Jefferson Starship released their album Red Octopus40 years ago. Fueled by the hit singles “Miracles” and “Play on Love,” the album hit #1 on the Billboard Top 200 and became a staple of rock—and ultimately classic rock—radio. Lead guitarist Craig Chaquico was 20 years old when the record was released, and he recalls some of his memories of the making (and airplay) of that chart topper.
“The sessions for Red Octopus were all done at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco,” recalls Chaquico, “as were the Jefferson Starship platinum albums, Dragonfly, Spitfire, and Earth.
Starship in the studio (left to right)—Craig Chaquico, John Barbata, unidentified kid, Pete Sears, Marty Balin (seated), Grace Slick, David Freiberg, and Paul Kantner.
“Fresh out of high school art classes, I remember drawing the octopus idea for the logo with a heart and tentacles on a notepad in the control room between breaks and playbacks. It was later given to a major art department to polish up…kind of like my guitars in the mix.
“On ‘Miracles,’ all my guitars were recorded with Marty singing with his acoustic guitar in a separate room and Paul Kantner, John Barbata, Pete Sears on bass, and David Freiberg on keys all playing live and miked in the same room. Amps were set up and close miked in between gobos, but we could all make eye contact and wear these awesome headphones.
“‘Miracles’ is one of the songs where all of the lead guitar—for seven minutes on the album version—is completely from the first take. I always felt embarrassed if I didn’t nail it right the first time. I worried that any overdubs would be a huge imposition from the new guitar player kid, so I tried to not waste studio time. Plus I just love to play on the actual live basic track.
“After we selected basic tracks and took them home to listen, I would usually come up with a note or two I’d like to fix. I can still hear two or three notes I punched on the original solo from ‘All Fly Away’ off Dragonfly, but most everything you hear on Red Octopus was done live in one take. For months I kept asking the producer, Larry Cox, to let me go in and redo my guitar on ‘Miracles.’ We recorded a whole symphony string section over it, and layered tons of vocals. Well, by the time that song was done and Larry did his magic with the mixing, the guitar didn’t need fixing. It never sounded so good as when he was done with the song.
“I played nothing but real ’50s ‘vintage’ Les Pauls, which at that time in the ’70s were just called ‘used.’ My amps were almost always old blond Fender Bassmans. My effects were the original wah wah pedals and stompboxes like MXR Phase 90s. I didn’t usually need a distortion box, as I just turned the Bassmans all the way up to 10. That distortion and sustain was perfect: really clean and biting with a tube edge and bell-like sound.
“I would describe the guitar interplay between Paul Kantner and me as anarchy at its absolute best. He played whatever he wanted and so did I most all the time. We would listen to each other and the drums, but it was all sort of intuitive more than actually being orchestrated. I still marvel at how the two guitar styles and the Strat and Les Paul mixed so well on songs like ‘Sweeter Than Honey.’
“When I hear a song like ‘Miracles’ today, I usually hear the elevator door ding, or the sound of a supermarket P.A. Or, I’ll hear them talk over my guitar solo: ‘Price check. Price check for broccoli please.’ Seriously, though, it’s a trip to hear something I played guitar on before I was old enough to drink, as part of such an iconic band during a historic time musically and socially.
“I’ll never forget this Red Octopus story: I met a young bachelorette one night in Sacramento while lying about my age, and she invited me to her apartment. Soon after we arrived, her boyfriend showed up too, holding one of those tire iron things you see in a car trunk sometimes. As she was truthfully explaining that nothing had happened, I was jumping three concrete steps at a time in cowboy boots and hit the ground running to the sound of the tire iron somersaulting past my head and ringing off the pavement. I made it to my ‘brand new’ (to me anyway) used Porsche 911, and as I was hitting second gear, the radio came on and was playing ‘Play on Love’ off our brand-new, soon-to-be-hit album.”