Chariot of the Gods: Led Zeppelin and The Starship Airplane
Among mortal men, no one has ever come closer to achieving godhood than the members of Led Zeppelin in the 1970s. Indeed, they enjoyed many of the perks of godhood, including unlimited wealth, hordes of adoring worshippers, and pleasures to satiate every desire. Like all rock stars, however, in the end they proved to be just as mortal as the rest of us. This became painfully clear during a flight from San Francisco to L.A. in 1973 in which the band’s charter plane shook like a leaf in a hurricane. John Bonham and Jimmy Page were reportedly no fans of airplanes anyway; neither could board one while sober. So the group’s manager decided to hire a plane for the rest of the ‘73 tour. The one he chose was known as The Starship, and it was the scene of some of the more famous - or infamous, depending on your point of view - events in the band’s fabled career. The Starship was actually owned by the late 60s-early 70s heartthrob Bobby Sherman and his manager Ward Sylvester, who helped turn The Monkees into faux rock stars. Sick of enduring charter flights, the pair bought a Boeing 720 for $600,000 and spent another $200,000 transforming it into the ultimate 70s dream machine. Refinements included maroon shag carpeting and a bedroom with a king-sized waterbed. There were cutting-edge (for the time) touches like a video player and a library with everything from the Marx brothers to porn classics like Deep Throat. RELATED: 500 MPH Bugatti Airplane Returning to the Skies
The plane had a well-stocked bar with an electric organ, a couch that stretched 30 feet in length, various tables and chairs, a fireplace, TVs, and two full-time stewardesses who were reportedly very friendly and extremely discreet. In short, The Starship was a flying pleasure palace for wealthy entertainers like Sinatra and the Stones. But, for much of their 1973 and all of their 1975 tour, it belonged to Zeppelin.
Stories of what occurred on The Starship range from the mundane to the almost unbelievable. The band regularly invited celebrity friends to join them onboard, including authors like Truman Capote, who engaged band members in discussions about topics such as politics and art. Then there were other recreational activities, like snorting cocaine through $100 bills, drinking binges that completely banished the groups’ fear of flying, and sessions with groupies in the rear bedroom that turned into orgies worthy of the most debauched Caesar.
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Jimmy Page used The Starship as a safe environment in which to indulge both his heroin habit and his relationship with his underage girlfriend. John Bonham, known as “Bonzo” to his friends, once tried opening the hatch over Kansas City to relieve his bladder. Fortunately, one of the flight attendants was able to dissuade him before disaster struck.
Not everyone who used The Starship found it amenable to their tastes. Mick Jagger considered the decor tacky, though Keith Richards is said to have loved the plane. Ian Paice, of Deep Purple fame, was in Miami when he got an urge for real Boston lobster. The Starship was pressed into service to satisfy Paice’s craving, at a reported cost of $11,000.
Pious folks might think that the airborne Sodom and Gomorrah would make a great target for a well-placed lightning bolt from an angry Almighty. In the end, though, it was skyrocketing oil prices in the mid-70s, not divine wrath, that grounded The Starship. It was sold to a group of Arab investors, who supplied it with all the jet fuel it needed until it was stripped and sold for parts in the 80s. Like the gods who used it as their chariot, the iconic piece of Rock history finally came down to earth.
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Photo Credit: Michael Brennan, Bob Gruen