‘We Built This City’: 30 years ago, the day the music (almost) died

WASHINGTON — Apologies in advance for the earworm.

Saturday, Aug. 1, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of one of music’s most reviled yet commercially successful songs — “We Built This City,” by Starship.

The single version reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts on Nov. 16, 1985, yet in 2011 Rolling Stone placed it atop its “10 Worst Songs of the 1980s” poll.

“I would have to agree with Rolling Stone,” says Skip Groff, who in 1985 was selling cutting-edge punk and new wave records at his Yesterday & Today store on Rockville Pike.

Rolling Stone wasn’t the first to criticize the debut single by Starship, which had formerly been Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. In 2004, Blender Magazine and VH1 put “We Built This City” atop their list of “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs…Ever”

The song features Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick sharing lead vocals. Ironically, the lyrics of the song decry the commercialization of radio, yet much of the criticism of the song over the years has focused on its slick production.

The song includes a local DJ’s voice-over during the song’s bridge. It mentions the Golden Gate Bridge and “the city by the Bay,” referring to San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane’s home.

Yet, when the song was played around the country, it was often tailored for the particular market — even though it wasn’t Starship singing.

“We did a bunch of them; it was pretty believable,” says Jonathan Wolfert, president of JAM Creative Productions, Inc., which has sung and produced radio jingles for 40 years.

Wolfert said it was a challenge to assemble a group of singers that could sound like Starship. “We got a good copy of the generic mix, and we’d sing over it.”

In most cases, the audience “thought the band had done it, when in fact it was us.”

Albie Dee, a longtime fixture in Washington radio and currently the program director at WOCQ/OC 104, remembers playing the localized version when he spun the record at WKSS in Hartford.

“You couldn’t tell it was jingle singers,” says Dee.

Chris Roth played the single often in the Washington area, at Mix 107.3, WASH-FM and Big 100.3.

“I remember thinking how generic the song sounded — like every other record out at the time,” says Roth. “As bad as it was, it was familiar, and that’s what supposedly got ratings.”

While Grace Slick left Starship in 1988, Mickey Thomas now  tours with Starship featuring Mickey Thomas.

Friday, I’d tweeted at Thomas, asking for his observations of the date’s significance.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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