Private jets and rock 'n' roll go hand-in-hand. Where do you think the phrase "travel like a rock star" came from? No other aircraft in history evokes the golden age of classic rock more than the "Starship". No, not the band, the aircraft. The Starship was a 1960 Boeing 720, tail number N7201U, that originally made its living flying John Q. Citizen around for United Airlines. It was in fact the first 720 Boeing ever built. This aircraft model was the precursor to that venerable air charter work horse, the B727. But that's for another blog entirely. In 1973, N7201U was purchased and converted by Contemporary Entertainment into a glorious chariot of the Rock Gods, the private jet granddaddy of them all. Just how glorious? Rock 'n' read on!
Rock music came of age in the 1970s. With that came huge tours, lot's of travel, and loads of money. Some of said money was used to keep bands comfortable on tour. Contemporary Entertainment realized that there was demand in the air during private jet flights for the same opulence these troubadours were accustomed to on the ground. So they kitted out the Starship with some pretty incredible features. The aircraft's passenger list reads like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame: Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, Elton John, Deep Purple, and The Who.
Come and Play by my Private Jet Fireplace
Oh yeah, for real. This bird had a fireplace. Did it work, with wood logs and everything? No, of course not. Or else, Keith Richards would have fallen into it trying to light a cigarette. Notwithstanding, even a faux fireplace is a pretty wild aircraft feature. This private jet wonder was configured with 40 passenger seats, a thirty foot-long sofa, a bar, and a private bedroom replete with a shower, water bed and shag fur comforter. Oh the tales that bedroom could tell. Don't forget about the TVs, cassette players, and stereo. If you were born after 2000, the preceding sentence will not make any sense to you - but rest assured these were technology must-haves back in the day.
Air Charter Shenanigans on High
Let's not forget who we are dealing with here. These slinky, no-shirt-wearing rockers are so iconic that they require no introductions or last names; Jimmy, Robert, John, JPJ, Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Charlie, Elton, Roger, and the list goes on. They were sometimes "up to things" shall we say. From a band manager's perspective, the Starship created a safe-haven away from prying eyes and cameras. It was also a better bet to let the lads relax and sleep it off until arrival than chance a random stop at a bar mid-trip via motor coach. While the aircraft was indeed outrageous (as was some of the "music history" that was made whilst on-board), private air charter for rock bands made business sense. With so much money to be made, managers and record labels could contain the chaos while the performers enjoyed all of the luxuries flying private has to offer.
What did all This Private Jet Chartering Cost?
In 1970s dollars, it was relatively expensive. Again, cost-benefit analysis is in order. It was a unique aircraft that everybody wanted to be seen on. Indeed, using the aircraft was a symbol that a band had arrived. Not only was chartering the ultimate private jet a great break between shows for bands, it was also a very effective image booster. If they traveled like this, their music has to be incredible, it just has to.
We have already covered the aircraft's ability to contain the chaos of band life in the 1970s, as well as serve as an oasis of privacy. More practically speaking, Starship made North American tours logistically much easier, as the aircraft was capable of carrying band equipment along with the band on direct routes between shows. It also freed up the entire entourage from being at the mercy of airline schedules, or having to try to make it through throngs of fans to get to a gate area.
The cost to charter the aircraft has been reported to be $2,500 per hour, a price point that will not get you a light jet these days. The aircraft was originally purchased for $750,000 and the interior reconfiguration was reported to have cost $200,000. Today, a Gulfstream can run you well north of $60M, and a Boeing Business Jet VIP interior can cost upwards of $25M - just the interior! One lie-flat first-class seat costs approximately $50,000. Keep in mind though, in 1975 the average cost of a new home was in the $40,000 range, and median household income was between $10-15,000.
The Song Does Not Remain the Same
N7201U was eventually purchased and unceremoniously dismantled for spare parts in the early 1980s. Like many music acts, she lived a short and exciting life. Not a news flash - the music industry has changed. Musicians are more savvy about their careers and spending. Unlike the many performers waking up from a substance-addled haze in the 60s, 70s and 80s, only to find that they are broke, (most of, we hope) today's artists pay closer attention to the bottom line. There also isn't the money sloshing around to blow on opulent private jet travel. Modern acts use private jet charter as a tool to solve the complex travel logistics associated with touring. Flying private solves security and logistical issues that no other mode of transportation can. Gone are the flying bars with waterbeds and fireplaces, but that sure must have been fun while it lasted.