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Led Zeppelin Starship

Led Zeppelin Starship an icon of excess

In the Instaperfect nonsenseland of your Kanyes and Justins, they’d have you believe they invented excess. That the lavish lifestyle of private jets tricked out with all the extravagances of a Persian prince’s harem, came to them in a fevered cheese dream.  But long before they had so much as rummaged through the underwear section of their mum’s mail-order catalogue, let alone imagined a private plane, there were real rock stars out there.  Real rockstars doing unspeakable things and the world loved them for it. And when it came to mile-high excess, it was the Led Zeppelin Starship that was undisputed king. You see, the Led Zeppelin Starship wasn’t just an upgraded tour bus, it was a rock n roll legend in its own right. Immortalised in the photographs of Bob Gruen, the pages of Stephen Davis’s Hammer of the Gods and the mythology spread by anyone that stepped aboard.

 

The teen idol origins of the rock giant’s chariot

However, despite what the classic rock lore would have us believe, it wasn’t actually Led Zeppelin that came up with the idea of turning this former United Airlines Boeing 720 into an airborne pleasure dome. Sure, plenty of others had toured by plane, but the idea for this particular step-up in class came from a chap by the name of Ward Sylvester, manager of the cookie-cutter popster Bobby Sherman. Yep, that Bobby “Little Woman” Sherman. Hardly a rock star, but his desire to speed up his touring schedule while impressing his pick of screaming young ladies gives the former Partridge Family star at least a footnote rock n’ roll history. Maybe not as the troubadour how like to be remembered as, rather as a travel trailblazer for the slightly better know Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers, Elton John, Alice Cooper and, of course, Led Zeppelin.

 

Rock N’ Roll Air Force One

Ah! Those were the days. The days of the coke-dusted, halter-topped, ‘lude-dropping rock ‘n’ roll gestalt of the ’70s. Even in parody, Austin Powers had a shag-a-delic private Boeing. Bedrooms with king-sized waterbeds (a must for the horny rock stars of the day), a drawing room complete with a fake fireplace, a 30-foot brass-trimmed bar, an early video system complete with everything from Deep Throat to Duck Soup and two stewardesses to cater to these wandering minstrels fresh from Madison Square Garden. David Libert, Alice Cooper’s road manager, referred to it as “a rock ‘n’ roll Air Force One”.

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An F-ing Fying Gin Palace

Zeppelin’s road manager, Richard Cole, called the Led Zepplin Starship”An f-ing flying gin palace”. Even Mick Jagger, not always know for the subtlest of tastes, was taken aback by its tackiness. But while Mick may have questioned the decor, every other nouveau-riche rocker that boarded the Led Zeppelin Starship thought the plane was the height of decadence and luxury. So much so that Zeppelin’s infamous legbreaker/manager would sublease it for a whopping $2,500-per-flight hour.

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Rewriting History – Led Zeppelin style

In 1973 a white-knuckle flight from Oakland, to LA in a tiny Falcon 20 business jet, convinced Zeppelin they needed a better way to travel. You know the plane scene in Almost Famous when they all confess their pasts? Yeah, that. At the time, despite being the most outrageously successful band on the planet, Led Zeppelin was getting dragged down in bad press. Although these days such coverage has been stricken from the record with an editorial purge worthy of Stalin’s Central Committee, the strangely well regarded Rolling Stone even got bold enough to attempt humour by suggesting the band changed its name to “Limp Blimp” (insert your own Fred Durst joke here). The band hoped their own Led Zeppelin Starship might by part of the answer and earn the group some respect.

Led Zeppelin’s publicist at the time was Danny Goldberg. His job was to reverse the momentum of the press. He was unequivocal in his feeling towards the significance of the value of the Starship for Led Zeppelin. “It was an extremely useful tool… inviting a journalist onto the plane and the story kind of wrote itself.”

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Documenting The Excess

Goldberg’s job was made significantly easier thanks to photography deities Neal Preston and Bob Gruen. Both Preston and Gruen were part of the inner sanctum of just a handful of non-band, non-groupie or non-management personnel trusted to witness and document Led Zeppelin’s excesses aboard the Starship. The later’s portrait of the band posing with the plane become one of the era’s most iconic images.  Gruen knew it’s importance. “It sums up the excess and decadence of the ’70s. Ever since then, many, many other musicians told me that when they saw that picture, that’s what they wanted”. Peter Frampton, who used the Starship during his mind-boggling successful Frampton Comes Alive tour backs up that iconic status. “It definitely showed where you were in your career… a statement of how well you were doing”.

If anything, the decadence was underplayed. Even when Led Zeppelin was subleasing their Starship, the fact that the likes of Elton John made sure it was Terry O’Neill taking the photographs proved importance they placed on image.

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Fuel Shortage? What Fuel Shortage?

The legendary Supermench, Shep Gordon spent years honing Alice Cooper’s image.   So in 1973 hired Led Zeppelin’s private plane for the second leg of the Billion Dollar Babies Tour. “Shep wanted Alice Cooper to be bigger than life, and they were at the pinnacle of their career,” says Libert. Such was the importance of the Starship, that even though the U.S. was being gripped by a crippling gas shortage, Libert would bribe anyone necessary to fuel the four gas-guzzling Pratt & Whitney engines and ensure that the Starship was never grounded. “There was a fuel shortage, and here we were flying this plane, but we thought it was cool. It fits in with the (Alice Cooper’s) extravagant image” said Libert unapologetically.

 

Oral Sex During Turbulence

What was life like aboard the Led Zeppelin Starship? What do you reckon? Robert Plant often reminisced that his favourite memory of the Starship was “oral sex during turbulence”. The Allman Brothers were greeted with “Welcome Allman Brothers” rendered in lines of cocaine when they first boarded.  The Starship made transporting Jimmy Page’s ingénues so much easier, raising far fewer questions than travelling on a commercial airline would. The entourage’s contraband would be stashed in the dirty stage-clothes bag to foil incursions by customs and sniffer dogs. Not the stealthiest of tactics, but it worked. While Goldberg tell how ogreish Peter Grant, would disappear a bedroom with girls in tow and not reappear until landing. Yes, this was clearly a long, long, long time before #metoo.

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While the behaviour and proclivities of today’s touring rock stars, with lawyers armed with non-disclosure agreements and an ever more scrutinising eye, the sexual revolution of the early ’70s allowed for full freewheeling Bacchanalia. The wife of an Atlantic Records executive even recalls Grant brandishing a handgun in-flight, while the entourage “hoovered” cocaine. Another Atlantic exec recounted how the band were already aboard the Starship after a Minneapolis concert even though the audience were still chanting for more. He was “being served lobster thermidor as we’re going down the runway, and the audience is waiting for the encore. Everyone was kinda awestruck by the Starship, but nobody ever wanted to admit it.”

In his 2012 autobiography, Gregg Allman wrote of suffocating atmosphere felt by The Allman Brothers when using the Starship. “Everything was over the top, uncalled for and just flat-out unnecessary. When we got that goddamned plane, it was the beginning of the end”. “We had a guy whose only job was to open limo doors for us”.

 

Dollars Finally Ground the Mighty Starship

Eventually, though the punishing economics of the era finally grounded the Led Zeppelin Starship for good. Before it headed to the scrap heap, Frampton staked his claim in Starship history by using it one last time.  His reminiscenced that “We’d drive right onto the runway, a stream of black limos, jump out and get on”. Now that may seem misty-eyed for a long-gone era, but wow, what an era…

The Led Zeppelin Starship had only been in action for four years, but the legacy would last forever. So just as every English actor coining it in playing villains in American movies owes a debt to the late Alan Rickman, every time you see a photograph of a musician flaunting their private jet, at least half those “likes” belong to messers Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones.

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