Gimme Five: Mickey Thomas and Craig Chaquico on Jefferson Starship/Starship

Craig Chaquico helped build the ’70s sound of Jefferson Starship, keyed on Marty Balin’s suave balladry, then joined Mickey Thomas in steering the group toward the pop charts.

First, though, they rocked a little. A lot, really.

Starting with 1979′s Freedom at Point Zero and continuing through 1984′s Freedom at Point Zero, Jefferson Starship established itself along a more guitar-focused edge — scoring several modern-rock hits along the way.

On either side, there were memorable ballads too, one from Balin and another from Thomas.

They joined us to talk about this often-overlooked period, one that’s neither singer-songwriterly Red Octopus nor MTV-focused Love Among the Cannibals.

It wasn’t an easy transition. Turns out Chaquico had to push to get one of his most memorable solos onto a Jefferson Starship release, and Thomas had very real worries about the group’s new direction …

“FIND YOUR WAY BACK,” (MODERN TIMES, 1981): A No. 3 hit on the newly minted Billboard Mainstream Rock charts, “Find Your Way Back” was the Billboard zenith of a heavier-rocking period between the Marty Balin-era Jefferson Starship and the subsequent pop-focused Starship — with Chaquico’s electric front and center. The question, from the beginning, was how Thomas (whose background, after all, was in blues and soul) would fit in.

“I didn’t know if it would work,” Thomas tells us. “But I was flattered to get the call, and I at least owed them the courtesy of going over there and seeing what’s up. (Laughs.) We had several meetings, and couple of jam sessions. I was still rather hesitant. A few months went by, really. 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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Mickey Thomas has relaunched Starship, switching to a straight-forward melodic-rock approach more in keeping with the band when it still had “Jefferson” in the name.]

“COUNT ON ME,” with JEFFERSON STARSHIP (EARTH, 1978): A last-gasp hit for the ’70s lineup, this song went all the way to No. 8. But singer Marty Balin soon left, as did singer Grace Slick and drummer John Barbata. Listen closely, however, and you can hear the very beginnings of what would eventually become a stunning post-Starship career move for Chaquico — who adds a rare solo turn on the acoustic guitar. By the early 1990s, he could be found unplugged on a series of contemporary instrumental albums.

“That was probably the only acoustic solo I ever did before I started doing my solo stuff.” Chaquico tells us. “I remember being in Safeway in the check out line, and ‘Count on Me’ came on the sound system. I had just left Starship, and was about to get started on a first acoustic guitar record. It was like an omen, because this was one of the few times I had played that instrument back then. I hear the chorus leading up to the solo, and I’m all ready to savor every note of my acoustic guitar solo. It’s just about ready to start and I hear: ‘Can we get a price check for broccoli in produce, please?’ (Laughs uproariously.) That’s how important my acoustic solo was! It was not as important as the broccoli at Safeway. That was a reality check.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: After decades of chart success with Jefferson Starship, and a heralded second career in smooth jazz, Craig Chaquico is digging into blues and roots rock -- with similar success.]

“NO WAY OUT,” with JEFFERSON STARSHIP (NUCLEAR FURNITURE, 1984): A No. 23 mid-tempo Billboard hit, “No Way Out” became the band’s first-ever charttopper on the Mainstream Rock chart — but is perhaps best remembered for its elaborate narrative video. That, and the presence of songwriter Peter Wolf, pointed directly to the next shift in the band’s sound. After this album, co-founder Paul Kantner left — he appears in the video for “No Way Out,” but none of the others from this project — and the band shortened its name to Starship.

“On that particular video, I was a computer nerd,” Chaquico says. “At that time, going back that far, I had just gotten a Mac computer that looked like a toaster. I was thinking that the computer could really help us in our recording. Little did I know that it would go as far as it would go. It was kind of ironic. Of course, when we started videos, it was definitely a new area for all of us. What was the line, “video killed the radio star?” It was a different time, a whole new perspective of looking at content. Once you started seeing that video form, it became a different animal. I didn’t get into music to be in the movies, and luckily as a guitar player I usually just played. Usually, I didn’t have to act, other than to pretend to play guitar.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Jefferson Starship's 1970s album covers fit together as a theme, though Paul Kantner now admits it was all just a happy accident.]

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“SARA,” (KNEE DEEP IN THE HOOPLA, 1985): Again co-written by Peter Wolf, “Sara” saw the Chaquico and the by-now-returned Grace Slick playing lesser roles — a harbinger of things to come, as keyboardist Pete Sears, Slick and then Chaquico would all depart into 1990. Still, the song’s textured emotional depth stood out in a period of increasingly mechanized songcraft — and, Mickey Thomas says, in the hitmaking period then surrounding Starship, too. “Sara” would hit No. 1 both on the Billboard pop and adult contemporary charts.

“When you think about the exuberance pop of ‘We Built The City,’ or the kind of mainstream fashion of ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,’ ‘Sara’ had a solemn quality to it — and much more depth musically,” Thomas tells us. “Peter Wolf, who produced Knee Deep in the Hoopla and part of No Protection, he wrote the song for me. He’s a great musician, classically trained. He wrote something that was unusual for that time, something with a kind of haunting quality to it. All of my musician and sessions friends down in LA at that point in time, as soon as ‘Sara’ hit the radio, were calling me and saying: ‘Wow, man. I love that. How did you get that sound?’ It was an audiophile song.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Craig Chaquico talks about his blues-rocking release 'Fire Red Moon,' and his musical journey from Jefferson Starship into acoustic contemporary instrumentals.]

“JANE,” with JEFFERSON STARSHIP (FREEDOM AT POINT ZERO, 1979): The first album to feature Thomas, after the departure of singers Marty Balin in 1978, led to a quick sound shift toward Chaquico’s serrated guitar work — showcased on the lengthy solo from this No. 14 hit. Turns out, that was something the guitarist had to fight tooth and nail for — much to the excitement of young metal fans that Chaquico never knew he had.

“I remember arguing over the guitar solo with our manager at that time,” Chaquico tells us. “The band backed me up, and we left the solo the way that it is, but our manager swore it would never be a hit. So every time I hear it on the radio, it puts a smile on my face, because I knew I had to fight for every second of it! Literally. Our manager had a point about one thing though: I ran into some of the guys from Metallica and they said: ‘Hey, man, that was one of our favorite songs, because no songs on the radio had long guitar solos back then.’ (Laughs.) We pushed the envelope, and it actually did get played — thank God. It’s still one of my favorite songs, for a lot of reasons.”

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.