The Number Ones

November 16, 1985

Starship-We-Built-This-City

The Number Ones: Starship’s “We Built This City”

3/10

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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“The worst song of all time.” That’s what we’re supposed to say. Conventional wisdom dictates that Starship’s “We Built This City” is the absolute nadir of recorded music, the shittiest piece of shit that any musician has ever shitted out. In 2004, Blender put the song at the top of its list of the worst songs of all time, and VH1 built a whole TV special around that list. As a publicity stunt, Blender sent writer Russ Heller to listen to “We Built This City” on a loop for 24 hours in a glass booth that had been installed in a Manhattan Best Buy; it broke some kind of record. A few years later, the readers of Rolling Stone voted on the worst songs of the ’80s, and “We Built This City” won a blowout victory. In 2016, former Blender guy Rob Tannenbaum’s GQ oral history of “We Built This City” used the phrase “worst song of all time” in its headline.

In fact, one of the two singers of “We Built This City” has gone on record using similar language to describe the track. In a 2012 Vanity Fair interview, Grace Slick, the longest-tenured member of Starship, had this to say: “Oh, you’re shitting me, that’s the worst song ever.” (In 2002, she also said, “Our big hit single ‘We Built This City’ was awful… I felt like I’d throw up on the front row, but I smiled and did it anyway. The show must go on.”)

At a certain point, that kind of consensus become oppressive and misleading. There are way, way too many terrible songs in the world for anyone to seriously argue that “We Built This City” is the worst one ever created. Anyone who tries to make that case has probably never, for instance, survived prolonged exposure to the works of KK Slider. “We Built This City” isn’t even the worst song ever to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (That distinction still belongs to Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad Of The Green Berets.”) “We Built This City” is, however, a very bad song.

The whole saga of “We Built This City” starts with Bernie Taupin, the longtime Elton John collaborator who was trying to see what he could do without Elton. Taupin had, for instance, co-written the 1978 Alice Cooper album From The Inside; its big single, the Elton-esque ballad “How You Gonna See Me Now” peaked at #12. Taupin had written some lyrics about Los Angeles nightclubs being shut down and about the idea that live music was dying, and he sent those lyrics around. In that GQ oral history, the Motels’ Martha Davis says that she told Taupin, “My artistic muse won’t let me finish the song.” (The Motels’ two highest-charting singles, 1982’s “Only The Lonely” and 1983’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” both peaked at #9. “Only The Lonely” is a 6, and “Suddenly Last Summer” is a 7.)

Martin Page’s muse would let him finish the song. At the time, Page was a member of the UK synthpop group Q-Feel. (For reasons I don’t understand, Q-Feel’s 1982 single “Dancing In Heaven (Orbital Be-Bop)” peaked at #75 seven years after its release.) Page put some synth music to Taupin’s lyrics, and he recorded a demo in his living room. Taupin loved it. That demo ended up in the hands of Peter Wolf (not the one from the J. Geils Band) and Dennis Lambert, two producers who were working with the band Starship.

In a way, Starship were a new group. In another, more poignant way, they were an extension of a group that had been around for 20 years. In 1965, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, two San Francisco folk-scene types, had their minds blown by the Beatles, and they started up a rock ‘n’ roll band of their own called the Jefferson Airplane. A year after forming, they recruited Grace Slick, a former model with an icy demeanor and an electric howl of a voice. Soon enough, the Airplane had become one of the key bands on the San Francisco acid-rock scene. Even amidst peers like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother And The Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Jefferson Airplane stood out. They were stars.

The Jefferson Airplane were the first of the San Francisco bands to sign with a major label, and their 1967 sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow went platinum and launched a couple of top-10 hits. (“Somebody To Love,” the band’s highest-charting single, peaked at #5. It’s a 9.) But later records didn’t do as well, and the band’s membership changed a bunch of times. In the mid-’70s, Paul Kantner was getting more and more into sci-fi imagery, and he pushed the band into a change of direction. The Jefferson Airplane become the Jefferson Starship.

For a while, the Jefferson Starship were surprisingly successful. Their 1975 album Red Octopus went double platinum, and its single “Miracles” peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.) But the band’s membership was constantly in flux. Slick had a real drinking problem, and Kantner kicked her out of the band in 1978. Marty Balin, their other lead singer, left a year later. The Jefferson Starship needed a new singer, so Kantner recruited Mickey Thomas, the Georgia-born vocalist who’d sung on blues-rock guitarist Elvin Bishop’s 1976 hit “Fooled Around And Fell In Love.” (“Fooled Around And Fell In Love” peaked at #3. It’s a 7.)

Grace Slick rejoined the Jefferson Starship in 1981, but Paul Kantner didn’t last much longer in the band. He’d gotten sick of their more commercial direction, and he quit in 1984. Kantner also sued the band. He was the last remaining original member of the Jefferson Airplane; in a settlement; the other members of the group agreed not to use the words “Jefferson” or “Airplane.” So they shortened the band’s name and just became Starship. In a way, then, “We Built This City” is Starship’s debut single.

By the end of their run, the Jefferson Starship were working with Peter Wolf, an Austrian-born arranger who’d previously been a keyboard player for Frank Zappa. Wolf and Dennis Lambert, a pop-industry veteran who’d co-produced Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” and Player’s “Baby Come Back,” became Starship’s new producers. They wanted Starship to make hits, and they weren’t sorry to see Paul Kantner go. Here’s Wolf, in that GQ article: “Paul was an old hippie who was not relevant anymore. Everyone wanted to go more modern, and he didn’t want to… He argued with everybody, and I hated that.”

Wolf and Lambert liked Taupin and Page’s demo for “We Built This City,” but they didn’t think the chorus was big enough, so they wrote a bigger one and gave themselves co-writer credits. Working with Starship, they turned “We Built This City” into a big, blaring synth-rock song with an ultra-bouncy beat and a sickly, unpleasant sort of catchiness. Wolf played keyboards on the track. Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick traded off the vocals. Together, they made the song into a product. They also brought in Les Garland, a former San Francisco DJ who’d become an MTV exec, to do some DJ patter in the middle of the song — a smart idea for a group trying to get MTV play. (Garland also hired China Kantner, the daughter of Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, as a VJ.)

Listening to “We Built This City,” it’s pretty clear that nobody involved in the production has any idea what “We Built This City” is about. That’s partly because some of those lyrics are genuinely meaningless. For instance: “Marconi plays the mamba.” Mickey Thomas in the GQ piece:

Bernie didn’t say “mambo,” he said “mamba,” which is a snake. Marconi created the radio. Maybe Bernie meant to say “mambo.” Maybe it means: If you don’t like this music, some really angry snakes are gonna come out of the speakers… At one point, I did start to sing “mambo,” to try and be more grammatically correct, and after a while I thought, “Fuck it,” and went back to “mamba.”

But “We Built This City” is also, at least on some level, a song about ’80s greed and societal collapse. There’s police brutality: “It’s just another Sunday in a tired old street/ Police have got the chokehold, oh, and we just lost the beat.” There’s corporate consolidation: “Someone always playing corporation games/ Who cares? They’re always changing corporation names.” There’s the devaluation of music: “Who counts the money underneath the bar?/ Who rides the wrecking ball into our guitars?”

Those lyrics are all vague as fuck, and they don’t exactly make a cogent argument for anything. But they’re aiming for something, and that something seems to work at odds with the bright, shiny optimism that the music suggests. Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, to GQ: “The song says we built this city on live music, let’s bring it back — but the music is computerized. It complains about techno-pop, but it’s a techno-pop song. It exemplifies the problem it’s protesting.”

All the conversations about the song are loaded because of the Jefferson Airplane’s legacy, the patina of ’60s idealism that comes along with Grace Slick’s voice. With the Airplane, Slick really did help build something — not a city per se, but one of the most beloved rock ‘n’ roll scenes in history. By 1985, the Bay Area had entered the early stages of the Silicon Valley monster that it’s become, and a whole lot of the hippies had become yuppies. “We Built This City,” then, exists as a sort of unwelcome arbiter of cultural change. Slick is singing about building something, but she’s singing it on this song that seems to symbolize everything shitty about the differences between the ’60s and the ’80s.

That’s a heavy weight for a song to bear. It’s probably not fair to look at “We Built This City” through that lens. Slick is the only Airplane veteran even involved in “We Built This City.” With “We Built This City,” the 46-year-old Slick broke Tina Turner’s record and became the oldest woman ever to sing a #1 single. She brings at least some of the forceful intention that she’d had back in her Airplane days, though she can’t really hit those gospel-style ad-libs that she tries out late in the track.

Anyway, I like ’80s techno-pop. Some days, I like it better than ’60s rock. In some ways, “We Built This City” foreshadows the elegant, mathematical Swedish-style factory-pop that would take over the charts in the years ahead. (Opening with the chorus is a total Max Martin move.) There are some sharp little melodic turns in there. But “We Built This City” is also clumsier and more muddled than most of the techno-pop that would follow. The chorus isn’t good, and it’s definitely not good enough to repeat as many times as it does. The track sounds like a rough draft, sung by puzzled musicians who don’t quite understand what they’re supposed to be so excited about. It sounds like pop by committee, which is what it is.

“We Built This City” got dismal reviews, but it was a legit hit, and it made Starship into a real pop-chart presence in ways that the two bands with “Jefferson” in their names had never been. Starship will be in this column again.

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Diplomats rapping over producer Just Blaze’s sped-up chipmunk-soul sample of “We Built This City” on their 2002 track “Built This City”:

(As a group, the Dipset never had a Hot 100 single, but almost everyone who raps on “Built This City” has hits. Jim Jones’ highest-charting single, 2006’s “We Fly High,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7. Juelz Santana’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “There It Go (The Whistle Song),” peaked at #6. It’s a 6. As a guest, Juelz will eventually appear in this column. Cam’ron’s highest-charting single, the 2002 Juelz collab “Hey Ma,” peaked at #3. It’s a 10. Only Hell Rell has never charted.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2011 movie The Muppets where the Muppets sing “We Built This City”:

(Kermit The Frog’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Rainbow Connection,” peaked at #25.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the utterly absurd scene from the 2012 film Rock Of Ages where Russell Brand leads a mob of pro-rock ‘n’ roll protesters in a rendition of “We Built This City”:

(The song that Catherine Zeta-Jones and the anti-rock ‘n’ roll protesters are singing is Twisted Sister’s 1984 single “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which peaked at #21 and which is way more of a rock ‘n’ roll song than “We Built This City.” It exemplifies the problem it’s protesting.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2018, the British YouTuber LadBaby scored the UK’s fabled Christmas #1 with “We Built This City… On Sausage Rolls,” a food-themed parody of “We Built This City.” Here’s his video:

(A year later, LadBaby landed another Christmas #1 with “I Love Sausage Rolls,” a parody of Joan Jett And The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘N Roll.” The world eagerly awaits the next time LadBaby substitutes the words “rock ‘n’ roll” with “sausage rolls.”)

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