MusicAn Oral History of “We Built This City,” the Worst Song of All Time
It has been playing, ceaselessly, for three decades now, and it will stay lodged in your brain, like a barnacle made of synthesizers and cocaine, for hours after you read this article. (Don’t blame us—blame Starship.) This is the true story of how “We Built This City”—the most detested song in human history—got built.
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.
“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.
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.”
Wolf: I saw them in Costa Mesa, and when they played the beginning of the song, 15,000 people were singing. Tears were running down my eyes. It was very moving for me. The '80s, in my personal life, were a total disaster for me.
Garland: That year, they played the MTV New Year's Eve party for us. Someone in the production crew thought it would be neat to release thousands of Ping-Pong balls. The audience starts throwing the balls, and while Mickey's hitting a note, a ball flies into his mouth. He was pissed.
Thomas: When the song went to No. 1, I said to Bernie, “More than ever, people are gonna ask what ‘Marconi plays the mamba’ means.” He said, “I have no fucking idea, mate.”
Page: Hmm. Marconi was the first one to send music across the ocean. I saw “We Built This City” as saying stop the corporations, we need to play music.
Thomas: Bernie didn't say “mambo,” he said “mamba,” which is a snake. Marconi created the radio. Maybe Bernie meant to say “mambo.” Maybe it means: If you don't like this music, some really angry snakes are gonna come out of the speakers.
Chaquico: Marconi's the guy who invented the radio, and his style of music was the mamba. But listen to the radio now. Do you hear any mamba? That's how I look at the lyric: Things change. I could be totally wrong.
Thomas: At one point I did start to sing “mambo,” to try and be more grammatically correct, and after a while I thought, “Fuck it,” and went back to “mamba.”
Stephen Holden (critic; ‘The New York Times,’ 1985): A compendium of strutting pop-rock clichés, Knee Deep in the Hoopla represents the '80s equivalent of almost everything the original Jefferson Airplane stood against—conformity, conservatism, and a slavish adherence to formula.
Thomas: The stakes were higher because of the band's past. People said, “You have to carry the mantle of the '60s.” C'mon. It's 1985.
Chaquico: The song says we built this city on live music, let's bring it back—but the music is computerized. It complains about techno pop, but it's a techno-pop song. It exemplifies the problem it's protesting.
Wolf: Do I have a sense of why people mock the song? It's a good question. I really don't know. It was a terrible video—cheap and ugly—and it got incredible play on MTV. I felt it didn't do the song justice.
Chaquico: The No. 3 song on that Blender list was “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” by Wang Chung, which Peter Wolf produced. I called him and said, “Dude, I'm on one of the worst songs ever, but you're on two. That's awesome!”
Lambert: It's part of the price you pay for making hit records. Can't please everybody. I'm still here; Blender's not.
Thomas: I was upset at first, but the article was written with quite a bit of humor, so after about an hour, I laughed about it. I'm still here and Blender's not.
Page: To make ourselves feel strong, we say, “We're running to the bank.” But it does hurt. You want people to see the quality in the song, and the beautiful melody. Chordally and harmonically it's—this isn't an ego thing—it's incredibly skillful. If it was cheesy, I'd know it.
Chaquico: I do the song with my band—sometimes as a full-on power trio, like if Cream or Jimi Hendrix were to do it, but we also do a reggae version of it, when we're in the mood. Imagine Bob Marley singing “We Built This City.”
Thomas: I do 60 to 75 shows a year, and it's probably the most popular song in the show.
Page: Thirty years ago, Grace said, “We love it.” She's a lovely lady. She helped me get my green card. So I was surprised at how much she loathes the song now.
Slick (in 2002): The Starship, I hated. Our big hit single, “We Built This City,” was awful.… I felt like I'd throw up on the front row, but I smiled and did it anyway. The show must go on.
Lambert: She's talking out both sides of her mouth, that's all I can say. Maybe she took too much heat for it over the years and decided to take this tack to save face.
Thomas: People seem to have convinced her that it's a blot on her legacy.
Page: “We Built This City” is like Mickey Mouse. People want to knock it and they want to love it. It's iconic, like Mickey's ears. The moment it comes on, people go, “I know that. I love it.” Because people love Mickey.
Sears: In 1987, I quit the band. And I went into therapy for a year. At times, I've thought it is the worst song ever, yes. Occasionally, now, I hear “We Built This City” in a supermarket, or in some movie, and I'm grateful that it helps renew my health insurance, via SAG-AFTRA.
Chaquico: If you listen to any song a million times, you'll get sick of it. So a lot of people got sick of that song, including me.
Lambert: We licensed the song to ITT for almost a million dollars. A major smash song never stops earning money. I've probably written 500 songs, but ten of them earn 90 percent of the money I make.
Page: About two years ago, I saw an advert in London for the mobile service Three UK with a little girl riding a bicycle and singing the song, and it went viral. I nearly cried. After all these years, the song went back into the Top 20 in the UK. It keeps creeping back. It refuses to die.
Rob Tannenbaum is the co-author of ‘I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,’ which somehow mentions Starship only once.
The (S)Hit List: A Compendium of Fantastically Terrible Songs
Only one song can be THE worst of all time—but just because “Rock Me Amadeus” didn't win doesn't mean we shouldn't trash it. Weird Al did.
Surfin' Bird (1963), The Trashmen
They say the word “bird” 84 times in 143 seconds, compounding a lack of originality: It's a rip-off of a Rivingtons song.
Rock Me Amadeus (1985), Falco
Mocked by The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Weird Al—an honor reserved only for a truly special level of musical affront.
Wild Wild West (1999), Will Smith
This very uncatchy theme song is not even Smith's best movie-themed sellout. (That would be “Men in Black.”)
Who Let the Dogs Out (2000), Baha Men
We would also like to know who let the dogs out. So that we can find him. And punish him.
Accidental Racist (2013), Brad Paisley ft. LL Cool J
As tone-deaf in form (rap + country = ugh) as it was in content: The laughable lyrics, shockingly, did not solve racism.