Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: After several incarnations, Starship back on the road

Mickey Thomas is frontman for Starship, which evolved from Jefferson Starship/Airplane.
Mickey Thomas is frontman for Starship, which evolved from Jefferson Starship/Airplane.

Starship featuring Mickey Thomas

8:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Norton Center for the Arts, Newlin Hall at Centre College, 600 West Walnut in Danville. $35, $46. (877) 448-7469, (859) 236-4692.

You would need to be a navigational scholar to successfully chart the various flight patterns Starship has followed through the years. But the real trick comes in understanding how the veteran rock and pop unit known for mid '80s hits like We Built This City, Sara and Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now (but with flight logs dating back decades) could have stayed strategically grounded for so long.

Admittedly, the band — still fronted by the towering pop/soul tenor of Mickey Thomas — has never given up touring. But there had been no new Starship recordings for nearly 25 years (since 1989's Love Among the Cannibals, to be exact) until an album called Loveless Fascination surfaced late last year.

"I guess I started to wonder if there would be another Starship album, as well," Thomas said. "I started a few projects over the years, but nothing really panned out. I was never totally happy with them. Then the more time went by, the greater the expectation. I thought, 'How am I ever going to do a Starship album that's going to live up to what people are expecting?' But then I just thought, 'The heck with that.' I hooked up with my friend Jeff Pilson (an alumnus of Foreigner and Dokken, who wrote eight of Loveless Fascination's 10 songs) and went in the studio. I really wanted the album to have more of a '70s feel to it musically and vibe-wise than, say, an '80s or '90s feel."

That meant revisiting Thomas' entrance to the band in 1979. At the time, it was known as Jefferson Starship, a '70s update of the psychedelic '60s troupe Jefferson Airplane that included many of the same members. Thomas, a Georgia native who scored a chart-topping hit Fooled Around and Fell in Love with the Elvin Bishop Group in 1976, was recruited after the departures of principal Jefferson Starship vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Thomas' recorded debut with the band was released 35 years ago this fall as Freedom at Point Zero. Its lead single Jane became an immediate hit and established a harder arena rock sound than what was featured on more pop-oriented Jefferson Starship records like Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth.

"It took me awhile to take the plunge and join Jefferson Starship," Thomas said. "I had just left Elvin Bishop and was getting ready to pursue a solo career when I got a call from Jefferson Starship. I thought that was kind of odd because my musical background was so different than what my impression of Jefferson Starship music was like. But once I got to meet the guys and hang out, I realized they wanted to reinvent the band with a much harder edge. So we started jamming and I started applying my sort of gospel/R&B vocals on top of the harder rock that the band was all about. Then we came out of the gate with Jane, which set the tone pretty much for the new Jefferson Starship.

"But at the concerts, the fans were still like, 'Where's Grace? Where's Marty? So it took us awhile. Actually, just about the time that I think we were getting people to accepting Jefferson Starship without Grace Slick in it, she came back and rejoined the band."

Jefferson Airplane/Starship co-founder Paul Kantner left in 1984, taking the rights to the band's name with him. Hence, the official change to Starship. But another makeover arrived with 1985's Knee Deep in the Hoopla — namely, a consciously commercial pop sound designed for the times.

"By the time 1985 rolled around, we needed to again reinvent the band," Thomas said. "We wanted to try a new way of producing and making records with a lot of songs that were really different stylistically. We knew if we achieved what we wanted to achieve, we were going to get a lot of backlash because the idea was to have a real strong radio presence. Hit singles were what we were purposely trying to create with Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And it worked. But then came the whole thing about selling out and 'Whatever happened to the idealism of the Jefferson Airplane?'

"Our whole idea was just to take the band in a fresh new direction. We didn't look at it as selling out or copping out. It was just a fun experience."