T-I-M-B-E-R-R-R-! If hacked down in a musical forest, loggers could easily count the many rings of this 55-year-old rock and roll Monterey cypress. From the high-flying early days as the Jefferson Airplane, the group defined the psychedelic San Francisco sound of the mid and late ’60s. Boasting a revamped lineup, the band transformed into the cosmic Jefferson Starship and rocketed into the stratosphere during the mid and late ’70s. Under the stripped-down moniker, Starship, the former pioneers of the once-powerful peace and love movement became purveyors of platinum-selling pop provolone during the mid to late ’80s. Today, flaccid incarnations of the various versions of the franchise still tour — performing at local weenie roast events and hometown rib fests across the country. I guess a brother’s gotta work.
As a rock-crazed 12-year-old, I’d completely missed my flight on the Airplane. However, I was totally on board (E-Ticket in-hand) when the renovated Jefferson Starship launched their 1974 debut LP, Dragon Fly. Truth be told, lo-fi protest songs by unwashed hippies never were my thing. But polished quadrophonic rock tunes by sweet-smelling golden gods definitely were right up my alley. As result, I fell to my knees and worshipped humbly at the alter when Jefferson Starship dropped their chart-topping, multi-platinum sophomore set, Red Octopus, in the summer of ’75. Go, Papa John! Go!
By the time their third album, Spitfire, hit stores (45 years ago this month), Jefferson Starship had become MY personal band. Now at age 13, I was hooked hopelessly on their irresistible, made-for-FM sound. And the band’s fetching co-vocalist, Grace Slick, was THE source of my frequent tissue-tossing teenage frustration. Boy Howdy!
A production collab between the band and studio vet, Larry Cox, Spitfire raced straight out of the box and shot to the Billboard Top 10 in short order. The colorful, eye-catching album cover depicting a mystical-looking woman riding a wild dragon assaulted my senses and demanded a forever home in my private LP collection. I surrendered, posthaste.
Driven by “more cowbell,” a swanky bass groove and funky guitar riffs, “Cruisin’” set the stage amid swirling orchestration. Co-frontman, Marty Balin, commandeered the mic and took the wheel, as he breezed up the freeway — windows down. And with complete cock-rock confidence, he confessed, “you’re lookin’ so foxy by my side.” #OnlyInThe70s
Without missing a beat, “Dance with the Dragon” was another sheer delight. The piano contribution from Pete Sears twinkled, while the ripe guitar work of Craig Chaquico tasted oh-so-sweet. The Paul Kantner-led, signature-style call-and-response group vocals made it sound like a raucous house party — one to which we all were invited. “Call it macaroni,” baby!
Slick stepped up to the mic and amplified the “frustration factor” further on the super-sexy, high-octane rocker, “Hot Water.” Whether the water was hot or cold, that was a tub I needed to be in. Damnit! Although “team Starship” certainly was an all-star operation, the track presented another convincing case for how (with sticks-a-twirlin’) drummer, John Barbata, was totally up for nabbing the record’s MVP honors. His kick foot and ride wrist alone were worth the price of admission, for Pete’s sake.
“St. Charles” sounded like a romantic fantasy playing out in an exotic locale. Balin’s lead vocal accented the group vocals wonderfully. The marvelous keyboard work of David Freiberg made this one a particular treasure, as guitar chaos ensued, revving into a massive crescendo.
The two-part “Song to the Sun: Ozymandias / Don’t Let It Rain” was a mystical seven-minute masterpiece that could have coexisted harmoniously with “Hyperdrive” back in ’74, while Balin’s honey-smacked ballad, “With Your Love” served as a “101” blend of radio-friendly AM pop and FM rock — a perfect follow-up to the band’s 1975 chart-buster, “Miracles.”
A beautiful heartache ballad, “Switchblade” felt painfully honest and pure. An unassuming love letter, it was one of Slick’s all-time most powerful performances. Sears earned mad props here for his warm organ accompaniment and space-age moogin’.
Hold on, kids! We’re hangin’ a hard right! “Big City” was an unexpected honky tonk-style rock and roll feel-good. Featuring Barbata on lead vocals, it led perfectly into the soaring, record-closing “Love Lovely Love” — none more ’70s, to be sure.
In sum, the impeccable body of work created by Jefferson Starship was magical and remains timeless. And after 45 years, Spitfire still stands as one of the band’s tallest achievements.
Spitfire Track Listing:
1. Cruisin’ (5:30)
2. Dance with the Dragon (5:04)
3. Hot Water (3:19)
4. St. Charles (6:41)
1. Song to the Sun: Pt I Ozymandias/Pt II Don’t Let It Rain (7:17)
2. With Your Love (3:36)
3. Switchblade (4:02)
4. Big City (3:22)
5. Love Lovely Love (3:33)
Run Time: 42:24
Release Date: June 1976
Record Label: RCA / Grunt