Ed Driscoll

Punk Meets the Godfather

The Hollywood Reporter has a fun look back at the “Starship,” a Boeing 707 that was converted into the rock superstar transport of the 1970s. Led Zeppelin originally chartered the plane to allow the band to stay in one hotel while touring various American regions, and as a potent PR tool when journalists were brought aboard to interview the band. The article’s headline derives from Robert Plant’s most memorable experience onboard the plane: “Oral sex during turbulence.” And once Led Zeppelin started the trend, numerous other bands began hiring the Starship, given its usefulness as a status marker, as Peter Frampton tells the magazine:

“It was definitely a show of where you were in your career,” says the now-65-year-old Frampton, whose management leased the plane ­during his white-hot superstardom touring behind the ­unstoppable Frampton Comes Alive! “It was a statement of how well you were doing. ‘Whoopee! We must be big — we’ve got the Starship!’ ”

Led Zeppelin was the first to lease the plane, in 1973, after a white-knuckle flight from Oakland, Calif., to Los Angeles in a tiny Falcon 20 business jet terrorized the entourage. At the time, Led Zeppelin suffered from almost surreally bad press — Rolling Stone suggested the band change its name to Limp Blimp — and it was thought that the Starship might earn the group some respect. “It was an extremely useful tool because inviting a journalist onto the plane, the story kind of wrote itself,” says Danny Goldberg, Led Zeppelin’s publicist for the tour, who had been hired to gin up positive ­coverage. “The novelty value was significant.”

Zeppelin became indelibly associated with the Starship when the band posed with the plane in Bob Gruen’s iconic 1973 portrait. The picture, Gruen tells Billboard, “sums up the excess and decadence of the ’70s, the fact that here are these guys — they don’t even have to button their shirts — and they have their own plane.” The photo has been a touchstone for rock ‘n’ roll aspirants ever since. “[Keyboardist] Dave Bryan of Bon Jovi and many other musicians told me that when they saw that picture, that’s what they wanted,” says Gruen.

However, in England, a rebellion was brewing against such mid-’70s excesses of the American music market at its peak. If the Starship was the flying equivalent of the Palace of Versailles,  then as Pete Townshend of The Who once told an an interviewer about punk rock in England,  “It really was like the French Revolution. It could have ended up with the Beatles, the Stones and the Who being beheaded.”

Punk never established a serious foothold in America, but it was useful for NBC for attempting to scare the hell out of its viewers:

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To understand how bifurcated NBC was becoming in the 1970s, that clip aired in 1977 on a magazine-styled news show called Weekend that, if I’m remembering correctly, aired every fourth Saturday night, to give the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live a breather. Within just two years, SNL would begin airing punk rock’s more musical brethren in the New Wave genre such as Elvis Costello, Gary Numan, Blondie, and after Lorne Michaels left the show for several years in the early 1980s, full-fledged punk bands such as The Clash and the L.A.-based punk rock band Fear, fronted by musicians with tasteful stage names such as Lee Ving, Derf Scratch, and Spit Stix.

The NBC Weekend Show was hosted by the avuncular Lloyd Dobyns, and its theme song was (no joke), the opening chords of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash.” (As one of three people in the country who watched the show, I remember this well.)

As Wikipedia notes, in 1978, Weekend was moved to 10:00 PM every Saturday night, and “Linda Ellerbee was added as Dobyns’ co-host and co-lead reporter. Placed against strong programs on ABC and CBS, the show eventually died of poor ratings. A few years later, Ellerbee and Dobyns reunited to anchor another late-night NBC news program, NBC News Overnight.”

A show to which James Lileks was one of its three viewers. Which is why, as he noted a few years ago, to get their revenge against crazed programming chief Fred Silverman, the following clip was circulated internally at the network in the early 1980s:

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As Lileks adds, when Silverman discovered the above clip after Don Imus played it on his radio show, “You suspect everyone was fired. Everyone.”