Starship’s ‘We Built This City’: Really The Worst?

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Starship’s “We Built This City” picture sleeve

“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 single released in August 1985*, 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.

* Many sources indicate “We Built This City” was released on Aug. 1; it actually wasn’t until two or three weeks’ later. It reached #1 on the Hot 100 November 16, 1985.

In 2016, music journalist Rob Tannenbaum 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.?]

Starship in the mid-’80s (l. to r.: Craig Chaquico, Donny Baldwin, Grace Slick, Mickey Thomas, Pete Sears)

“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.”

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.”

Related: Airplane singer Marty Balin joins Jefferson Starship onstage in 1974

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.”

Through November 16, 2023, “We Built This City” has more than 118 million views on YouTube. Someone is still listening. Take that, rock critics!

Related: We’ve identified 17 #1 hits that are worse!

Jeff Tamarkin

41 Comments so far

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  1. Bootes
    #1 Bootes 7 January, 2017, 19:49

    Oh, give it a rest. “We Built This City” might be typical mainstream pop, but it’s not even in the top 100 worst rock n roll songs, even if you limit to Top 10 charters! Are you saying it’s worse than the hits by Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Bee gees disco, never mind crap like “Afternoon Delight” or “Convoy”. It’s only because Starship went from renegade Rick band to “sellout” that it even raises a blip.
    Now go sit in the corner and listen to “Run, Joey, Run”.

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin Author 9 January, 2017, 11:30

      Watch for our upcoming feature on #1 hits that are worse than “We Built This City.” We agree with some of your choices!

      Reply this comment
    • Raven Brewer
      Raven Brewer 2 August, 2021, 18:21

      The Bee Gees were an absolutely brilliant Beatlesque pop band before they put the white suits on in 1977.

      Reply this comment
    • magic dick
      magic dick 4 August, 2021, 02:29

      This song is crap.

      Reply this comment
    • Jim
      Jim 2 August, 2022, 07:11


      You are correct, Sir ! Totally agree with you – not even close. “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” usually starts my list of horrible songs. And I like “Built This City” well enough to include it on my Starship’s Greatest Hits !

      Reply this comment
    • Billy
      Billy 8 June, 2023, 05:09

      This song actually slaps, as a kid who heard it with fresh ears when it came out and as a 43 yr old man now i still like it.

      Reply this comment
  2. Guy Smiley
    #2 Guy Smiley 7 January, 2017, 20:10

    If it’s not THE WORST song ever, it”s right up there. Their own “Sara” and that piece of crap from the Mannequin movie are there with it too.

    But then, it gets stiff competition from Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham/George Michael, Journey, Aha, Michael Jackson, and plenty of other 80s musical atrocities.

    Reply this comment
    • GeirS
      GeirS 2 August, 2020, 01:16

      I dont agree with your picks at all. Aha´s Take on me had a good tune and a revolutionary video. Bee Gees had some really good ones in the start «1842 New York Mining Disaster and Massachusetts. Their falsetto was nothing for me. They songs made for Saturday Night Fever was not good music, but really let John Travolta shine as an actor

      Reply this comment
  3. Papa J
    #3 Papa J 9 January, 2017, 01:54

    I really related to the song as a statement of our 60’s movement putting SAN FRAN back on the map,”airways”.. As it were!! SORRY, YOU OVERPAID CRITICS IN YOUR DESIGNER TENNIS SHOES and ITALIAN SUITS!!!
    ROCK ON.. Music is still changing the WORLD!! Peacefully Papa J

    Reply this comment
  4. James Hazley
    #4 James Hazley 10 February, 2017, 21:10

    An overlooked point: For younger Gen X fans like me, the song and the slightly less awful “Sara” served an important purpose. When I was in high school just a few years later, I started discovering the 1960s bands and was pleasantly shocked at how genius Grace Slick was at THAT time. A similar thing happened with awful 80s “comeback” hits like “Living In America” and “Rock In A Hard Place”. You go back and realize who the Godfather of Soul really was and who The Stones really were.

    Reply this comment
  5. Guidopm7
    #5 Guidopm7 25 September, 2017, 11:03

    Yes it is that bad and “Sara” too. We are talking worst song in the genre of rock and roll bands not Tiffany et al! Now “Jane” is a great song…can’t believe it’s the same band.

    Reply this comment
  6. GG
    #6 GG 25 September, 2017, 17:47

    WBTC was plainly awful but it made me REALLY appreciate Jefferson Airplane which I now consider underrated!

    Reply this comment
  7. Billy Wol
    #7 Billy Wol 17 November, 2017, 15:01

    Love it. One of the 80’s best tunes.
    When being critical,you have to think of what utter crap is about today. I would go back to these days in a second. Fantastic and fun.
    Also,it is much better than some of the dirge they put out in the sixties !!!

    Reply this comment
  8. Sam Hamwich
    #8 Sam Hamwich 10 March, 2018, 09:26

    They Built This Shitty

    Reply this comment
  9. muso-nezzie
    #9 muso-nezzie 27 July, 2018, 07:24

    I remember when it came out – I hated it immediately – It was one of the first songs that I really thought was crap – I was 13 years old. Then it became popular at school and it taught me that many people and not just a few, have no ear for music.

    Reply this comment
  10. jl
    #10 jl 22 June, 2020, 03:39

    Worse song ever? No way! Half of Bon Jovi’s hits and most of anything U2 ever did are some of the worse songs I’ve ever heard.

    Reply this comment
  11. Da Mick
    #11 Da Mick 2 August, 2020, 00:47

    These comment just go to show something that I learned a long time ago, with regard to trying to assume about what’s uniformly good and bad, with regard to just about anything — everyone sees everything differently, and you can count on that what you are convinced is the worst of anything will be loved by someone else. But for my two sense, part of the reason WBTC is one of the worst songs ever, beyond how soulless and pandering it is, is because of who it came from and the legacy of who those people, and that band was, what they stood for, once upon a time, and the great music that came from the roots of that band. It was a travesty to have anything like this connected to something that came from the Jefferson Airplane.

    Reply this comment
  12. GeirS
    #12 GeirS 2 August, 2020, 01:08

    It´s a pity that Grace Slick´s only nr 1 was «We built this City. It is buy noe means the worst song, but a quite catchy, supercomersial «leightweighter». I hope she get remember for her best music; for me White Rabbit is the absolute best among many good ones from Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. Starship was «shit» compared with the earlier editions of the band, but the voice of grace Slick was surprisingly good also in the Starship-periode.
    Compared with other songs that has topped Billboard 100, We Built This City» is one of the better. On YouTube I get collections/samples of alle the former number 1 hits. Some of them are so bad that I have problems understanding how they were put on record at all. Hall & Oates? Lisa Stanfeldt, Rick Asley? just to mention a few of the better really bad ones!

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin Author 2 August, 2020, 07:33

      Starship’s “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” also hit number 1.

      Reply this comment
      • Trish
        Trish 16 November, 2020, 10:18

        I’d also add that “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a WAY worse song than “We Built This City.” Watch the video–Grace Slick looks like she wants to punch somebody (but I’m sure she enjoyed the money she made from it).

        Reply this comment
  13. JeffryDVD
    #13 JeffryDVD 2 August, 2020, 07:49

    Cripes! “I’ve Never Been To Me” is the worst song ever-hands down!

    Reply this comment
  14. bertram
    #14 bertram 2 August, 2020, 08:35

    It just made me appreciate Frank Zappa all the more, ” And the band played the most horribliest shit you ever heard” Only Money!

    Reply this comment
  15. Mr Mustard
    #15 Mr Mustard 2 August, 2020, 16:25

    You all missed the greatest song of the 80’s
    True blue genius: Milli Vanilli
    Girl you know it’s true : a pop/ hip hop anthem…

    Reply this comment
  16. Dave Rocks
    #16 Dave Rocks 4 December, 2020, 09:11

    I think Music critics in general should be ignored. Music, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We Built this City is my fav Starship tune. You cannot hear it on the radio without singing along. Sure the lyrics are a bit oblique but to me its about the “musical city “of Rock & Roll being attacked by corporate commercialism. There are so many songs worse than this that it shouldn’t even be up for discussion.

    Reply this comment
  17. The Guv
    #17 The Guv 5 December, 2020, 09:45

    “We Built this City” is actually a song I’ve always liked (but not Loved). I thought that the video for the song was kinda kewl back in the MTV (videos) day. Songs that sucked a lot more were things like “Chevy Van” (by Andy Kim”, “Billy, Don’t be a Hero”, “The Night Chicago Died” and pretty much ANYTHING recorded in any decade by Bon Jovi.

    Reply this comment
  18. AllYourScreens
    #18 AllYourScreens 9 December, 2020, 10:58

    The reason why the song features a DJ talking about the “City on the Bay” even though it’s a song about L.A. is that while the SF version was the best known, the label also released a bunch of regionalized versions that had a DJ talking about the highlights of LA, Chicago, Pittsburg, etc.

    Reply this comment
  19. Bobby
    #19 Bobby 1 August, 2021, 16:43

    I hold out for the deejay patter at the end — always like a Dan Ingram-style interjection into the song

    Reply this comment
  20. Greg
    #20 Greg 2 August, 2021, 21:40

    I guess the elusive Donny Baldwin had nothing to say. I like the song: It’s quirky, fun, and mysterious. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which the band needed after the drama of Paul Kantner’s stormy departure. Love JA and JS, but “WBTC” is much more listenable than, say, “Never Argue with a German When You’re Tired or European Song” or most of “Earth.”

    Reply this comment
  21. Astorian
    #21 Astorian 4 August, 2021, 00:28

    Isn’t it amazing that ALL of the “worst” songs of all time were huge hits? Shouldn’t some of the worst songs ever be stiffs that we’ve never heard of?

    It’s almost as if millions of people love those songs and don’t care what critics think.

    Reply this comment
  22. Sam
    #22 Sam 2 August, 2022, 07:28

    My problem is all of these comments are spoken as if they are facts and they simply aren’t. Everything means something to someone, so the only “fact” is that Tiffany, Debbie, Starship etc. do have fans and they relate to the music, whether someone else doesn’t.

    Reply this comment
  23. Rollbert
    #23 Rollbert 2 August, 2022, 10:22

    Worst of all time? I guess the critics have different taste then me. Lets just do 1985, Eddie Murphy-Party all the time, Sugar Walls S.Easton, L.Richie Penny Lover, A Franklin Whos Zoomin who.

    Reply this comment
  24. Lenny
    #24 Lenny 2 August, 2022, 12:22

    Always loved this song. What is wrong with everyone? I would listen to it at work when I was having a bad day and it lifted me up. Oh well….everyone has their opinion.

    Reply this comment
  25. jgelis
    #25 jgelis 2 August, 2022, 13:32

    I can think of a thousand songs that are worse. In fact, I like this song. Why it is criticized, I have no idea. This song is classic Jefferson Starship.

    Reply this comment
  26. jgelis
    #26 jgelis 2 August, 2022, 13:35

    Bingo! Critics are miserable people who love to trash what normal people like.

    Reply this comment
  27. Cosmic Cowboy
    #27 Cosmic Cowboy 8 August, 2022, 00:46

    First off, “Nothin’s s Gonna Stop Us Now” was a couples’ song for many wide-eyed lovers in the mid-80s, especially for ethnically-diverse and/or long-distance relationships.

    Granted, “We Built This City” was extremely poppy, but really, not a bad, let alone not an awful song, in the pop vein.
    Admittedly, not my favorite, but then again, most synth and drum machine influenced songs from the mid-80s (ZZ Top an exception) were not on my play rotation, either.

    “Sara” is a solid and dream-like ballad, which leads to my overall point –
    That being, that, during this era (Late 70s – mid- 80s, many previously “rock”-regarded bands were pressured by their record labels to move towards more MOR-oriented music.

    The list can go on forever, but some prime examples are Styx (“Babe”, “Mr. Roboto”), Reo Speedwagon (“Keep On Loving You”), Chicago (“You’re The Inspiration” or any collaboration between David Foster and Peter Cetera…..),
    J.Geils (“Centerfold” – and I love most all prior Geils output), Grateful Dead ( ‘Touch Of Grey”), Journey (“Faithfully”), Bob Seger (“Like A Rock”) –
    You get the message.

    I have seen all of the above bands in their early years, in their prime, during the “ballad/yacht-rock” era, as well some in their latter days.
    All still put on quality shows, so I think we can excuse any to perceived diversions.

    Support Live Music

    Reply this comment
  28. JennyB
    #28 JennyB 17 November, 2023, 02:33

    The list of crap songs is too long and tedious to even try to enumerate and this song doesn’t crack the top million. The problem is that is it so beneath the talents of the band it came from that it’s hard to regard it as seriously as their much better work. The Bee Gees were mentioned and I personally loved their music until they went “disco” on me and I couldn’t take them seriously after “Staying Alive”. I’ve said it before, music and other creative outlets are subjective at best…all in the eyes and ears of the beholder and listener. Songs are like diamonds…the real deal is hard to come by and people are easily distracted by the shiny CZ and don’t pay attention to the stuff that sparkles. Regardless of how ya’ all feel about any of the tunes that were mentioned above, we need to count ourselves extremely fortunate to have lived through those heady times and the wonderful music we were privileged to have grown up with. I know I feel that way when I hear The Beatles, etc. This 68-year-old broad feels like she’s young again! And that’s a feeling that you can’t beat! Rock on, everyone, peace, love and stay cool!

    Reply this comment
  29. BMac
    #29 BMac 17 November, 2023, 16:26

    Damn,a lot of feedback here. I’ll just add (and it ain’t adding much) that I’ve always thought “We Built This City” got a bum rap all these years for being a horrible song. It ain’t horrible. A bit of a novelty, quirky, poppy, and very much a song of its time, immersed in the mid ’80s. And I’d much rather listen to it than Morris Albert’s “Feelings” or “Playground in My Mind” by Clint Holmes.

    Reply this comment
  30. Marty Bender
    #30 Marty Bender 19 November, 2023, 22:16

    Not the worst song of all time …
    But definitely one of the best examples of getting the right sound on the radio at the right time.
    Well done and even well promoted.
    They created personalized versions for each radio station in each city.

    Reply this comment

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