The Making of Starship’s Oft-Criticized ‘We Built This City’
Starship officially launched the next phase of their career in 1985 with the release of “We Built This City,” the first single from their album Knee Deep in the Hoopla.
The band that began as Jefferson Airplane in 1965 in San Francisco had moved through a lot of changes, evolving into Jefferson Starship in the early ‘70s after a series of lineup shuffles. They would continue to work under that banner until 1984 when founding member Paul Kantner decided to depart following the release of Nuclear Furniture album, which came out that May.
There had been a lot of internal conflict leading up to that point, with Kantner and the rest of the group quarreling over the musical direction of the material that they were working on for the album. He was particularly unhappy with the news, delivered by vocalist Mickey Thomas, that one of his songs would be left off of the record. He and the members of the band continued to disagree so eventually he put in his notice.
But Kantner would not depart quietly and he took legal action to ensure that the band would not continue to use the Jefferson Starship name. As a result, by the time they released Knee Deep in the Hoopla about a year and a half later, they would be known simply as Starship.
And as an opening statement from the newly revised group, “We Built This City” was certainly a defiantly confident sounding first step forward and one that came from an interesting place. The song was penned in its early stages by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin, who worked with collaborator Martin Page to develop the initial demo (which interestingly enough, came together during writing sessions that also produced “These Dreams,” which would become a monster hit for Heart).
“The original song was a very dark kind of mid-tempo song, and it didn't have all this "We built this city!" It had none of that,” Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2013. “It was a very dark song about how club life in L.A. was being killed off and live acts had no place to go. It was a very specific thing. A guy called Peter Wolf – not J. Geils [Band] Peter Wolf, but a big-time pop guy and German record producer – got ahold of the demo and totally changed it. He jerry-rigged it into the pop hit it was. If you heard the original demo, you wouldn't even recognize the song.”
Page offered additional details about the demo version of “We Built This City,” telling Songfacts in a 2014 interview that, “the demo was very different from the way Starship actually recorded the record. My demo is much darker, more of a ‘Shock the Monkey’ Peter Gabriel vibe. I'd even recorded from the radio a police report of a riot going down in L.A., which they turned into a [San Francisco-based] DJ [voiced by MTV executive Les Garland, who had been a radio personality and programmer in a number of markets, including San Francisco].’”
“I saw the words as almost like a rebellion lyric: it was like live music has been taken away from the city,” Page continues. “So my demo, it was a little more edgy. And I'm very pleased with what Starship did with it, because they made it a universally appealing song.”
It was that universal appeal, driven by layers of synthesizers and programming and the vibrantly upbeat vocals of Thomas and Grace Slick (the lone remaining member from the Airplane days), that made the song an instant earworm for those who heard it on the radio in the late summer of 1985. Both radio and music fans gave the song a thumbs-up and “We Built This City” became Starship’s first No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 on Nov. 16, 1985. Knee Deep in the Hoopla album eventually peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200. That same year, the track received a Grammy nomination for the Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
They would continue to bank additional hit singles, including a second No. 1 for the Hoopla album with the power ballad “Sara” in 1986. But with the passage of time, “We Built This City” has become a polarizing topic of discussion.
Watch Starship's 'We Built This City' Video
Blender put the track in the top spot of their list of The Top 50 Worst Songs Ever in May 2004. Editor Craig Marks said that it "seems to inspire the most virulent feelings of outrage. It purports to be anti-commercial but reeks of '80s corporate-rock commercialism. It's a real reflection of what practically killed rock music in the ‘80s."
Similarly, in 2011, "We Built This City" landed at the top spot again on Rolling Stone’s Reader’s Poll list of the 10 Worst Songs of the ‘80s. “This could be the biggest blow-out victory in the history of the Rolling Stone Readers Poll," the magazine noted. "You really, really, really hate 'We Built This City’ by Starship. It crushed the competition.”
What is it about “We Built This City” that seemingly rubs folks the wrong way all of these years later? Mickey Thomas was happy to address the subject with UCR.
“I think there’s a couple of factors involved in that. One, the overriding factor was when a lot of people didn’t care for the direction that rock music was taking in the ‘80s as far as recording techniques, processes and the sounds,” Thomas said. “A lot of rock and roll bands were sort of catering more towards contemporary hits radio. I think for a band like Starship, that was even taken to another level, because the standards were so different for a band that emerged out of the ‘60s from Jefferson Airplane. So people had a tendency to really romanticize that era and the whole counter-cultural and underground aspect of music in the ‘60s.
“So, for Starship, it was an even bigger sellout than say Journey, Whitesnake or some other band like that, because of the history of the band,” he continues. “I think as I’ve said before that ‘We Built This City’ just kind of became the poster child of a whole trend of music that a lot of people didn’t care for, whether they were wrong or right. And then came Blender magazine, which put the stamp of approval on that whole concept,” Thomas says, with a chuckle.
“I understand it, but would I take it back? The first No. 1 single in the history of the band? That was an exciting time for us,” he says. “We were digging that. And the song, we accomplished exactly what we set out to accomplish. We thought, ‘We’re going to reinvent the band, this is the sound we’re going for and we’re going to use all of these new modern machines, techniques and recording processes and sounds to our advantage and have fun with it.’ It was like a whole new palette of colors to work with. So that’s what we set out to do and we did it!”
In 2019, Thomas continued to defend the song, saying that its lyrics weren't meant to be taken literally. He felt that Taupin's use of the word “city” was “an allegory for any collection of people anywhere who came together to express themselves through the power of music. … It was both a celebration of rock 'n' roll and a protest against those who try and tame it. I never for a moment thought that anyone would think that I was actually singing about concrete and steel or bricks and mortar. … The ‘we’ in the lyric to me always signified a collective we: the artist and the audience singing together as one.”
When you put aside the polls and the lists, it’s pretty easy to see why Thomas feels like there’s nothing to apologize for. He gets to see the lasting impact of “We Built This City” each night when he takes the stage, something this writer recently got a chance to witness. During a 2015 concert performance in Ohio, the crowd in attendance was right there with Thomas, enthusiastically singing every word.
For all the derision shown it by the critics, “We Built This City,” like so many great pop singles, takes a lot people back to a time that they enjoy remembering. And the best part of taking that trip is that you don’t have to revisit your own questionable ‘80s fashion choices along the way.