The Starship: The Air Force 1 of Rock

by Sheldon Rocha Leal

I’m a very big fan of rock biographies and over the years I have read books about Madonna, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, The Beatles, John Lennon, Janet Jackson, The Red Hot Chille Peppers, Keith Richards, Elton John and Prince amongst others. There are many interesting protagonists in the history of Rock music and over the years I have gotten to know many of these being-the-scenes figures in the above artist’s stories. The music industry is small and, therefore, many of these figures feature in the stories of various rock stars, but one of the most interesting figures I’ve encountered in the last few years is this airplane, known as “The Starship”. I have, therefore, decided to make the airplane the subject of this article.

The Starship of Rock was a Boeing 720B produced by Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The model line was announced in 1957 and went into production in 1959. It was introduced as an alternative to the 707, for shorter flights from shorter runaways. Because of its lower development costs it allowed for greater profitability. A total of 154 720Bs were produced in its production run between 1959 and 1967. The airplane was about 41m long, nearly 40m from one wing to the next and could take 131 passengers in two classes or 156 people in one class. The model range was finally retired in 2010. The Starship started its life as a United Airlines passenger jet. It was actually the first Boeing 720 built and was delivered to United Airlines in 1960. It was later bought by Contemporary Entertainment, a company owned by recording artist Bobby Sherman and manager Ward Sylvester, in 1973 for $750,000, with the intention of leasing it to touring acts.

Bobby Sherman was a teen star, who later bought The Starship and eventually retired from the entertainment industry altogether.

Bobby Sherman was a teen idol in the 1960s and early 70s and became famous as a singer, songwriter and actor. He started his career as a regular on the musical variety show “Shindig!” in 1964. He was later signed to Decca records and secured a role on the tv series “Here Come The Brides” between 1968–1970. Between 1962–1976 he released 107 songs and 10 albums, of which 5 singles went gold, one went platinum and 5 of his albums attained gold status in the USA. His biggest single, “Little Woman”, was released in 1969 and peaked at No3 in the USA, shipping over 1million units in the country. In the 1970s he left the public spotlight and became an Emergency Medical Technician and volunteered with the Los Angeles Police Department. In the 1990s he became a police reserve officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, a position he held until 2017.

Prior to all of this, however, Bobby Sherman and his manager started a company called Contemporary Entertainment and bought The Starship. They invested $200,000 to convert the aircraft from a commercial passenger jet to something that would suit their clientele, i.e. famous Rock Stars and bands. They reduced the seating capacity from 156 to 40 seats and installed a bar, seats and tables, revolving arm chairs, a 9 meter long couch, a television and well stocked video library. Additionally the aircraft included two bedrooms, one en-suite, and an embedded organ in the bar. The rationale of the aircraft was that the band utilizing its services could use it as a mobile hotel whilst touring the USA, therefore, saving on accommodation costs and facilitating their movements throughout the country. At a cost of $2,500 a day, any band or artist wanting to charter the aircraft was given full access to its amenities.

Led Zeppelin in front of The Starship. Photo taken by iconic photographer Bob Gruen in 1973.

The first act to procure the services of The Starship was Led Zeppelin for their 1973-1975 tours. They had come to hear about the aircraft after an unfortunate incident on their 1972 North American tour, which consisted of 21 shows on the continent. At the time they had leased a Falcon Jet to get them from one show to the next. The problem with the jet was that it was quite small, only a 20-seater, light and susceptible to turbulence. After performing at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco in 1973 the band experienced terrifying turbulence en route to Los Angeles. The band’s manager, Peter Grant, therefore, decided to lay out $30,000 to lease The Starship for the remainder of the 1972/3 tour. The band continued to use the airplane through to 1975.

The fuselage of the aircraft was rebranded with the Led Zeppelin logo, which gave the band much needed “street cred” at a time when many critics were predicting their demise. After each show Led Zeppelin were transported by limousine to the airport and were flown to their new destination on The Starship. For the 1975 tour The Starship was rebranded with new Led Zeppelin artwork. The Starship became so closely associated with the band that it was featured at the end of the live recording of “Stairway To Heaven” on disc 2 of their 2003 release “Led Zeppelin DVD”. There’s even an iconic photograph of the band in front of the aircraft taken by legendary photographer Bob Gruen, taken in 1973. The photograph has become an icon of Rock history and is said to have influenced many aspirant rockers such as Dave Bryan of Bon Jovi who stated that after seeing it he strove to attain the level of success depicted.

All these acts used The Starship: Deep Purple; Alice Cooper; Bob Dylan; The Allman Brothers; John Lennon and Frank Sinatra.

Many other rock acts followed in Led Zeppelin’s footsteps and leased the aircraft for their tours, each time the fuselage was rebranded to represent the act on-board. Led Zeppelin’s road manager, Richard Cole, called the airplane “A fucking gin palace”, whilst Alice Cooper’s road manager, David Libert, called it the Air Force One of Rock ‘n Roll” and Peter Frampton called it a “party plane”. Many debaucherous activities took place on the airplane, everything from drugs, sex to Rock ‘n Roll. When The Allman Brothers Band took possession of the aircraft for their 1974 tour, they were greeted with the message “Welcome Allman Brothers” rendered in lines of cocaine on the club room bar. Peter Frampton’s crew used to smuggle drugs on to The Starship in dirty stage-clothes bags in order to confuse potential sniffer dog’s scent. Alice Cooper’s tour manager use to announce the “ball score” every evening, a score indicating the crew’s sexual deviances from the previous night. Alice Cooper made it very clear, to David Libert, that he didn’t want to be part of the game, but to no avail, his score was subsequently subtlety revealed in one of the many announcements made.

Sir Elton John using The Starship. Middle photo features Elton John speaking time Cher on the aircraft.

Over the years the inhabitants of the aircraft included:

  • Elton John (1973)
  • Alice Cooper (1973)
  • Deep Purple (1974)
  • Bob Dylan (1974)
  • The Allman Brothers Band (1974)
  • The Rolling Stones (1975)
Led Zeppelin on The Starship.

It is also reported that Frank Sinatra, The Bee Gees, John Lennon, Olivia Newton John and Sonny & Cher utilized the airplane. Peter Frampton once said, in an interview, that using the airplane was an indication of how well an artist was doing in the music business. The managers of many of the above artists, therefore, leased the plane with that precise intention: heightening the profile and status of their artist(s), through the usage of the aircraft. The music industry is all about perception, sentiment and hype and The Starship offered all of the above. It is said that when a journalist was invited onboard to interview an artist the story basically wrote itself. For some the hefty daily fee to rent the plane was worth every cent. Peter Frampton was the final act to use The Starship in 1976 whilst on his “Frampton Comes Alive! Tour”, which when converted into an album become one of the biggest selling live albums of all time. This album was actually considered Peter Frampton’a breakthrough album. After releasing 4 studio albums, which attained little traction, the latter album peaked at No1 USA, Canada and No6 UK and went on to ship 11million units worldwide.

The Rolling Stones on The Starship. On the left, Sir Mick Jagger walking onto the aircraft. On the right hand side Keith Richard descending from the plane.

But all good things must come to an end and as early as 1974 during Alice Cooper’s tenure on the aircraft the engines had already started giving problems. In 1977 when Led Zeppelin commandeered the aircraft for a third time, it was finally grounded permanently, forcing the band to find alternate transportation, in the form of Caesar’s Chariot. The Chariot was a 45-seater Boeing 707 owned by the iconic Las Vegas hotel Caesar’s Palace. The high costs of running the aircraft, along with malfunctioning electronics and a global oil embargo meant that after four years as the infamous Air Force One of Rock the aircraft was sold. Between 1977–1979 it changed hands various times and was eventually placed in storage at Luton Airport in the UK. In 1982 it was sold to a Middle Eastern buyer, who proceeded to dismantle the aircraft for parts. What a pity! It would have made an awesome rock museum, through which many generations of music lovers could have learnt about the history of Rock music and touring, an essential component of the music business.

The Air Force 1 of Rock wore many outfits.

Although The Starship no longer exists at least we still have the memories of this iconic protagonist in Rock music history and in years to come it will cement itself in the lore of Rock music history. The Starship is the embodiment of the excesses that encapsulate the era in which it rose to prominence and I guess as the era came to and end, so to did its journey. It did, however, usher in an era that trumped its excesses in the form of the Glam Metal bands of the 1980s, acts such as Van Halen, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Cinderella and Twisted Sister. I find the story of the airplane exceptionally fascinating and I hope to follow it with the story of “Caesar’s Chariot” (mentioned earlier) some time in the future. It’s fascinating that when one does research for an article, other stories are unearthed, as in the latter case, but for now this was the story of the iconic Starship and its machinations, the ultimate Rock protagonist.

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Musicologist, Musician, Songwriter, Music Business Enthusiast and Music Teacher

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Sheldon Rocha Leal, PhD

Sheldon Rocha Leal, PhD

Musicologist, Musician, Songwriter, Music Business Enthusiast and Music Teacher

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