The more famous rock stars become the less inclined they are to fly on commercial airlines unless, of course, it’s a long-haul flight in planes with a restricted first-class cabin where they can avoid contact with the public. Nowadays the top acts of the day lease small private jets with less than a dozen seats to whisk them from city to city but back in the 1970s such planes weren’t as widespread as they are today and, in any case, this was an era when extravagance was rampant. A brash display of opulence was the measure of one’s stature in the hierarchy in the rock world, and the ultimate in grandeur in private planes was the Starship, the celebrated customised Boeing 720 that many rock bands – most notably Led Zeppelin – leased during the first half of the 1970s.
The Starship, the first Boeing 720 ever built, was delivered to United Airlines in October 1960, then purchased for $750,000 in 1973 by Contemporary Entertainment, a company owned by teen-idol singer Bobby Sherman and his manager Ward Sylvester who spent $200,000 customising it in ways they thought might appeal to luxury-seeking rock bands. This involved reducing the seating capacity to 42, installing a fully-stocked bar in the main cabin as well as armchairs, swivel seats and tables, and a 30-foot couch that, facing aft, ran along the right-hand side opposite the bar, on the end of which was an electric organ. Wall-mounted TV sets showed an endless supply of videos, some of them pornographic. Towards the rear of the plane was what today would be called a chill-out room, with pillows on which to recline, and behind that a bedroom with a double bed and shower. A couple of attractive stewardesses were thrown in for good measure and to appeal to the vanity of its passengers the owners took to painting their name on the side of the fuselage.
Led Zeppelin became the Starship’s first and most celebrated customers, the upshot of an uncomfortable flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1973 when to their horror turbulence tossed their small private jet around in the sky. Manager Peter Grant decided to hire the far more sturdy Starship instead, and did so for the group’s 10-week 1975 US tour as well. One advantage of the Starship – or any private plane – was that it enabled the group to base themselves in one large US city from which they could fly out to shows within a 300-mile area and return the same night, thus avoiding the need to check in and out of a different hotel every day. Another was that they could bring along whoever they liked without having to obtain tickets for them, so Led Zeppelin’s friends – many of them from the fairer sex – could hop on board and off at their whim.
“The Starship was only $14,000 more [than the small private jet],” said Peter Grant, “because Boeing wanted the publicity and that kind of thing – and we thought, ‘Well why not? We’ll have a 720!’ The first day, in Chicago, they parked it next to Hugh Hefner’s plane. All the press were there, and somebody said to me. ‘Well how to you think it compares to Mr Hefner’s plane’. I said, ‘It makes his look a Dinkey toy.’”
Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant has gone on record as saying that his favourite memory of the plane was ‘oral sex during turbulence’ and Zeppelin PR Danny Goldberg recalls that Grant would disappear into the bedroom with girls and not reappear until the plane was coming into land.
Another less well-known benefit was that the pilots were happy to allow passengers to sit alongside them in the cockpit and even demonstrate the workings of the controls. “Bonzo [John Bonham] once flew us all the way from New York to Los Angeles,” Peter Grant told me during Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour when I flew with the group aboard the Starship from Chicago to Los Angeles, and on to Greensboro two days later, then back to New York on it the same night. Zeppelin’s tour manager Richard Cole called the Starship a ‘flying gin palace’, and he wasn’t wrong: drink flowed, sumptuous food was served and at once point on my trip we all gathered around the organ while John Paul Jones played a selection of the English Music Hall songs favoured by Grant.
Led Zeppelin were famously photographed by Bob Gruen standing alongside the plane at a private airfield near New York but they were by no means the Starship’s only clients. My first trip on it was with the Alice Cooper Band whose tour manager Dave Libert handed out a plastic bag of vitamins to the passengers each morning. I was also on board in 1974 with Elton John for a trip around the Midwest and recall that Elton rejected the haute cuisine on offer and requested instead that the stewardesses pick up a plentiful supply of Kentucky Fried Chicken, several buckets worth in fact. The more sophisticated Elton of today no doubt cringes at the memory.
Other Starship clients included Deep Purple, Bob Dylan & The Band, The Allman Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Peter Frampton who, in 1976, was the last rock act to charter it. “It was definitely a show of where you were in your career,” said Frampton. “It was a statement of how well you were doing. ‘Whoopee! We must be big – we’ve got the Starship’. It was pretty much a party plane.”
In the end the Starship was a victim of the fuel shortage that gripped America in the mid-seventies, its four greedy engines bringing the Starship era to a close after only four years. “The fact that there was a fuel shortage and we were flying this plane, we thought was a cool thing. It fit in with Alice’s extravagant image,” says Dave Libert.
“It was headed for the scrap heap,” adds Frampton.
The Starship went through several changes in ownership between 1977 and 1979, eventually ending its life in storage at Luton Airport, a rather prosaic ending for the career of this most iconic of rock chariots. It was broken up for parts in 1982 and today lingers on only in the memory of the few – probably not much more than 200 of us – passengers fortunate enough to have experienced its dubious charms.