Starship’s ‘We Built This City’: Really The Worst?by Jeff Tamarkin
“We just weren’t doing anything interesting.”—Grace Slick
It has become de rigueur, in recent years, whenever a music publication tosses up a list of the worst songs of all-time, to lead off with “We Built This City,” the 1985 #1 single by Starship, the group that evolved, or devolved, out of Jefferson Starship, a pretty decent (and sometimes great) ’70s band, which itself evolved, or devolved, out of Jefferson Airplane, one of the most significant American ’60s bands.
Music journalist Rob Tannenbaum just last year penned a piece for GQ titled, “An Oral History of ‘We Built This City,’ the Worst Song of All Time.” USA Today agreed in the early 2000s and Rolling Stone, which was launched in San Francisco just a couple of years after Jefferson Airplane, called it one of the worst songs of the 1980s (at least they didn’t say of all-time) in one of their polls.
Now, “We Built This City” is admittedly a song that’s easy to hate, and it’s painful for fans that grew up listening to the Airplane or even the early Jefferson Starship to admit that. How did such a once innovative and, in many ways, revolutionary band morph (de-morph?) into something that could turn out such a cringe-worthy piece of sellout schlock? And why did it take four songwriters, including Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s brilliant lyricist—along with Martin Page, Dennis Lambert and Peter Wolf (not the J. Geils Band singer)—to create it?! Could Taupin really have been responsible for the line “Marconi plays the mamba listen to the radio”—whatever that means—or, even worse, this stanza: “Someone’s always playing corporation games/Who cares, they’re always changing corporation names/We just want to dance here, someone stole the stage/They call us irresponsible, write us off the page”? “Your Song” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that is not!
And what was Grace Slick’s excuse? In the heady days of the late ’60s, she—along with her friend Janis Joplin—was the most prominent female face of the surging psychedelic rock revolution. She was an outspoken, rebel-rousing troublemaker, dynamic singer, multi-instrumentalist and daring songwriter, a strong woman who insisted on being an equal to the guys in the band. Her performances on Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” were era-defining. Her eclectic songs on albums like After Bathing at Baxter’s and Volunteers were wholly original. The Grace Slick of the Airplane days would have crucified the Grace Slick of Starship.
But by the time of “We Built This City,” two decades after the Airplane’s formation, she was the only member of the Airplane still involved in this very changed organization and, it seemed, more than happy to lend her voice to that song—although, when I interviewed her in the late ’90s, she was a bit defensive about it.
“Everybody thought we were talking about San Francisco [as the city built by rock ’n’ roll],” she told me. “First of all, it’s written by a British guy about Los Angeles sung by a San Francisco group. It’s talking about the clubs closing, or being closed down, in Los Angeles. It had nothing to do with San Francisco. But everyone thought it was about us so we thought, OK, fine.”
[As an aside, if the song is about Los Angeles, why is there a voiceover by a male disc jockey that goes like this: “I’m looking out over that Golden Gate Bridge. Out on a gorgeous sunny Saturday. I’ve seen that bumper-to-bumper traffic,” as well as a reference to the “city by the Bay”? Did they move the GGB to L.A.?]
“I always tried to put a more universal interpretation to this song, that we, the ‘we’ in ‘We Built This City,’ is not a geographical thing, it’s an ideological particular,” Mickey Thomas, the group’s male vocalist, told me in a separate interview. “It’s like this ‘city’ is a city of people all over the world, all over the planet, who have an idealism that is attached to music, who have a love for music and rock and roll and believe that rock and roll can change the world, or music can change the world, and music can make you feel good, music can keep you young. Music can save you in times of desperation. So to me, that’s what the ‘city’ was, a musical city.”
Guitarist Craig Chaquico is proud of the success the group enjoyed in those last years together. “I wish I could take credit for going, ‘Man, this is a whole new change and we’re going to have number one albums and Grammy nominations and get a Golden Globe and a music soundtrack, but I did not see any of that coming,” he says. “I think I was more surprised than anybody. When we first heard ‘We Built This City,’ it was cool, too. We knew it was really different and quirky.”
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Meanwhile, Pete Sears, the group’s keyboardist/bassist at the time, remains less than ecstatic about the music itself. “For that kind of pop thing, it’s a good song,” he told me. “But it just wasn’t the kind of song that was right for Starship. It fit that album. It was the best song on the album [Knee Deep in the Hoopla]. I didn’t really play the bass on it,” he added. “I sampled the bass. They put my bass sounds into the computer. All the songs [on the album] were designed to be pop hits. I was completely on another plane by then. Not better, not worse, just different.”
Looking back at her involvement in Starship, Slick is open about that phase of her career, which turned out to be her musical swan song save for a short-lived 1989 Airplane reunion—Slick retired after that and today is a painter. “That’s a whole different deal there,” she said of Starship. “That’s a working commercial, professional, older…it’s not a kids’ band. We’ve been around for a while, we know the ropes, we go on tour, we do the shit. We get pimple cream sponsorship. We do the whole thing. It’s a commercial band. It got boring after a while. But it didn’t bother me. We weren’t doing anything wrong. We just weren’t doing anything interesting.”
Whatever the song’s, and the band’s, reputation might be in retrospect, Starship certainly enjoyed watching “We Built This City” climb to the top of the charts. “The president of RCA Records called while I was playing golf with [late Airplane/Starship manager] Bill Thompson, to personally tell me that the song had gone to number one,” Thomas, who still leads a Starship band today, commented. “The validation that I felt from that was really special. And then ‘Sara’ became number one after that and it was like a dream come true, man. I’ll never regret it. I know those songs get criticized a lot, but I’ll never forget the magic that we felt when that happened and how special it was. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
“We Built This City” has nearly 22 million views on YouTube. Someone is still listening. Take that. rock critics!
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Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.