Read the Oral History of Starship’s ‘We Built This City’
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“We Built This City,” the Starship song everyone loves to hate — but can’t seem to stop returning to — turned 31 last month, and its release (and eventual ascension to No. 1 on the Billboard chart) has been commemorated with a new oral history.
GQ assembled fresh and archival quotes from the majority of the people involved in “We Built This City,” from the songwriting team (Bernie Taupin, Martin Page, executive producer Dennis Lambert and producer Peter Wolf) to the past and present Starship members whose legacy will forever remain entangled with the group’s quintessential ’80s hit.
As fans are well aware, this iteration of the band was just the latest in a series of evolutions that started out with the Jefferson Airplane before morphing into the Jefferson Starship and then, ultimately, Starship — changes motivated as much by personal conflicts as they were by commercial concerns. “There was a lot of hate inside the band,” Wolf recalls in the article. “Paul [Kantner, 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.”
Going “more modern” and scoring hits was the Starship’s mandate, and they set out to achieve it wholeheartedly with their 1985 album Knee Deep in the Hoopla. As singer Mickey Thomas told Ultimate Classic Rock just last year, “We Built This City” encapsulates the essence of the record’s forward-thinking approach to production.
“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,’” he recalled in 2015. “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.”
Taste is subjective, of course, and not all the band members were necessarily on the same page with the new direction. Aside from Kantner, whose umbrage with their turn away from the Jefferson Airplane’s ’60s progressivism has been well-documented, bassist Pete Sears has gone on record with his disdain for the Hoopla record. Calling it “musical hell” in the new oral history, he admits, “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.”
As much as Sears professes to hate “We Built This City,” he points to it as a highlight on a record he utterly disavows. “That was the best song on the album, even though it’s considered the worst song of all time,” he argues. “The rest were a load of crap.”
The ends justified the means in the ’80s, and before it became a poster child for selling out, “We Built This City” was a massive hit — though as guitarist Craig Chaquico points out in the article, its defiant lyrical stance in support of live music and old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll is severely undercut by the machine-driven arrangement.
“The song says we built this city on live music, let’s bring it back — but the music is computerized,” Chaquico is quoted as saying. “It complains about techno pop, but it’s a techno-pop song. It exemplifies the problem it’s protesting.”
Cognitive dissonance aside, Thomas insists “We Built This City” remains a staple of the current Starship’s live sets, and he — along with the song’s writers — stands by a hit they feel may have become a punching bag for the wrong reasons. “It does hurt. You want people to see the quality in the song, and the beautiful melody,” admits Page. “Chordally and harmonically it’s — this isn’t an ego thing — it’s incredibly skillful. If it was cheesy, I’d know it.”
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