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“We Built This City” vinyl single. Half a million people paid money to own this.


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hirty years ago, radio stations and MTV put an insidiously catchy song called “We Built This City” into heavy rotation and kept it there. The hit single gave the members of the band Starship—which emerged from the ashes of Jefferson Starship, successor to Jefferson Airplane, the essential 1960s psychedelic band—unlikely second careers as pop stars. At the time, Starship’s most famous member, singer Grace Slick, was 46.

But over the years, as ’80s music began to sound dated and ludicrous—and no song sounds more ’80s than “We Built This City”—it developed a hideous reputation: the worst song of all time. Blender magazine first crowned it thus in 2004, and the label has stuck, thanks to a series of online polls, thickening into something close to empirical fact. Like many things celebrated and awful, “We Built This City” has grown into a meme: It was the title of a 2008 episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. During the late-1980s peak of junk bonds on Wall Street, Michael Milken changed the lyrics to We built this city on high-yield bonds to celebrate his law-breaking firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert. Russell Brand has sung it, Fergie and the Muppets have performed it. John Kasich played it at campaign events.

“We Built This City” was written and recorded in stages, by an assembly line of songwriters. (Cancer, too, develops in stages.) Today, its creators are ambivalent about what they’ve wrought. It has made them wealthy, but years of ridicule have taken a toll. Among the people who now say they hate it are two band members and the guy who wrote the lyrics. “I don’t think anybody can take all the credit,” says Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, “or all the blame.”

Dennis Lambert (executive producer): The Starship was one more act in a long line of artists I worked with who, if they weren’t given up for dead, were thought of as being in a deep career hole. Bringing them back wasn’t gonna be easy.

Peter Wolf (producer): There was a lot of hate inside the band. What was his name, the gentleman who just died? Paul Kantner. Paul [Jefferson Airplane’s co-founder] was an old hippie who was not relevant anymore. Everyone wanted to go more modern, and he didn’t want to. I was happy Paul left. He argued with everybody, and I hated that.

Mickey Thomas (Starship vocalist): I joined Jefferson Starship in 1979, which was one of the pivotal points of re-inventing the band. I wasn’t exactly a Starship fan—I came out of soul music. There were always different members coming and going, so the band was constantly evolving. I shaved my mustache. We were re-inventing ourselves, so I wanted to re-invent my personal look as well. The music itself was a huge gamble.

Martha Davis (vocalist, the Motels): As best I remember—and we’re talking about the ’80s, so I don’t remember much—[Elton John lyricist] Bernie Taupin sent me the lyrics to “We Built This City” so I could write music to it. I called Bernie and said, “My artistic muse won’t let me finish the song.” Regrets? Oh, hell no.

Martin Page (co-writer): Bernie was moving away from working with Elton John. Everybody wanted him to work with a Tom Dolby kind of writer—someone using new technology. I wanted to impress Bernie: I did a demo of the song on a Fostex deck in my living room. It sounded like Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey.” I sent it to Bernie, who said, “Bernie Taupin comes into the future.”

Member of successful ’80s band: Our producer brought the demo to us. It’s the most pussy thing I’ve ever heard. “Knee-deep in the hoopla”? Well, even Mark Twain wrote some bad prose. Don’t quote any of this.

Bernie Taupin (lyricist, in 2013): The original song was… a very dark song about how club life in L.A. was being killed off and live acts had no place to go. A producer named Peter Wolf—not the J. Geils Peter Wolf, but a big-time pop guy and Austrian record producer—got ahold of the demo and totally changed it.… If you heard the original demo, you wouldn’t even recognize the song.

Wolf: I said to Bernie, “I wrote a chorus. Is that okay with you?” He said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to write any more lyrics.”

Craig Chaquico (Starship guitarist): Peter came to my recording studio in Mill Valley and played the demo for me. About a minute in, he hit the pause button and in his Austrian accent started to sing: “Vee built dis seety on vock and VOLL.”

Lambert: Grace Slick was the matriarch of the group, and everyone was focused on making her happy. She gave me very specific marching orders: “I want to make hits.” She told me she wanted to tour, make a lot of money, and then retire. That’s how she put it.

Thomas: Doesn’t every band want hits? We did.

“That album, for me, was musical hell. I joined the band in ’74, and gradually the music had become vacuous, sterilized, escapist. It was an embarrassment. We had band meetings with big arguments. I probably should’ve tried harder to oppose it. I had a family.”—Pete Sears, Starship bassist

Grace Slick (Starship vocalist; ‘Vanity Fair,’ June 2012): I was such an asshole for a while, I was trying to make up for it by being sober, which I was all during the ’80s, which is a bizarre decade to be sober in. So I was trying to make it up to the band by being a good girl. Here, we’re going to sing this song, “We Built This City on Rock & Roll.” Oh, you’re shitting me, that’s the worst song ever.

Wolf: Chicago was looking for a new singer, after Peter Cetera left. They offered Mickey the job. I said to him, “We’re a few minutes away from a huge hit.”

Chaquico: Peter Wolf was a genius synthesizer player. The Synclavier was cutting-edge. We didn’t feel like we were selling out; we felt like we were trying to land a man on the moon.

Wolf: Journey was recording in the studio next door, and every time I opened the door, their band members were standing outside with their mouths open. “This is the Starship? It’s unbelievable!”

Chaquico: It’s a very ’80s track. I remember watching Miami Vice in between takes.

Pete Sears (Starship bassist): That album, for me, was musical hell. I joined the band in ’74, and gradually the music had become vacuous, sterilized, escapist. It was an embarrassment. We had band meetings with big arguments. I probably should’ve tried harder to oppose it. I had a family.

  
Les Garland (former head of programming, MTV): This is a great Garland story. I’d known them since the Airplane days, because I was on the radio in San Francisco. They played me “We Built This City” and I said, “That sounds like a radio smash.” Then the producer, Peter Wolf, says, “We’re thinking of putting a deejay’s voice in the middle.” So they used my voice. I did one take, then threw the earphones on the floor. I didn’t think a second thing about it.

• Trigger warning: This photograph of Starship can cause unpredictable reactions in people who survived the 1980s. From left, Thomas, former Starship drummer Donny Baldwin, Slick, and Sears.

LYNN GOLDSMITH/CORBIS/GETTY

Thomas: Anybody who says the lyrics are dumb hasn’t taken the time to digest the verses. I don’t think there’s anything dumb about “looking for America, crawling through your schools.”

Sears: That was the best song on the album, even though it’s considered the worst song of all time. The rest were a load of crap.

Slick (in 1985): I like this record.

Sears: Grace was unhappy. I saw that. She was being staunchly brave. In a band, either you’re in or you’re out.

Wolf: It sounded like nothing else on the radio and had a very in-your-face, hard-edged machine bottom. Yes, I’m proud of it. Sure. The mockery came way later.

Francis Delia (video director): I got a call from the band, asking if I could be in Kalamazoo to join them for a dinner. It was a very celebratory time; a bunch of guys who were knocking on middle age suddenly had a No. 1 song. Everyone was drinking $100 snifters of brandy.

Garland: You know me, kind of a clown. I sent a telex to the Starship: “Thank you so much for backing me up on my No. 1 record. Love, Les Garland.”

Chaquico: It marked a new chapter in the band where we couldn’t stop making No. 1 songs. We had three in a year and a half: “We Built This City,” “Sara,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”