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.
“We Built This City” gets all the hate. Starship’s first single — or, anyway, the first single from the era after Paul Kantner left and the band had to stop calling itself the Jefferson Starship — has gone down in snarky-list history as the general-consensus worst song ever made. But while “We Built This City” is definitely a bad song, it’s not the historical atrocity it’s often made out to be. I would argue that “We Built This City” isn’t even Starship’s worst #1 single. A few months after “We Built This City,” Starship came out with another song that was even shittier.
A lot of the disdain for “We Built This City” presumably comes from the weight of history. Starship carried the years-removed legacy of the Jefferson Airplane and of the late-’60s San Francisco psych-rock scene that the band represented. The song had a lead vocal from Grace Slick, the former Airplane singer who’d once howled so memorably. “Sara” doesn’t have any of those issues. Slick merely sings backup on “Sara,” and the track makes no references to any cities that may or may not be built on rock ‘n’ roll. Instead, “Sara” is just a bad, boring ’80s song, and it’s pretty easy to forget its existence entirely. As a society, that’s mostly what we’ve done.
When they contentiously split from the Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, who disapproved of the band’s synth-rock direction, Starship recorded their Knee Deep In The Hoopla album with producer Peter Wolf, an Austrian-born musician who’d previously been one of Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention. (This Peter Wolf isn’t the same Peter Wolf who sang for the J. Geils Band. Instead, we’re dealing with the lesser of the two ’80s rock Peter Wolves here.) Wolf and co-producer Dennis Lambert re-wrote Bernie Taupin and Martin Page’s “We Built This City” demo, adding the big chorus and earning themselves songwriting credits. Then Wolf and his wife wrote “Sara,” Starship’s follow-up single.
Peter Wolf and Ina Wolf both came from Austria, and they made music together sometimes. In 1984, Peter and Ina recorded an album together under the name Wolf & Wolf for Motown’s rock subsidiary Morocco. It didn’t go anywhere, but Wolf & Wolf is a sick band name. After Wolf & Wolf flamed out, Peter and Ina had a pretty good run as songwriters. They named “Sara” after the woman who was married to Mickey Thomas, the Starship member who shared lead-vocal duties with Grace Slick.
In interviews, Thomas talked about how “Sara” was a special song for him because it reminded him of his wife. That seems sweet, but it’s a weird message. Thomas never really talked about how “Sara” is a breakup song. He sings all the lead vocals on “Sara,” and they’re all about how he’s sad that the relationship is falling apart: “Sara! Saaa-ra! The storms are brewing in your eyes! Sara! Saaa-ra! No time is a good time for goodbyes!”
If there’s any charm to “Sara,” it’s in the lyrics, which are clearly the work of people who don’t speak English as a first language and which are thus kind of fun. “I’ll never find another girl like you/ For happy endings, it takes two/ We’re fire and ice, a dream won’t come true.” Thomas sings all those words in a sickly-sincere wimp-rock warble, and he never makes those words sound like things that he might actually use to express himself.
That wispy vocal is one of the worst things about “Sara,” but the track really indulges in all the worst offenses of mainstream mid-’80s pop. There’s the intro’s combination of pillowy keyboard chimes and aimless harmonica tootling. There’s the suffocating heap of synth effects. There’s the processed-to-death guitar that grumbles distantly along with the vocal melody on the chorus. All of those things can sound cool and exciting when they’re deployed with purpose and intensity, but that’s not what happens on “Sara.” Instead, “Sara” is a numb, flat nothing, a depressing nonentity. Thomas has since described “Sara” as “an audiophile song.” Maybe I’m just not listening on sufficiently expensive equipment, but this thing bores the shit out of me.
In the “Sara” video, Starship tell a vague story about a romance ending in a dust-bowl town. That clip mostly notable for the woman who plays the title character. The Sara of the “Sara” video is not the Sara who was married to Mickey Thomas. Instead, it’s Rebecca De Mornay, the brain-meltingly beautiful star of Risky Business and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. The logic, I’m guessing, was something like: Why have your wife in the video when you could get Rebecca De Mornay?
De Mornay had played a character named Sara in Runaway Train, the great 1985 movie where Jon Voigt and Eric Roberts break out of an Alaskan prison, but I’m guessing that was a different Sara. She would later play a character named Dr. Sarah Taylor alongside Antonio Banderas in the 1995 erotic thriller Never Talk To Strangers, but that’s probably not the same Sara, either. Also! De Mornay co-produced the classic 1992 Leonard Cohen album The Future; she and Cohen were romantically involved at the time. So I am delighted to report that De Mornay has a music-related item on her resume that’s much cooler than the fucking “Sara” video.
Peter and Ina Wolf had a pretty big year in 1986. The two of them wrote “Who’s Johnny,” the hit El DeBarge song from the Short Circuit soundtrack. (“Who’s Johnny” peaked at #3, and it has a very funny video. It’s an 8.) Along with Kenny Loggins, Wolf and Wolf also co-wrote “Playing With The Boys,” the Loggins song that plays during the volleyball montage in Top Gun. (“Playing With The Boys” peaked at #60. Another song from the Top Gun soundtrack will appear in this column.)
Peter and Ina Wolf didn’t stay together. After releasing another unsuccessful album under the name Vienna in 1987, the two had their marriage annulled. Years later, Mickey and Sara Thomas divorced. (Google tells me that Sara is now an artist, and that she had a 2014 exhibition with the pretty great name Womb With A View.) But Starship stuck around for a few years after “Sara.” They will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the dancehall version of “Sara” that the blind Jamaican singer Frankie Paul released in 1987: