Sunday, April 23, 2017

If We Built This City, Can It Be ... Un-Built? AKA Nothing Screams "Dust Bowl" Like Corporate Synth-Rock

Woo! All right! No more worrying about those pesky, lingering ties to some old band named Jefferson Airplane. Pffftt. Now we can give the people what they want!

Fact: Jefferson Airplane had two big Top 10 hits in 1967. Jefferson Starship had several Top 40 hits, big and small, between 1975 and 1984. However, neither of those fine musical institutions ever managed to have a #1 hit.

Starship had three.

God either has A) a very twisted sense of humor, or B) very embarrassing taste in music.

Seriously though, what's the moral of the story here? Do the very thing you've struggled not to do for decades, and suddenly you'll be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams? Turns out Jefferson Starship's problem wasn't that they'd sold out; it was that they hadn't sold out enough.

On the other hand, time has a funny way of balancing the scales. "We Built This City" has occasionally received the distinction of being named "the worst song of all time." All time? That's a lot of songs. We're talking every caveman grunt, every biblical croon, every Nickelback growl. According to Wikipedia, most of these surveys laid out some ground rules:
The defunct magazine Blender's ranking of the song as the worst song ever was in conjunction with a VH1 Special of The 50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs...Ever. In order to qualify for the distinction, the songs on the list had to be a popular hit at some point, thus disqualifying many songs that would by consensus be considered much worse. Blender editor Craig Marks said of the song, "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."

In 2011 a Rolling Stone magazine online readers poll named "We Built This City" as the worst song of the 1980s. The song's winning margin was so large that the magazine reported it "could be the biggest blow-out victory in the history of the Rolling Stone Readers Poll".
It's a landslide! I must now direct your attention to an article published in GQ last year, "An Oral History of 'We Built This City,' the Worst Song of All Time," featuring testimony from defendants such as songwriters Bernie Taupin and Martin Page (I'm afraid Heart's "These Dreams" may not have been their biggest 1985 pop music crime), producer and co-writer Peter Wolf, and Starship members Mickey Thomas, Craig Chaquico, and Pete Sears, among others. The jury's verdict? Guilty pleasure as charged! Highlights:
Craig Chaquico: 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” ... 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.

Peter 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!”

Craig Chaquico: It's a very '80s track. I remember watching Miami Vice in between takes.

Pete 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.

Mickey 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 ... 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.”

Craig 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.

Mickey 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.”

Craig 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!”

Martin 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.
That's certainly the first thing I think of when I hear "We Built This City": "I'm going to Disneyland!" Full disclosure: I'm probably in the camp of "awesomely bad." While I would never play the song by choice, I would certainly sing along to it at a karaoke night, especially when Grace Slick gets around to her hilariously-enunciated "Some-wunn always playyy-innng, cor-por-ay-shun-games!" I also love how the riff between the chorus and the verse sounds like it's being played by a giant pair of electronic scissors. But that's neither here nor there. I don't know if any one song can be declared "the worst song of all time," but back in 2009, my (part-time?) co-blogger Herr Zrbo dared to declare the video for "We Built This City" to be the "Worst. Video. Ever." Some choice excerpts:
First there's the montage of people's faces looking thoughtful and contemplative. Why are they looking so stern while lost in their innermost reflections? Why? Because they're all looking at the Lincoln Memorial of course! Now, I wasn't aware that Lincoln built this city, or country, on rock and roll. Actually, I'm pretty sure he didn't found much at all. And I'm damn 100% sure he didn't listen to rock and roll.

But then, what follows afterwards! I'm just going to call it folks, it's the MOST cringe-worthy moment in music video history of ALL TIME. As our oh-so-80s rebel protagonists look on in adoration at Lincoln, the statue comes to life, raises his fist, and sings the chorus! It's just so, so awful. Even in 1985 this scene must have been perceived as awful. Words can't honestly express how truly awful it is. Not only that but it's creepy as hell.

The video just proceeds to be awful from there on out. Grace Slick sings about corporations and how annoying it is that they're constantly changing their names (boohoo!), all set to the backdrop of... Vegas casinos?! I wonder if the band realized the irony in these lyrics, as Starship are well known for having changed their name multiple times. Then a bunch of people are running away from giant tumbling dice. Why? I guess those dice represent those pesky corporations and their pesky habit of changing their names.

Then there's the radio announcer part during the bridge. I think it's there to give some 'street-cred' to the band, but if you listen to what the announcer says it makes little sense. He starts with "looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge on another gorgeous sunny Saturday." Ok, that sounds pretty good. Then: "and I'm seeing that bumper-to-bumper traffic." Huh? If you're trying to get the the radio guy to hippen-up the song, do you really want him talking about bumper-to-bumper traffic? How about something like "and there's no traffic today!" My reaction to this part is something like "Bumper-bumper traffic?? Oh well, I'll just stay in today and let someone else build this city."
Zing! I don't have much to add, other than that for a video made in 1985, the blue screen technology seems laughably poor. Also notice how, after Abe Lincoln miraculously springs to life, the camera cuts back to the assembled onlookers, who act as if ... nothing remarkable has happened whatsoever! I mean come on people, Lincoln just sang the chorus of "We Built This City." At least give the man a courtesy clap.

Less maligned, although perhaps that may not be saying much, is "Sara," which hit #1 in early 1986 and does not feature Grace Slick singing ill-conceived lyrics in a comical way. "Sara" isn't actually good for much of a laugh at all, come to think of it. The weirdest thing about "Sara" is that it could have been by anybody: Mr. Mister, Survivor, Peter Cetera, Mike & The Mechanics ... pick a band, any band! Let's just say that in the pantheon of "Sara" songs, I think it's third banana to Fleetwood Mac's "Sara" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile," both chronologically and artistically. Forget about being in the same league; it might not even be in the same sport. If those other two "Sara" songs are like downhill skiing, Starship's "Sara" is more like curling.

I'll tell you what Starship's "Sara" doesn't make me think of, though: the Dust Bowl! That's right, the video was apparently directed by Dorothea Lange as part of the Works Progress Administration. I think "Sara" wins the award for "Best '80s Video Featuring A Tornado." Here's how Wikipedia describes it:
The music video for "Sara" prominently features actress Rebecca De Mornay and Thomas in a storyline about a relationship ending, on a Dust Bowl farm in the midwest, with frequent flashbacks to what is presumably Thomas's character's childhood and the tornado that wrecked his home.
Thomas's "character"? Mickey certainly does a nice job leaning against a fence post and staring off into the distance. And why does Rebecca De Mornay keep morphing into Thomas' salt of the earth mother? That's kind of ... fucked up. Strangely, I find both the black-and-white footage of his hard-scrabble youth and the imitation "home video" footage of modern-day Mickey and Rebecca horsing around oddly convincing, but they don't seem to mesh tonally. When I watch a Starship video, I expect tonal unity, damn it! The last shot is cool, but I think it's one video too late: that ominous dust cloud should have swallowed up the "We Built This City" video instead.


Cleophus said...

Paul Kantner died for their sins.

Herr Zrbo said...

Wow, I barely remember writing those words. Was that really me? This video is still terrible. Like, what's with that fake idyllic hamlet backdrop at the beginning? It looks like the fake model town that Beetlejuice lives in.

Alright, that's all I've got. Good job on finally getting around to this post.

Little Earl said...

Finally? I didn't know there was a deadline, but thank you. Let's just say that I might have one more Starship post in me and, well, "nothing's gonna stop" me from writing it "now."

Yes Zrbo, that was you, a man of tremendous insight and wisdom, eight years ahead of his time.

RE that town in the background: I know right? I'm sitting there thinking, "Hold on, I thought this song was called 'We Built This CITY.' Why are they standing in front of some Appalachian village?"

And another thing: what's with the people who slowly start to crawl onto the platform the band is supposedly playing on in the "sky" (around 4:01)? They climb up there, and then they just sort of ... linger. Did they have a plan? A destination in mind? Or were they just another bunch of lost '80s children in the night?