The pop-rock band Starship has an albatross called Jefferson Airplane hanging from its collective neck.
While most groups would be thrilled to be an extension (albeit a lengthy one) of a ’60s rock legend, Starship – which formed from Jefferson Starship, which formed from Jefferson Airplane – would rather fly on its own merits.
“We don’t go out and sing `White Rabbit’ and `Somebody to Love,’ ” said Starship lead singer Mickey Thomas, alluding to Jefferson Airplane’s standards.
When Airplane alumna and rock diva Grace Slick departed Starship in the late ’80s, Thomas figured comparisons between Starship’s ancestral past and its future projects would cease.
“Then (last summer), Jefferson Airplane did a reunion album and tour, and we did an album and tour. That increased confusion as to who’s who,” Thomas said.
OK, so who is Starship, the band that opens (on a double bill with America) the Sangamon County Fair in New Berlin at 8 p.m. Wednesday? They’re best known for pop megahits like “We Built This City,” “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us,” featuring Thomas and Slick on vocals — lightweight rock that’s light years from the psychedelic sounds of Jefferson Airplane.
Starship’s three biggest hits, all garnered between 1985 and 1987, also were a departure from the often hard-edged Jefferson Starship tunes.
“When you’ve been around for as long as we have, you like to explore different styles,” Thomas said by phone from his home near San Francisco. Straight pop music “turned out to be, by far, the most commercial successful sound for us, and I’m proud of it.”
“Knee Deep in the Hoopla,” the 1985 release that included “We Built This City” and “Sara,” sold more than two million copies. A year later, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” from the film “Mannequin” went to No. 1.
“We were coming off the road, and we got offered this nice duet song (`Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us’). We knocked it out in one day without putting much thought into it,” Thomas said. “Then we knocked out the video in one day because we figured no one was going to see it.”
The song’s success earned Starship a reputation as a featherweight. To make matters worse, when Slick quit the group, she lashed out at the band’s pop sound.
Asked about Slick’s harsh criticism, Thomas paused, then said: “I didn’t expect it; maybe I should have. Grace and the band had a good relationship. I considered her to be my friend.
“Maybe she was trying to protect her ’60s image by saying, `I was led astray by the others.’ Well, Grace was the one who brought `Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us’ to the band’s attention. She obviously felt the need to blame others for any creative shortcomings that occurred. Hell has no fury like a woman’s scorn.”
Starship’s 1989 album, “Love Among the Cannibals,” rocked harder than previous group efforts, but it fell short of lofty sales expectations. While preparing two or three new songs for a greatest hits collection, set for fall release, Starship is embarking on a 10-week tour which begins at the Sangamon County Fair.
The five-member band will perform material from Jefferson Starship, which Thomas joined in 1979, as well as its most recent hits. Thomas sang lead vocals on virtually all Jefferson Starship numbers, including “Jane,” “Find Your Way Back” and “No Way Out.”
Occasionally, Starship tosses the 1976 Elvin Bishop hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” into its repertoire. After all, Thomas performed lead vocals on that song, too.
“A lot of Starship’s audience is too young to remember that,” said Thomas, 39. “People in the music business are more aware that I sang it than the general public is.”
America, a mellow rock band from the early ’70s, will open Wednesday’s show at the fairgrounds. Entrance to the fair and the show costs $6 for adults and $5 for children ages 10 and under.
Thomas realizes performing at county fairs is a step down from the days when Starship played exclusively in major stadiums.
“When you’ve been around like we have, there are going to be peaks and valleys,” he said. “We think we’ll weather the storm. We’re one record away from being back into the venues that we’re accustomed to playing. Just one hit away.”