How Jefferson Starship Reached Their Arena-Rock Zenith on ‘Modern Times’
Modern Times, released on April 2, 1981, represents the zenith of the brief heavier-rocking period between Jefferson Starship's Marty Balin era and their subsequent turn toward pop as Starship. On no other album is founding guitarist Craig Chaquico's electric more front and center.
It wouldn't last. Producer Ron Nevison returned to produce one more Jefferson Starship album, his third, before the group experienced the seismic shift of late fellow co-founder Paul Kantner's departure. In the meantime, however, Jefferson Starship set a template for '80s-era success soon followed by veteran Nevison-produced bands like Heart, Ozzy Osbourne and Chicago – all while celebrating an initial reunion with singer Grace Slick.
She arrived too late for the album-cover band photo, but managed a duet with new frontman Mickey Thomas on the Pete Sears-composed "Stranger," while adding background vocals throughout. The heart of this arena-rocking album, however, can be found elsewhere – inside Kantner's eruptive "Wild Eyes (Angel)," Chaquico's scalding turn on Sears' "Save Your Love," Chaquico's riffy "Mary," the snarky "Free."
Modern Times, like its predecessor, went gold – as would each Jefferson Starship album from this sleek, but more guitar-focused, period. Still, not every one was thrilled by their new sound -- Rolling Stone's Al Sperone had derisively described Freedom at Point Zero as "characterless heavy-metal" by an "obsolete" band. Kantner responded on Modern Times with the tough, album-closing "Stairway to Cleveland," a profanity-laced track subtitled "We Do What We Want."
"I like to walk on the edge," Kantner argued back then. "We're taking chances, but that's what makes it interesting."
If you listened closely enough, however, you could hear hints as to where Jefferson Starship would go, beginning with 1984's Nuclear Furniture and then – after Kantner's departure – into the Starship era. Chaquico is featured on synthesizer for three tunes, as is Sears. Dave Freiberg plays synth on two others. Heck, even drummer Aynsley Dunbar ("Free") could be found on keys.
The truth is, Thomas – best known at this point in blues and soul circles after voicing the Elvin Bishop favorite “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” – had second thoughts from the beginning about this edgier direction. “I didn’t know if it would work,” Thomas once said. “Finally, I thought: ‘As crazy as this is, and as unlikely as it would be that this would work, there’s something there.’ Where they were coming from, and where I was then, it was a meeting of styles that created something original.”
It did. Chaquico's metallic “Find Your Way Back” rose to No. 3 on the newly minted Billboard Mainstream Rock charts, but their next hit was the Peter Wolf-composed "No Way Out," a synth-based cut from Nuclear Furniture that featured Kantner in his final video performance. They couldn't have strayed further from their roots as Jefferson Airplane. "It was getting more pop, and less creative," Kantner later complained. "It was the wrong direction, but everybody wanted to go in the wrong direction and I was extremely opposed to that."
Chaquico departed in 1990, moving still further from this hard-rock sound into acoustic new age music. Still, he never forgot "Find Your Way Back," earning a Grammy nod in 1995 for Acoustic Planet, a sophomore solo release which featured a complete deconstruction of the song. By then, Starship had completely fallen apart.
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