for Winds of Change) to stunning effect. The album also boasts what might be the band’s finest ballad, the atmospheric Top 40 hit “No Way Out”—one of Thomas’ more impressive vocal outings, delivered with a surprisingly graceful touch that he would employ to equally winning effect on the best cuts on the post-Kantner albums.
Post-Jefferson Starship, Kantner would go on—albeit with much less commercial success—to reunite with his former Airplane band mates Marty Balin and Jack Casady in the short-lived KBC Band before putting together a full-blown Airplane reunion in 1989 (resulting in a new studio album via Epic) to equally mild response. But those are albums best analyzed within a breakdown of albums under the Airplane name. As far as Jefferson Starship’s work goes, though, give Kantner some credit for reinventing the band not just once, but twice, and while the band’s ‘70s work does tend to dip perhaps a bit too often into schmaltzy territory (if primarily just on Balin’s material), I hope this album-by-album analysis—particularly of the latter albums with Mickey Thomas—dispels any impressions that you might have that the post-Airplane era of the band was one lacking in any real rock-and-roll flavor. The band may have drifted back into a more adult-contemporary-pop direction in the late ‘80s without Kantner’s presence (although to similarly better results than critics typically give them credit for), but for a five-year span in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Kantner and his cohorts played with a real sense of grit and toughness that you really don’t see nearly to the same degree anywhere else in the band’s extensive catalog, and the albums were arguably more fun as a result, even if their stadium-sized ambitions didn’t always go down well with the media.