MOJO Time Machine: The Starship Takes Off!

On 16 November, 1985 the band formerly known as Jefferson Airplane scored a massive hit with We Built This City


by Fred Dellar |
Published on

16 November, 1985

Grace Slick may have dubbed it, “the dumbest song I ever heard,” but nevertheless she was ecstatic. Chart domination had been a long time coming. She’d been part of Jefferson Airplane since replacing original singer Signe Andersen, in October 1966. There’d been plenty of hits, for sure. But not that many big ones. After the creation of Jefferson Starship in 1970, hopes were raised when Marty Balin’s highly-praised ballad Miracles soared to No.3 in 1974. Eleven years later the band’s reconfiguration as Starship really did the trick.

After paying one-time colleague Paul Kantner a quarter of a million dollars, including $80,000 for full rights to use the band’s new name, Slick, together with singer Mickey Thomas, guitarist Craig Chaquico, bassist Pete Sears and drummer Danny Baldwin had recorded an album, Knee Deep In The Hoopla, and released a spin-off single, We Built This City that planted itself in the US Hot 100 chart during early September. By November 16 the song had established itself at the top of the heap, brushing aside Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice Theme to become the best-selling record in America, the first-ever No.1 for any of the Airplane/ Starship incarnations. It wasn’t bad for a record that started life being penned for a band from Southampton named Q-Feel.

Having seen potential in Q-Feel, veteran lyricist Bernie Taupin had written a couple of lyrics and passed them on to the group’s co-leader and songwriter Martin Page. ”See what you can make of them” he said. One of the songs was We Built This City. Page demoed it at his 16-track home studio and awaited interest.

“The song was not written specifically for Starship,” Martin Page later related in Billboard. “I wrote We Built This City from a Q-Feel perspective. I wrote it to for my band, I wrote it for me. I write my best songs when I writing without thinking about the artist but thinking about what I would want to perform, what I would feel proud of.”

The Motels picked up on the song and slotted it in at one of their recording sessions. ”But they decided it wasn’t quite right for them,” Page rued. Next up, the demo was passed on to producers and songwriters Peter Wolf, Jeremy Smith and Dennis Lambert, who were set to work on that first Starship album. Wolf, who vetoed the use of the Starship’s own material (only one track, Chaquico and Thomas’ Private Room, stemmed from the band’s members), loved We Built This City. Lyrically, it seemed ideal for Starship, but musically he felt that something was lacking, something that would give the track an essential extra edge. He, Smith and Lambert set about reshaping it a little and providing an additional chorus. Martin Page went along with their ideas, and so, America’s biggest record of November, 1985 was finally pieced together and ready for release.

Record-buyers loved it. However, it proved to be a punch-bag for the critics. The line “Marconi does the Mamba” was looked down upon by some while others protested that the line “we built this city on rock and roll” was a claim that Airplane/ Starship was responsible for the San Francisco rock explosion. Grace Slick protested that the song was really about L.A. rock clubs being closed down, and riding out the brickbats, Starship garnered a Grammy at the 1986 awards shindig. Yet in 2011, Rolling Stone readers with long memories adjudged the record the worst song of the 1980’s. “You really, really, really hate this record – it crushed the competition,” the magazine stated.

Even so, Starship had achieved the success their various predecessor bands had pursued for so long, though in terms of inter-group relationships, there were still a few ruffles to iron out. The week that We Built This City hit number one, Grace Slick, the only original member of the Jefferson Airplane remaining, reported that her former bandmate and ex-lover Paul Kantner was still causing problems. “Trouble with Paul is that he wanted to run the band,” she explained. “He thinks that because he’s gone the group should stop… he still has the key to our office and he sometimes comes in at night and pokes the eyes out of our pictures on the posters. He’s so childish for a man of 45, I feel sorry for him.” Meanwhile, the song she had dubbed “dumb” continued to ring cash-registers, and infuriate rock buffs in equal measure.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us