Though not highly regarded by either music critics or general rock audiences, '80s-era Jefferson Starship and its pop-oriented offshoot Starship served as formidable draws during the entirety of the decade. In many ways this is a puzzling tale of two quite disparate bands, with the former amping up the hard rock and arena rock elements to fit one of the era's most popular styles. In contrast, the group's second '80s period proved to be popular but overly dependent on outside songwriters and toothless pop overproduction. Here's a chronological look at the best songs of the era from the two Starships.
Already established as a powerful lead vocalist through at least his memorable, soulful turn on Elvin Bishop's '70s classic "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," Mickey Thomas used his talents in a far different arena rock and proto-hair metal style on this track from 1981's Modern Times. By now the band had shifted its focus from departed singer Marty Balin and longtime stalwart Grace Slick to guitar-fueled, synth-accented hard rock. Guitarist Craig Chaquico clearly exerted his influence here as well, shining as both composer and lead guitarist. This is an enjoyable mainstream rock track perfectly suited for the early '80s, and it's a worthy follow-up to 1979's similarly styled "Jane."
Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner fades squarely to the background on music like this, rock music fans have nothing to complain about here. Various hair metal bands could have certainly used the vocal services of Thomas in the coming years, but alas, no such luck.
3. "Be My Lady"
Although this Sears-penned track from 1982's Winds of Change certainly moves more in the direction of MOR than AOR, it still maintains some textured, compelling twin guitar work from Chaquico and a strong melody. This is clearly a precursor to the stylistic shift that would alienate Kantner and ultimately take him (and the "Jefferson" portion of the band's name) away from the group a couple of years later. Still, this is undeniably well-executed mainstream rock fare that manages to capture the spirit of the era without making too many commercial concessions. Such an assessment would become increasingly difficult to make regarding the band's future efforts.
4. "No Way Out"
Though strangely schizophrenic at times in its sonic approach, this lead-off single from 1984's Nuclear Furniture enjoys some very strong moments of melodic bombast. Unfortunately, much of these take place during the track's opening seconds, which are dominated in welcome fashion by a sparkling synth riff and rock arrangement. After that, the song veers suddenly into full-tilt soft rock during the verses, even if the great synth line makes later appearances alongside Chaquico's forceful lead guitar. Ultimately this blend works despite its somewhat jarring nature, partially because Thomas sounds as good as ever.
This mainstream rock masterpiece once again makes a solid case for Thomas as a potentially commanding pop metal frontman. His powerhouse high vocals here essentially outshine the screeching antics of Quiet Riot, Ratt and Cinderella put together, and Chaquico's muscular guitars perfectly balance out the heavy, essential doses of synthesizer. When the band lost Kantner and the "Jefferson" portion of its name following this record, it should have elected to continue in its established hard rock direction, at least in terms of resulting musical quality. Obviously, that didn't happen, but this tune actually rocks in convincing fashion.
The evolution toward the syrupy soft rock sound of this tune, one of Starship's two No. 1 hits from 1985's Knee Deep in the Hoopla, must have had plenty to do with Kantner's departure. In fact, it's amazing that Chaquico stayed on after the group's emphasis on guitars evaporated completely. Nevertheless, of Starship's immediate chart-toppers, this pleasant ballad eclipses the significantly more horrid "We Built This City." While that must not register as anything but the faintest of praise, the song does have its melodic moments, though it's worlds away, to say the least, from the psychedelic experimentation of Jefferson Airplane.
Prominent guitar returns to the forefront for this thoroughly decent if keyboard-hampered mid-tempo track from 1987's No Protection. Once again, Thomas is in top form here, and he remains one of the strongest soulful white singers in '80s rock. Producer Peter Wolf (not the lead singer of the J. Geils Band) definitely possesses a heavy hand that severely reduced Starship's limited credibility as a rock band, but at least this song significantly outshines the tepid theme to the undisputed film classic Mannequin, the shame-inducing "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now."
Despite the massive success of Starship's first two albums, Slick walked away from the group yet again, leaving Thomas and Chaquico to lead the band on 1989's Love Among the Cannibals. This solid power ballad features just enough guitar heroics and melodic flourishes to qualify as a legitimate alternative to similarly styled pop metal of the period. Ultimately, this Top 20 pop hit represents a respectable bookend to a decade of music marred by bad reputation rather than defined by appreciation for the music that actually stands up.