When the Starship Airplane Ruled the Skies

It was the rock-star party plane on which The Allman Brothers hoovered drugs, Led Zeppelin devoured lobster and groupies and one manager waved a gun. For years, this Boeing jetliner exemplified '70s excess -- and also marked "the beginning of the end."

Decades before deep-pocketed rock and pop stars embraced the Gulfstream V, there was the Starship, a former United Airlines Boeing 720 refurbished in the early 1970s by teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman and his manager, Ward Sylvester, as an airborne pleasure dome. The plane plied the skies in the service of, among others, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers, The Bee Gees, Elton John, Peter Frampton and Alice Cooper.

One of the great artifacts of the coke-flecked, halter-topped, 'lude-dropping rock'n'roll gestalt of the '70s -- and probable inspiration for Austin Powers' shag-a-delic private 747 -- the Starship brimmed with gaudy-chic delights. There was a bedroom with a king-sized waterbed, a drawing room with a fake fireplace, a 30-foot brass-trimmed bar with built-in electric organ, a prehistoric video system stocked with everything from Deep Throat to Duck Soup and two stewardesses to cater to the velvet-­trousered minstrels fresh from their Madison Square Garden gigs.

"A f---ing flying gin palace," Zeppelin's road manager, Richard Cole, ­characterized the ship. David Libert, Cooper's road manager, declared it "a rock'n'roll Air Force One. It's so tacky." Mick Jagger was said to have gasped the first time he stepped aboard and glimpsed the wall-to-wall Vegas.

But Jagger was the exception. Most of the Starship's nouveau-riche rockers thought the plane was the ne plus ultra of decadence and luxury. And for the times, it probably was. A four-engined variant of the Boeing 707 renovated at a cost of $200,000, the Starship leased for a ­staggering $2,500-per-flight hour and was a potent symbol of rock'n'roll primacy.

"It was definitely a show of where you were in your career," says the now 65-year-old Frampton, whose management leased the plane ­during his white-hot superstardom touring behind the ­unstoppable Frampton Comes Alive! "It was a statement of how well you were doing. 'Whoopee! We must be big -- we've got the Starship!' "

Led Zeppelin was the first to lease the plane, in 1973, after a white-knuckle flight from Oakland, Calif., to Los Angeles in a tiny Falcon 20 business jet terrorized the entourage. At the time, Led Zeppelin suffered from almost surreally bad press -- Rolling Stone suggested the band change its name to Limp Blimp -- and it was thought that the Starship might earn the group some respect. "It was an extremely useful tool because inviting a journalist onto the plane, the story kind of wrote itself," says Danny Goldberg, Led Zeppelin's publicist for the tour, who had been hired to gin up positive ­coverage. "The novelty value was significant."

Zeppelin became indelibly associated with the Starship when the band posed with the plane in Bob Gruen's iconic 1973 portrait. The picture, Gruen tells Billboard, "sums up the excess and decadence of the '70s, the fact that here are these guys -- they don't even have to button their shirts -- and they have their own plane." The photo has been a touchstone for rock'n'roll aspirants ever since. "[Keyboardist] Dave Bryan of Bon Jovi and many other musicians told me that when they saw that picture, that's what they wanted," says Gruen.

Cooper manager Shep Gordon spent years honing the band's image as monied rock princelings (especially when they weren't) and hired the Starship for the second leg of the band's Billion Dollar Babies Tour in 1973. "Shep wanted Alice to be bigger than life, and Alice was at the absolute pinnacle of his career at that moment," says Libert. The United States was in the midst of a crippling gasoline shortage -- Libert had to bribe service stations to fuel the tour's trucks -- but the Starship, with its four gas-guzzling Pratt & Whitney engines, flew on. While leased to Cooper, the tail was painted with snakes twisted into gigantic dollar signs. Libert shrugs at the ostentation. "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."

So what was life like aboard the Starship? The first time The Allman Brothers boarded they were greeted with "Welcome Allman Brothers" rendered in lines of cocaine on the club room bar. Zeppelin's Robert Plant once ­commented that his favorite memory of the plane was "oral sex during turbulence," and Goldberg says the band's fearsome manager, Peter Grant, would disappear with girls in tow to the aft bedroom and not reappear until the end of the flight.

"It was pretty much a party plane," says Frampton. "We'd drive right onto the runway, just a long stream of black limos, jump out and get on." Frampton dimly recalls crashing in the master suite en route but "mainly we propped up the bar pretty well." To foil customs ­inspectors who boarded with drug-sniffing dogs, Frampton says the entourage's contraband was stashed "in the dirty stage-clothes bag. So that was our attempt at stealth."

While the comportment of rock stars on the road in 2015 is hardly circumspect, the deepening sexual revolution of the early '70s allowed for a freewheeling carnality. On the Cooper tour, Libert used the plane's PA to announce the daily "ball scores," a name-naming account of the previous evening's sexual indiscretions. Libert says Cooper warned him one morning after, "I do not want to be in your goddamned ball scores -- I'd better not hear my name." So Libert announced, "The high for last night was ... I'm afraid I can't mention that ­person's name," then added, "I'll give a hint, though -- he's a very big star!"

Despite the heedless indulgences -- the wife of an Atlantic Records ­executive recalls Zeppelin manager Grant ­brandishing a handgun on a flight to Pittsburgh while the entourage hoovered cocaine - the Starship came to ­symbolize the isolation that rock stars of the '70s embraced as they saw less and less of everyday life. Danny Markus, a former Atlantic Records executive, marveled that after a Zeppelin concert in Minneapolis, with the audience thundering for more, the band had already been whisked aboard the Starship: "I'm being served lobster thermidor as we're going down the runway, and the audience in the building is waiting for the encore." On tour with The Allman Brothers, Gruen recalls, a band member -- he can't remember which one -- "walked out of the hotel in his bathrobe. He was getting into his limo, which was going to stop at the steps to the plane, where he could walk onto the plane and go back into the bedroom and go back to sleep." Says Libert, "Everyone was kind of awestruck by the plane at first, but nobody ever wanted to make it look like they were ­awestruck. So in very short order, everybody assumed the posture that they took it all for granted -- 'This is how I go to work.' "

The Starship's punishing economics and four thirsty engines put an end to its reign after only four years. Frampton was the last to charter it. "It was headed for the scrap heap," he says. "We were the last to use it before it was decommissioned." The plane bounced among owners before it was broken up for parts in 1982.

Gregg Allman later lamented the ­suffocating atmosphere surrounding The Allman Brothers during their Starship-flying days. "Everything was over the top, uncalled for and just flat-out ­unnecessary -- we had a guy whose only job was to open limo doors for us," he wrote in his 2012 memoir. "When The Allman Brothers got that goddamned plane, it was the ­beginning of the end."