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‘We Built This City’: The Story Behind Starship’s Polarising Rock Song
In Depth

‘We Built This City’: The Story Behind Starship’s Polarising Rock Song

With strong foundations, Starship’s massive-selling signature song, We Built This City, has endured as an 80s radio-rock classic.

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Has any other rock song polarised opinion quite as starkly as Starship’s We Built This City? It shot to No.1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and remains a classic-rock radio staple to this day – yet the song has repeatedly been vilified by critics, with readers of Rolling Stone magazine even voting it their Worst Song Of The 1980s in a 2011 poll.

Bearing in mind the extreme reactions it provokes, it seems apt that We Built This City was conceived in circumstances most sensitively described as “dysfunctional”. At the time, the song was marketed as the debut single from a new band, though Starship were effectively an extension of Californian rockers Jefferson Starship, who were themselves a continuation of Jefferson Airplane.

Listen to the best of Starship here.

The backstory: “The music was a gamble. Doesn’t every band want hits?”

In their initial guise, Jefferson Airplane were one of the late-60s’ most influential psychedelic rock outfits, releasing seminal albums such as Surrealistic Pillow and Crown Of Creation. However, by 1974, they’d drifted closer to mainstream rock and morphed into Jefferson Starship, scoring major US chart hits with 1975’s double-platinum Red Octopus and 1979’s gold-certified Freedom At Point Zero albums. Yet, despite their commercial success, the band’s well-documented history reads like one of rock’s more rancorous soap operas, and their rebranding as Starship was enforced through writs served by one of the band’s prominent ex-members.

Nonetheless, Starship’s initial line-up still featured an Airplane original – and one of the best frontwomen in rock history – in vocalist Grace Slick, and most of their personnel had also played on the final Jefferson Starship album before a near-decade hiatus, 1984’s Nuclear Furniture. Slick’s co-vocalist, Georgia-born Mickey Thomas had been on board since Freedom At Point Zero, and was already well-versed in the group’s dynamic.

“I joined Jefferson Starship in 1979, which was one of the pivotal points of reinventing the band,” the singer, who had a background in soul music, told GQ in 2016. “There were always different members coming and going, so the band was constantly evolving… The music itself was a huge gamble.” Acknowledging the motivation behind We Built This City, Thomas added, “Doesn’t every band want hits? We did.”

In pursuit of those elusive hits, Starship looked to outsource their songwriting. One of the writers who became involved, Bernie Taupin, already had an impressive track record, having worked as Elton John’s primary lyricist for around 15 years.

“Bernie was moving away from working with Elton,” We Built This City co-writer Martin Page told GQ. “Everybody wanted him to work with a Thomas 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.’”

The recording: “We felt like we were trying to land a man on the moon”

However, while both Page and Taupin went on to receive writing credits, We Built This City was mostly realised through the input of another musician involved in the process – and his studio smarts completely changed the way the song eventually came out.

“It was a very dark song about how club life in LA was being killed off and live acts had no place to go,” Bernie Taupin later said of the song’s origins, while talking to Rolling Stone in 2013. “A producer named Peter Wolf… 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 recognise the song.”

Wolf – who also produced mid-80s hits for The Commodores and Wang Chung – ended up co-producing Starship. He’d first played keyboards on Starship’s Nuclear Furniture album and the band’s subsequent tour, and he remained on board for both We Built This City and its parent album, Knee Deep In The Hoopla. Indeed, it was Wolf’s interest in new studio technology which proved decisive in nailing the single in the studio.

“Peter Wolf was a genius synthesiser player,” Starship guitarist Greg Chaquico told GQ. “The Synclavier was cutting-edge back then. We didn’t feel we were selling out; we felt like we were trying to land a man on the moon.”

With hindsight, Chaquico described We Built This City as “a very 80s track” recorded against the backdrop of one of the decade’s defining TV shows. “I remember watching Miami Vice between takes,” he said. But when Starship completed the bright, anthemic We Built This City in 1985, it sounded like the future – and also a sure-fire hit.

“I’d known them since the Airplane days, because I was on the radio in San Francisco,” Les Garland, a former MTV head of programming told GQ. “They played me We Built This City and I said, ‘That sounds like a radio smash.’” Garland was then asked to provide the voice of a DJ who interjects in the middle of the song. “I did one take, then threw the earphones on the floor,” he said. “I didn’t think a second thing about it.”

The legacy: “It sounded like nothing else on the radio”

The wider public agreed with Garland’s initial appraisal, and, following its release, on 1 August 1985, We Built This City shot straight to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also topped the charts in Australia and Canada, and went Top 20 in numerous other territories, including the UK. Cash Box magazine declared it to be “dance-rock with sharp hooks”, while Billboard said it was “an unusual rock’n’roll anthem, it’s as wise as it is rebellious”.

Further endorsement arrived when the single received a Grammy Nomination in 1986, for Best Rock Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group. And while less forgiving critics have tried their best, Starship have had the last laugh: platinum (UK) and gold (US) certifications have proven that We Built This City was, indeed, built to last. And in 2018 it provided the foundations for the first in LadBaby’s record-breaking run of UK Christmas No.1 singles. But then its creators never doubted its sturdiness – then or now.

“It sounded like nothing else on the radio and had a very in-your-face, hard-edged machine bottom,” producer Peter Wolf reflected, three decades on from We Built This City’s release. “Yes, I’m proud of it.”

Looking for more? Check out the best 80s songs of all time.

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