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Credit: Julio Zeppelin

Music

'The Starship': Inside rock 'n' roll's greatest jet

@SamWKemp

By the end of the ’60s, rock music was the most substantial fish in the tank. Radio stations worldwide were full of the sound of — amongst countless others — The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac. And, in every stadium – from New York to Berlin — eager crowds awaited the arrival of their favourite acts in the confines of gargantuan stadiums and the green expanse of sun-lit parks. 

The hungriest of those fans might arrive early to bag themselves a good spot, setting up camp ahead of the first support act. During their long wait, they might look up to the sky to see the rapidly dissipating chemtrails of innumerable aircraft tearing across the blue at 400mph, and one of these, whether they knew it or not, may well have been carrying the band who would soon grace the stage ahead of them. I’m talking about ‘The Starship‘, the iconic jet of rock and roll.

Having started his career as a promising musician and teen idol, Bobby Sherman always gazed at the stars. In 1964, he was signed to Decca records and, that same year, secured a role on the TV series Here Come The Brides. From 1962 to 1976, he released over 100 songs and ten albums; five singles even were certified as gold. Later in the ’70s, he retreated from public view and became an emergency medical technician, but before that, Sherman set up a company called Contemporary Entertainment and bought ‘The Starship’.

The plan was to convert the aircraft from a commercial passenger jet into something befitting his target clientele: the biggest names in rock. He started by ripping out over half the seats, which reduced the capacity to just 40 from 156. On top of that, Sherman also installed a fully functioning bar, seat and tables, televisions, bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, and even a Hammond organ. 

The idea behind The Starship was to give the music world’s biggest names the chance to travel with all the comfort of a luxury hotel. At the cost of $2,500 a day, it was one of the most opulent aircraft for hire anywhere in the world.

The first major act to hire ‘The Starship’ was none other than Led Zeppelin. The stadium rock giants made the aircraft their home during their 1973-75 tours after experiencing horrific levels of turbulence on the way back from San Francisco’s Kezar stadium in 1972. 

The UK rock group stepped off the plane feeling they’d narrowly avoided death, so Peter Grant, the band’s managers, decided to lay out $30,000 to lease ‘The Starship’ for the remainder of the 1972-73 tour. Led Zeppelin became the first of many groups to rebrand the aircraft with their logo, only confirming how far removed the immensely wealthy rockers were from their listeners back down on earth.

‘The Starship’ became emblematic not only of Led Zeppelin themselves but also came to represent the glamour and excess of the debauched stadium rock era. Indeed, many of the artists who subsequently hired ‘The Starship’ (Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Elton John) did so in an attempt to emulate the levels of success that Led Zeppelin saw throughout the ’60s and ’70s. As Peter Frampton once said, hiring ‘The Starship’ became an indication of how successful a musician was, and it became a status thing for artists. 

Band managers everywhere understood the plane’s essential function, as well as being a form of transport, and it worked as an elaborate marketing tool. As a result, the plane was frequently hired for the sole purpose of boosting the hype surrounding a band, with ‘The Starship’ becoming as much music industry personality as Frank Sinatra or John Lennon – both of whom hired the aircraft in the ’70s.

As you would expect, ‘The Starship’ saw all manner of illicit activities take place out there in the stratosphere. One example comes from The Allman Brothers 1974 tour. According to legend, after boarding the aircraft, the band were greeted with the message “Welcome Allman Brothers” written in lines of 100% Columbian cocaine. Meanwhile, Peter Frampton and his crew smuggled their drugs onto the aircraft inside dirty laundry bags to confuse customs’ sniffer dogs. 

Then there’s Alice Cooper’s tour manager, who, during his world tour, would announce the “ball score” over an evening drink, a tally of all the crew’s sexual adventures from the previous night. However, it would be on this same tour that the engines of ‘The Starship’ would start throwing up problems and, after Led Zeppelin’s final commandeering of the aircraft in 1977, it was retired for good. 

With all the symbolism befitting the genre’s fall from grace, the Air Force One of rock music was subsequently dismantled and sold for parts. Still, it remains in the memory as a key character in one of the most dramatic periods in music history, a true symbol of that golden age.

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