01 January 2010

Starship: We Built This City

Rock and roll has a long tradition of self-referential songs. (The pinnacle, of course, was the song “Bad Company”, from the Bad Company album, by the band…erm, Bad Company.) Rock isn’t alone in this, of course—hip-hop does it even more, and blues has been steeped in the practice since before the era of recorded music.

So it comes as no surprise that twenty years after Jefferson Airplane was formed, Grace Slick and company, now working under the name Starship, decided that they were established enough to talk about how great they were. The best part of all this, perhaps, is that they did this in the mid–80s, which means they made a really, really stupid video for the song—and we should all be glad that they did, because if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have the opportunity to mock it.

True story: Back when i was in my late teens i went through a classic-rock period, which included, of course, getting heavily into classic Jefferson Airplane. During this time i insulted a friend terribly by telling her she looked like Grace Slick. Unfortunately, it took me quite literally years to figure out what i’d said wrong. Now, though, i understand—while my familiarity with Grace Slick was largely mid– to late–60s Grace Slick, her point of reference was mid– to late–80s Grace Slick. There is an important difference. (Oddly, mid– to late–00s Grace Slick has recovered some of her former attractiveness. Forget frying pans—maybe the visual history of Grace Slick is all that’s necessary to combat drug abuse.)

Further news: Blender magazine rated this song as the worst hit song ever. Probably overly harsh, but i can sympathize.

Anyway, with all that as background, let’s get to the lyrics.

We built this city
We built this city on rock and roll
We built this city on rock and roll

I really have to wonder what a city built on rock and roll would look like. In my observation, cities are generally built on foundations made of things like large rocks and reinforced cement pilings, with the occasional high-tech substrate thrown in (particularly in seismically active regions). All of these things share an important feature: They are solid materials.

Rock and roll, on the other hand, being sound waves, is not a solid material. I would expect, then, that a city built on rock and roll would be subject to sudden and calamitous collapse. Apparently not, though, since the good people of Starship built an entire city on the stuff, and it’s solid enough to sing about. All hail the genius of the firm of Baldwin, Slick, Thomas, Chaquico, and Sears, Architectural Partners! Take that, Frank Gehry!

Say you don’t know me, or recognize my face
Say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place

Okay: I don’t know you, or recognize your face. Further, i don’t care who goes to that kind of place.

More seriously, these lines have nothing at all to do with the rest of the song. In fact, exactly what kind of place is “that” kind of place remains completely unanswered, which bothers me more than it probably should.

Knee deep in the hoopla, sinking in your fight
Too many runaways eating up the night

This song has so many idiocies in so little space, it’s kind of an embarrassment of riches for a blog like this one.

I mean, i can kind of understand knee deep in the hoopla—Starship was really, really good at self-promoting, they sold a bunch of albums, they sold out large arenas regularly, they were arguably the first big-name band to use the internet in any real way. So fine, that makes for an opaque but catchy self-reference, and i’m willing to give them a point for that. But then to follow it with sinking in your fight?!? That’s a pure non sequitur, and not in a good way. Sorry, you lose that point, and i’m going to have to take another one away for fear you’ll break it.

And the thing about runaways? I don’t have the strength to even start.

Marconi plays the mamba

This one line may be in the top five most mocked lyrics from the 80s—and for good reason.

I mean, so they bring up Guglielmo Marconi, widely thought to be the inventor of radio. (Not true, but he’s the one who figured out how to make it practical.) Fine—they’re singing about rock and roll (and building cities), so they reference the way most of us still listened to rock music in the dark age of 1985.

But the mamba?!? The mamba is a venomous snake, which means that if Marconi were alive enough to play the mamba, he’d be dead by the time he was done playing it. (I just got a brainflare of Zombie Marconi playing a guitar with a mamba as one of its strings, like in that episode of The Jackson 5ive where they go to London—see the bit starting at 3:24 in the linked video—and they have to get through…Sorry. I’ll move on to other things now.)

Anyway—maybe they originally had something more musical, like Marconi plays a samba, but then they realized Starship doesn’t play anything remotely like samba, so they changed it. Can’t use Marconi plays the conga, doesn’t rhyme, maybe bongos? No, still not. How about mambo? It’s a dance, and it more or less rhymes—yeah, i know, this isn’t a mambo, but it’s not like the kids pay attention to it. What? You mean you’re uncomfortable advertising competing styles of music, since this is an ode to rock and roll? Fine—how about mamba? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s not some other style of music—so let’s go with that.

(By the way—one of my sisters plays the marimba. Beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding instrument. Doesn’t fit thematically or metrically there, but at least it would have made more sense.)

Listen to the radio

Sadly, drawing Marconi’s name through the slime was done entirely to set up this line.

Don’t you remember?
We built this city
We built this city on rock and roll!
We built this city, we built this city on rock and roll
Built this city, we built this city on rock and roll

Yes, i remember perfectly well—you told me just a few lines ago.

Not that i believe you, but i certainly do remember.

Someone always playing corporation games
Who cares they’re always changing corporation names
We just want to dance here, someone stole the stage
They call us irresponsible, write us off the page

This is where Starship gets a little bit defensive and, perhaps not coincidentally, a little hypocritical.

First of all, there’s a bit of a whine here about how it’s not a big deal when names change. This from a band that had just changed its name (to Starship from Jefferson Starship) after some years before changing its name again (it was one of the bands to emerge directly from the ashes of Jefferson Airplane). So see that haters? Corporations do it all the time, so it’s no big deal!

But it’s not like we’re corporate or anything, even though we keep changing names just like a corporation! No, it’s the corporate types who try to keep us down, writing us off the page, calling us irresponsible. We just want to dance here, wherever here is! We’re cool, we’re with it. We’re, like, totally tubular and gnarly and those other words these crazy 80s kids use.

Bonus movie gambit: The 1978 film FM does a similar thing—it’s set up as a radio station standing up to The Man (big corporate ownership) and playing whatever it wants—but what it wants to play, apparently, is completely corporate mainstream rock of the late 70s. (And the movie completely ignores the existence of punk, which just makes it even sadder.)

Really, it doesn’t work—Starship, you weren’t fighting The Man in 1985, you were The Man. You had been assimilated at least a decade earlier. Just deal with it honorably, okay?

(Then we have some repetition of the stuff about Marconi and remembering, which i’ll skip.)

It’s just another Sunday in a tired old street
Police have got the choke hold
Ohhhhh and we just lost the beat

So are they saying that police violence is so commonplace in this tired old street that it’s “just” another day when it happens? Or are they saying that the peace of a Sunday has been shattered by the ultimate symbols of The Man? Or are they just spewing lines with no connection to anything, knowing that payola works and they’ll have a hit anyway?

I know my vote.

And the we just lost the beat bit would have been cool if they really had played some game with the rhythm of the song, maybe shifting the vocals just ahead of or behind the beat. Do they do this? Of course not! And why? Because that would be different, and different means you don’t get incessant airplay on the 50,000–watt stations.

Who counts the money underneath the bar
Who rides the wrecking ball into our guitars

I would actually assume that the answers to these two questions are different. Either way, i’m willing to help those guitars get wrecked.

Also, if you listen to the song, the stress pattern on into our guitars is all wrong—for years i thought it was actually into parked guitars because even though the stress pattern is still wrong for that phrase, it’s not as bad.

Don’t tell us you need us, ’cause we’re the ship of fools

Don’t tell you i need you? Gladly.

And can i just say how happy i am that you called yourselves a ship of fools, so i don’t have to?

Looking for America, crawling through your schools

This is creepy. Nothin’ but creepy. I get an image of a drug-addled late–70s to mid–80s Grace Slick doing a belly-crawl along the linoleum floors of my old high school…Great, now i need some brain bleach.

Don't you remember

And then we go into a bizarre bit where there’s what sounds like a radio announcer talking about San Francisco (without naming it). Maybe it’s Marconi.

I listened primarily to Washington DC radio stations as a teenager, and they dubbed over that section so that it referred to DC. I was quite seriously surprised when I found out later that’s not the way it sounded on the album. I assume that other markets did the same thing.

Looking back on it, that’s actually kind of pathetic.

Anyway, then we get more about Marconi and the mamba, and (by my count) seventeen repetitions of some variant of the sentence “We built this city” Yes, that’s right—that phrase is now burrowed so deeply into your mind that it’ll take a listen to Benny Mardones’s “Into the Night” to get it out of there. Have fun!


  1. I always thought Tony played the Mamba, which I thought was some exotic dance music. (Hey, I was a kid.) Also, I always thought Starship was jealous of Sting's group always having had a "chokehold" on the number one hits...