originally published March 28, 2012
Every so often, I feel like punishing myself. Maybe I’ve had it too easy. I’ve written 87 articles now, totaling over 95,000 words. But have I really pushed myself? As an artist, have I really suffered?
Today’s topic is “We Built This City” by Starship.
Today I suffer, because this song will be in my head for as long as it takes to write this article. I will be typing quickly.
This single hit #1 in the US, in Canada, and in Australia in 1985. Over time it has become one of the most reviled pieces of music from a decade truly bursting with reviled pieces of music. If you haven’t heard it, leave your computer immediately, go to the corner store and purchase a lottery ticket because you are the luckiest son of a bitch ever. Or, you can just listen here.
The song is about San Francisco. You may remember that, in the 1960s, San Francisco was the hub of the music world. They spit out more successful bands than 90s-era Seattle, including the Grateful Dead, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane. Jefferson Airplane eventually devolved into the 1980s band Starship, and this was their way of reminding everyone that they were once really cool (by releasing a song that was very much not cool).
They reference the Golden Gate Bridge and the ‘City by the Bay’, though they also call it ‘The City that Never Sleeps’ and ‘The City that Rocks’. Maybe they were being ambiguous, referencing New York and Cleveland’s nicknames just so they can try to make the song’s message universal. Maybe they wanted local DJs to slip in their own cities’ slogans into the song when they played it (and apparently that actually happened). Maybe reading too much into the lyrics of this thing is not the right approach. We should look for someone to blame.
It took four people to write this song. Four people. One of them, Dennis Lambert, has no Wikipedia page, and will remain relatively safe from my scorn. Let’s start with Peter Wolf, Austrian-born composer and arranger, who played keyboards on Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage albums. He has produced or arranged a litany of 80’s K-Tel Gold, like Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”, Debarge’s “Who’s Johnny”, Heart’s “These Dreams” and the Commodores’ “Night Shift”. He scored some of the greatest films of all time, like The Never-Ending Story III, and Weekend At Bernie’s II. (Doesn’t everyone remember that touching score from WaBII?)
Peter, I understand that you have atoned somewhat for your sins by producing such great songs as “Playing With The Boys” from the Top Gun soundtrack, thus giving us a soundtrack to forever link with the mental image of an oiled-up Val Kilmer, but I think you need to put in a little more charity work to make up for your part in this horrific Starship mis-hap.
Martin Page. I want to hate you, Martin Page. Your work with Go West and Josh Groban does not inspire my forgiveness. But you also played keyboards on Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”, so I’ll let you off with a warning. This time.
Then we come to the most criminal of the song’s four writers, Bernie Taupin. Bernie, you wrote the lyrics to “Levon”, to “Candle In The Wind”, to “Rocket Man”… virtually everything from Elton John’s period of awesomeness (also known as the Pre-Kiki-Dee era) was written with your lyrics. How could you stoop to writing “Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio.” Do you know what a mamba is? It’s a deadly snake found in central and southern Africa. Did Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, form a snake into some sort of instrument?
Let’s look at some of the lyrics. “Someone’s always playing corporation games. Who cares, they’re always changing corporation names?” Seriously? What does that even mean? I can’t even read those lyrics without hearing Grace Slick’s over-pronunciation in my head. “Knee-deep in the hoopla.” They named the album after that lyric. They loved it that much.
“Who counts the money underneath the bar? Who rides the wrecking ball into our rock guitars? Don’t tell us you need us, cause we’re the ship of fools. Looking for America, coming through your schools.”
How is this song about building a city on music? There’s some anti-corporate sentiment going on, which I guess fits the message, but the wrecking ball line – I can’t even tell what they were aiming at. Maybe with the last line they’re suggesting that kids listen to quality music (not true in the 80s, even less true today), or maybe they’re hoping that Starship will once be taught in schools. I can’t imagine in what context, except as a precautionary lesson (“Don’t listen to this song and have sex, or you’ll have ugly babies.”).
I’m not going to write about that middle section where MTV executive and former DJ Les Garland prattles on about traffic. I hated that section in 1985, back when I had a stomach for the rest of this song.
I should give a nod to the producer, Bill Bottrell. He may have dropped Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club and the first Travelling Wilburys album, but that doesn’t excuse him for… okay, actually that’s a pretty solid resume. Bill gets a pass. I’ll also let it slide for co-arranger Jasun Martz, because he recently patented a sponge storage and disinfecting device that he invented, and that’s pretty cool.
Rolling Stone ran a readers’ poll, looking for the ten worst songs of the 1980s. Some of them I can understand. Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” doesn’t quite hold up as the masterpiece our generation once thought it was, and Toni Basil’s “Mickey” is probably used regularly in police interrogations because it is downright painful. Starship’s epic debut single was picked to be the number one worst song of the decade.
Blender Magazine was less kind, issuing their own (non-readers’) list of the 50 “Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever”, and also plopping “We Built This City” at the top – or bottom – of the pile.
Are we being too cruel? Is this song really that bad? Yes, I’m afraid it is. There were worse songs in the 1980s, and there have been more hideous abominations to top the charts since (I’m looking at you, Aqua. “Barbie Girl” has reserved your table in hell). But it was a huge hit that claimed to be anti-corporate while coming across as one of the most commercial and corporate singles of the era. Paul Simon was writing his Graceland album while this was topping the charts. Think about it.
Now go listen to something good. If you’ve read through this article, you’ve probably got the song stuck in your head too. I’m sorry.