Sex on Led Zeppelin’s Starship

Found this fascinating piece on Led Zeppelin and The Starship in The New York Times:

”If you were operating at the top echelon of the record business, you had to have the Starship,” says the legendary rock photographer Neal Preston, who held an all-access boarding pass for Led Zeppelin’s tours. ”It was the Bolivian diamond flake of airplanes.”

These days, as Led Zeppelin takes off again with the release of its chart-topping, three-CD live set, ”How the West Was Won,” the unapologetic excess of the band’s Starship days has become cool all over again. The plane also gets plenty of air time in ”According to the Rolling Stones” (Chronicle), a new book with rare photos that show Mick, Keith and company lounging aboard the Starship in all their louche decadence. And designers like Dsquared are referencing 70’s style rock ‘n’ roll jet-set glamour on the catwalk.

There had been, of course, other private planes. The Rolling Stones chartered one for their 1972 tour, inviting Truman Capote and Lee Radziwill to tag along. And much has been made of the plush jets the wrinkly rockers leased for their recent world tour. But they are crop dusters compared to the Starship.

”It was very luxurious,” says Peter Frampton, who leased the jet after the mid-70’s success of ”Frampton Comes Alive!” ”It was the closest thing to Air Force One.” In some respects it was even better, boasting a shag-carpeted lounge with swiveling leather chairs, a pair of sexy stewardesses named Suzee and Bianca and a brass-covered bar with a built-in organ, should the muse strike.

”It was all about fighting for a seat at the bar,” Frampton says. For the members of Deep Purple and their roadies, it was more about watching X-rated movies on the high-tech video monitor and using the Starship to entice groupies. ”The girls would get on the plane and fly to wherever the next show was,” recalls Bruce Payne, the group’s manager. ”Fathers two states over were calling the cops.” But Deep Purple’s drummer, Ian Paice, has no regrets. ”The Starship was a great place to join the mile-high club,” he says.

Though the plane often resembled a jet-propelled Sodom and Gomorrah, its roots were rather innocent: the Starship was owned by the teen idol Bobby Sherman and his manager, Ward Sylvester, a former producer for the Monkees. Frustrated with traveling to gigs on cramped charter flights, the two men decided to purchase a plane and lease it to like-minded stars. Eventually, they bought the Boeing jet for $600,000 from United Airlines, which was phasing out the model.

What they received was a standard, 138-seat passenger plane — until, that is, Sylvester took it to a custom shop in Oakland, Calif., and spent another $200,000 on remodeling. A sea of maroon shag was installed, as was a film library that included everything from the Marx Brothers to ”Deep Throat.” Asked whether the waterbed in the master suite was in accordance with F.A.A. regulations, Sylvester pauses. ”There was a placard saying the bed couldn’t be occupied during takeoff or landing,” he says.

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