To combine the two, well, let’s go to Rob Tannenbaum, who recalls that …
Thirty 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.
Before you stop reading Snarkenbaum: I read GQ occasionally in the late ’80s. Tannenbaum is engaging in revisionism by castigating a decade in which GQ was better off than it is now. (Of course, I then read GQ for fashion I couldn’t afford and supermodels, and come to think of it I couldn’t afford them either.) One wonders who Tannenbaum feels is up to his musical standards; chances are that act is more pretentious than humans can stand, or you’ve never heard of that act.
“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.
By the way: This Wolf is not Peter Wolf, of J. Geils Band fame.
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.