Friday, February 5, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Jefferson Starship's Red Octopus (1975)

Three big names in rock'n'roll died in January. First, David Bowie, followed by Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, and then Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner. So far this month, Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White has passed. The new year has been rough on radio stars of the 1970s.

At the job, my coworker likes to listen to the local hipster radio station, KEXP. (Today the station is celebrating International Clash Day.) On his birthday, January 8, KEXP devoted an entire day to Bowie music, which was then repeated on Monday, January 11 in memoriam. The DJs spoke in hushed, awed voices about what Bowie had meant to them and how his death had knocked them breathless.

To mark Paul Kantner's passing, the station played a sprinkling of songs, something off the super-historical After Bathing at Baxter's (1967), as well as cuts from Crown of Creation (1968) and Volunteers (1969). But that was about it. All stuff from the band's psychedilc Hippie heyday and nothing from Kantner's days at the helm of Jefferson Starship in the mid- to late-1970s, a time when Kantner and his mates in Jefferson were just as popular and commercially successful as they were in the 1960s.

But Kantner fared better on hipster KEXP than Glenn Frey. From what I could tell, even in memoriam, not one Eagles tune was played by the station.

Which got me thinking. I listened to a lot of radio as a kid in 1975, a time when all three artists -- Bowie, Kantner and Frey -- filled the airwaves. One of These Nights (1975) was huge and the Eagles were generally well received by the Hippies, and Jefferson Starship's Red Octopus (1975) occupied the #1 position on the Billboard 200 list of top albums for 1975 several different times in the late summer and fall. Bowie's Young Americans (1975) never made it to #1, but two Bowie singles, "Fame" and "Golden Years," were huge at the same time as Jefferson Starship's hit single "Miracles."

"Fame" and "Miracles" both have this murky voodoo quality that sort of terrified and mesmerized me as a sixth grader. Since it is a Hippies vs. Punks thesis that 1975 is an all-important year, I decided to study Red Octopus all week to try to divine what was going on in the national consciousness at a time prior to the first wave of UK Punk and when Disco was just starting to dominate the landscape.

The obvious thing listening to Red Octopus is its corporate sensibility. It sounds like it was pumped out of the PA at a cineplex or mall. Grace Slick's paeans to love sound like ready-made commercial jingles for Jiffy Lube or Holland America Line cruises. To be fair, the two instrumental tracks -- "Git Fiddler" and "Sandalphon" -- are good, as is "There Will Be Love," where there is some interesting multi-vocal Hippie harmonizing going on.

But the power of Red Octopus is in Marty Balin's seven-minute masterpiece, "Miracles," the single version of which was chopped in half to excise a line about cunnilingus: "I had a taste of the real world when I went down on you, girl."

Listening to "Miracles" repeatedly this week I couldn't help imagining myself as some solid American male in 1975, a Teamsters business rep or pool equipment salesman, driving around in a Ford Crown Victoria, pulling into the lounge at a Holiday Inn or a Best Western, ordering a 7 and 7 at the bar and kicking back and listening to Marty Balin sing "If only you believe like I believe, baby," while scanning the trim in the room. Then at the same time across town at some Hippie fern bar a longhair was basically engaged in the same pursuit. That's a cultural commons that we once had in this country. And to think that it was, however briefly, maybe six or seven years in the 1970s, Hippie based is nothing short of a miracle to me.

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