Everyone who is a Jefferson Airplane/Starship fan has his or her favorite of the band’s various incarnations.
You either loved the psychedelic rock of the band’s earliest work as Jefferson Airplane, the soft MOR-leaning rock of the band’s second iteration as Jefferson Starship, or the third, more pop-leaning corporate offshoot known simply as Starship.
Whichever one you fancied, none of their songs likely better stood the test of time – or received more recurrent play – than the top-three hit that former lead singer Marty Balin wrote and sang for the band more than 43 years ago while the Starship was in its second orbit.
With his expressive writing, Balin crafted one of rock’s most famous ballads with lyrics that were equal parts romantic and arousing. With his unique, lounge singer-like cadence, he gave a vocal performance that would change the course of Jefferson Starship for years to come, sending them down a path to pop superstardom that would draw both praise and some criticism that the band’s members still experience to this day.
Sadly, Marty Balin died on September 27, 2018, in Tampa, FL. He was 76.
The song he wrote upon his return to Jefferson Starship, the band he’d founded a decade earlier (and which he’d left in 1971), was the classic ballad “Miracles” – the first single from their Red Octopus album released on Grunt Records in 1975. The song would set the stage for Balin’s brief time in the spotlight with a slew of hit follow-up singles that had his multi-range tenor vocal draped all over them.
Released in August 1975, “Miracles” reached No. 3 on Billboard’s pop chart and became Airplane/Starship’s biggest single record during their first 20 years of existence. That was before 1985 when they went extreme pop (sans Balin) with No. 1 songs like “Sara,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and the eternal punching bag (and their first chart topper) “We Built This City.”
Those three may have been No. 1 pop singles, but Balin’s “Miracles” became a Jefferson Starship standard – an epic smash whose nearly seven-minute length and bluesy feel practically changed the game for FM radio and album rock in the 1970s. It was soulful, almost jazz like, yet undeniably pop in its musical arrangement, with a call-and-response, gospel-like vocal interplay between Balin and his band mates Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, which was unlike anything else on the radio at the time.
Jefferson Starship and the band’s then-producer Larry Cox made use of an eclectic blend of musical instruments for “Miracles.” In addition to the soft bass, guitar and drum rhythm section that formed the song’s foundation, there was that eerie opening organ riff, a lush string arrangement “swirling and dancing” throughout, and finally a surprising saxophone blast during a brief instrumental break before the final chorus signaling the song’s impending end.
“Miracles” also gave new meaning to long verses. Forget the traditional 16- or 32-bar song structure. The first verse (on the full length album version) alone had 60(!) bars. That verse clocked in at over two minutes with the second verse not much shorter in length. To put that in perspective, the original first verse of “Miracles” was longer than the entire 1:53 song “The Letter” by the Box Tops, a No. 1 hit from eight years earlier.
The song’s epic length didn’t stop “Miracles” from becoming immensely popular, however, and it was no surprise when the album Red Octopus became the band’s first (and only) No. 1 LP. It spent four weeks at No. 1 in the fall of 1975 powered almost entirely by “Miracles,” as there were no other major hits from it.
Yet even with strong support from album rock radio, the band’s label executives knew that the single version of “Miracles” – the one shipped to pop radio and record stores – would have to be much shorter (and cleaner) than the 6:53 album version in order for top-40 radio to jump on board.
Deciding which lines to edit was likely made easy by the R-rated content Balin included in the song’s verses. Yes, “Miracles” is considered one of classic rock’s sweetest love songs, but it is also one of the most risqué, particularly by 1975 standards.
Consider this line from the first verse: “I had a taste of the real world (didn’t waste a drop of it), when I went down on you girl.”
Or this one from the second verse: “when I start dancin’ inside ya (oh, baby), you make me wanna sing (I love you so). (Cue the backing vocal of Grace Slick and Paul Kantner on the refrain “I love you so,” brilliantly and urgently wrapped around Balin’s “baby” and repeated four times before all parties release in an orgasmic “oh yeah, alright!”)
“Baby, were sure doin’ it tonight.”
That is tame by 2018 standards, but those lyric lines weren’t going to survive a cutting room floor in 1975. Ultimately, the song’s engineers did a seamless job cutting the choruses in half and melding the verses into something radio would find acceptable. The result was a much more palatable, radio-friendly edit that was less than half of the full-length version, clocking in at only 3 minutes, 25 seconds.
The shorter edit notwithstanding, one thing remained unchanged: Marty Balin sang the hell out of “Miracles.” It was his masterpiece and he knew it. Even though his band mates met the song with initial resistance, Balin persisted in getting them to believe in “Miracles,” forcing the song’s inclusion on Red Octopus and its release as the first single.
The song’s huge success elevated Balin to become lead vocalist – or at least the preferred one – based on several follow-up singles the band’s label released in the ensuing years. Top-20 songs like “With Your Love,” “Runaway” and “Count On Me,” all featured Balin on lead. Clearly, his smooth tenor was well suited for the mid-tempo, soft-rock overtures the band became known for during the late ‘70s.
For a while it seemed all was going well for Jefferson Starship with Balin in his rightful place as the group’s frontman – a position he’d reluctantly yielded in the mid-1960s to Jefferson Airplane’s more prominent, non-original member Grace Slick, who lorded over such powerful rock classics as “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love.”
Yet the Balin-led years would not last.
The bluesy singer left Jefferson Starship again in early 1979, this time not looking back. The band quickly shifted directions and took on a harder edge with power rock chords and a poppier vocal sound helmed by new male lead Mickey Thomas (who, before being hired by Jefferson Starship, sang the lead vocal on Elvin Bishop’s 1976 hit “Fooled Around And Fell In Love”).
Balin went on to record solo hits including the 1981 top-10 smash “Hearts” and its follow-up, the smooth “Atlanta Lady.”
Meanwhile, his former band had its most enduring chart success yet with songs like “Jane,” “No Way Out” and those three ubiquitous No. 1 singles (after shortening their name to just Starship) that characterized their third phase and made them the target of many industry barbs from then on. Maybe those songs weren’t really that bad in retrospect, but they certainly marked a creative departure from the group’s early catalogue of Summer of Love rock classics from the late ‘60s and soulful rock ballads of the late ‘70s.
Balin’s sudden passing last week brought back many of the oft-told stories of the comings and goings in Jefferson Starship, and triggered several memories of the band’s best (and worse) musical moments.
For many fans, including yours truly, the sweetest of those musical memories will always be “Miracles,” the tune that set the stage for Balin’s comeback in 1975 and one that will live on as his signature tune many years from now.
I guess in a sense we really did believe in “Miracles.”
This writer certainly did.
R.I.P. Marty Balin (1942-2018).