STARSHIP’S CITY — (from Best Classic Bands) “We just weren’t doing anything interesting.”—Grace Slick
It has become de rigueur, in recent years, whenever a music publication tosses up a list of the worst songs of all-time, to lead off with “We Built This City,” the single released August 1, 1985, by Starship, the group that evolved, or devolved, out of Jefferson Starship, a pretty decent (and sometimes great) 70’s band, which itself evolved, or devolved, out of Jefferson Airplane, one of the most significant American ’60s bands.
“We Built This City” reached #1 on the Hot 100 November 16, 1985.
In 2016, music journalist Rob Tannenbaum penned a piece for GQ titled, “An Oral History of ‘We Built This City,’ the Worst Song of All Time.” USA Today agreed in the early 2000’s and Rolling Stone, which was launched in San Francisco just a couple of years after Jefferson Airplane, called it one of the worst songs of the 1980’s (at least they didn’t say of all-time) in one of their polls.
Now, “We Built This City” is admittedly a song that’s easy to hate, and it’s painful for fans that grew up listening to the Airplane or even the early Jefferson Starship to admit that. How did such a once innovative and, in many ways, revolutionary band morph (de-morph?) into something that could turn out such a cringe-worthy piece of sellout schlock? And why did it take four songwriters, including Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s brilliant lyricist—along with Martin Page, Dennis Lambert and Peter Wolf (not the J. Geils Band singer)—to create it?! Could Taupin really have been responsible for the line “Marconi plays the mamba listen to the radio”—whatever that means—or, even worse, this stanza: “Someone’s 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”? “Your Song” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that is not!
And what was Grace Slick’s excuse? In the heady days of the late 60’s, she—along with her friend Janis Joplin—was the most prominent female face of the surging psychedelic rock revolution. She was an outspoken, rebel-rousing troublemaker, dynamic singer, multi-instrumentalist and daring songwriter, a strong woman who insisted on being an equal to the guys in the band. Her performances on Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” were era-defining. Her eclectic songs on albums like After Bathing at Baxter’s and Volunteers were wholly original. The Grace Slick of the Airplane days would have crucified the Grace Slick of Starship.
But by the time of “We Built This City,” two decades after the Airplane’s formation, she was the only member of the Airplane still involved in this very changed organization and, it seemed, more than happy to lend her voice to that song—although, when I interviewed her in the late 90’s, she was a bit defensive about it.
“Everybody thought we were talking about San Francisco [as the city built by rock ’n’ roll],” she told me. “First of all, it’s written by a British guy about Los Angeles sung by a San Francisco group. It’s talking about the clubs closing, or being closed down, in Los Angeles. It had nothing to do with San Francisco. But everyone thought it was about us so we thought, OK, fine.”
[As an aside, if the song is about Los Angeles, why is there a voiceover by a male disc jockey that goes like this: “I’m looking out over that Golden Gate Bridge. Out on a gorgeous sunny Saturday. I’ve seen that bumper-to-bumper traffic,” as well as a reference to the “city by the Bay”? Did they move the GGB to L.A.?]
“I always tried to put a more universal interpretation to this song, that we, the ‘we’ in ‘We Built This City,’ is not a geographical thing, it’s an ideological particular,” Mickey Thomas, the group’s male vocalist, told me in a separate interview. “It’s like this ‘city’ is a city of people all over the world, all over the planet, who have an idealism that is attached to music, who have a love for music and rock and roll and believe that rock and roll can change the world, or music can change the world, and music can make you feel good, music can keep you young. Music can save you in times of desperation. So to me, that’s what the ‘city’ was, a musical city.”
Guitarist Craig Chaquico is proud of the success the group enjoyed in those last years together. “I wish I could take credit for going, ‘Man, this is a whole new change and we’re going to have number one albums and Grammy nominations and get a Golden Globe and a music soundtrack, but I did not see any of that coming,” he says. “I think I was more surprised than anybody. When we first heard ‘We Built This City,’ it was cool, too. We knew it was really different and quirky.”
I must tell you that in all my years in the biz … I’ve never witnessed one song garnering so much chatter …. both pro and con. It really is a crazy song; I mean, listen to the lyrics, but it has endured and for that alone, respect must be given.
I once tried to ask Taupin about it and he shut me down. Telling, right?
WE ARE FAMILY —(Via Best Classic Bands) You may not recognize the band name, the Immediate Family, but if you’ve spent any time perusing liner notes of scores of classic albums from such performers as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King and Jackson Browne, just to name a few, you’re certainly familiar with their work. The musicians in the band are some of the most recorded, respected and sought-after players in modern music.
Guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel, drummer Russ Kunkel and bassist Leland Sklar have come together, along with guitarist Steve Postell, as the Immediate Family and will be releasing their self-titled album on August 27, 2021, via Quarto Valley Records. Produced by the band, the new album features 12 original songs plus two bonus tracks: live versions of the Kortchmar/Browne composition “Somebody’s Baby” and the Warren Zevon favorite “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” from Excitable Boy, which Wachtel produced with Browne. Also, the Immediate Family will be touring this fall.
This iconic supergroup has played together for decades. Wachtel moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles in 1968 “with a band that never got off the ground and in that time I met a few studio musicians and started thinking, ‘I can do that job. I can play on records for people,’” he tells Best Classic Bands. “I looked at these album covers and I’d see Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar and Danny Kortchmar. I said to myself, ‘Who is this “Kootch” guy? Why does he get all that work?’”
He was referring, of course, to Kortchmar.
Wachtel was in his mid-twenties and working with producer Keith Olsen. “Keith booked Leland and myself on dates [recording sessions] and we got along right away. A couple of weeks after that, I was driving a ’57 Chevy, and out of this driveway at S.I.R. [Studios] comes another ’57 Chevy. And we stopped in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard, holding up traffic, and Russell Kunkel looks at me and says, ‘Are you Waddy?’ And I went, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘I’m Russ, man.’ And I said, ‘Good to meet you.’ And he said, ‘We better go but I’m gonna be seeing a lot of you.’”
By then, Sklar, Kunkel and Kortchmar had been working together on sessions for perhaps five years. Wachtel is asked if he’s able to pinpoint the precise moment when he played with the others for the first time.
“David Foster was the hot, new piano player in town from Canada and Nik Venet [a noted producer and mentor to Wachtel] said, ‘I’m bringing this guy down to hear you so bring your electric stuff. I want you to play slide, rhythm, lead,’” he recalls. “I did, and David told [legendary producer] Lou Adler, and a few days later I got a call from Lou’s office saying they wanted me to play a session for a Tim Curry album. So I get there and that was the minute I met ‘Kootch.’ After a year of, ‘Who is this fucking guy?’ we loved each other right away.”
Kortchmar concurs. “That was the first opportunity I had to play with Waddy. I had been hearing about him for a while. Lou put us together. That was the first time the four of us played together and it was actually the day Waddy and I met, as well. He and I got along right away. The first tune we played for Tim was reggae and we were both reggae fanatics and still are.”
“That was the first date, at A&M Records. For Lou Adler,” marvels Wachtel, proudly. “That was the beginning of the Immediate Family. We just didn’t know it yet.” In the ensuing decades, the four have done hundreds and hundreds of sessions together.
Recorded over three days at Browne’s studio in Los Angeles, the new album kicks off with a blast of electric guitars with the lead track “Can’t Stop Progress.” The song was written by Kortchmar, with his friend, former Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, and Wachtel. “It was my idea to make it like the Everly Brothers,” says Waddy, who had been in the duo’s touring band. “It’s a two-part harmony on the verse with Danny and Steve.”
Watch the video for “Can’t Stop Progress”
The fiery three-guitar interplay intertwines throughout the rest of the album on songs like “Time to Come Clean” and “Turn it Up to Ten.” The band’s love of rock ‘n’ roll’s roots surfaces in “Not Made That Way,” “A Thing of the Past” and the Brill Building-esque “Damage.”
A new single, “Fair Warning,” will be released shortly.
“We are very proud of the people we’ve gotten to work with,” Kortchmar states, “but we’re also thrilled to now be playing our own music.” Wachtel concurs: “It’s too wonderful for words. I didn’t see this coming, and now I can’t imagine it having not happened.”
“We know how to play music together and how to play songs together,” says Kortchmar, who turned 75 on April 6. He’s asked about the recording process for the Immediate Family album, where they recorded some 17 songs in three days. “There was a lot of pre-production work where we figured out basically how things were going to go with what key, what tempo, and who was going to sing. The fact is: That’s what we do, we know how to learn songs and play them.”
Wachtel and Sklar both turned 74 in May. Kunkel turns 73 in September.
As for their upcoming tour, audiences will certainly hear plenty of “covers.”
“We go with songs that we wrote and ones that are closely associated with us,” says Kortchmar. “We’re a cover band that plays all original material. All the stuff we play is stuff that we wrote or co-wrote. We arrange everything for three guitars, bass and drums. If it fits us and we like it, the five of us can play just about any song and make it ours. It depends on who’s singing it and who can deliver it. We know how to learn songs and play them. We’ve been at it forever; we’ve been doing it our whole lives.”
Kortchmar, Sklar, and Kunkel have worked together since the early 70’s and made up three-quarters of The Section, best known for both their studio and live work in support of some of the top-selling singer-songwriters and solo singers in the history of music. “Kootch,” for instance, wrote or co-wrote such classics as “All She Wants to Do is Dance” and “Sunset Grill” for Don Henley. Wachtel co-wrote “Werewolves of London” for Zevon. That’s Waddy’s chugging guitar on Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.”
Kortchmar is asked if this debut album from these veteran musicians got nominated for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. “That would be hilarious,” he said, laughing.
Production continues on a documentary about them by filmmaker Danny Tedesco, expected to be released in 2022. Tedesco produced and directed the acclaimed film on the the 1960’s Los Angeles studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew.
SHORT TAKES — New books about Ricki Lee Jones and Brandi Carlisle just out. I’m a huge Jones fan from her terrific album Prates (1981) …
BFA PODCAST – Buddy Blanchard of Romeo Delight: America’s Premier Van Halen Tribute Band joins the Big Fat American Podcast with Zach Martin to discuss the epic Van Halen Album, Women and Children First. First released in March of 1980 and features the lead track on side one, “And the Cradle Will Rock.” Zach and Buddy go track by track. Find out what the future may hold for Van Halen in this exciting interview about the music and history of Van Halen. Zach and Buddy respond to a heartbreaking video that was posted by Valerie Bertinelli. Listen on Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-big-fat-american-podcast-with-zach-martin/id1562054883?i=1000528893498 …
And, Dylan McDermott, so good in Law & Order: Organized Crime, was last seen being escorted to jail for the murder of Elliot Stabler’s wife. Well, he just inked a deal to re-appear in the next season of the show for 8 episodes. We also hear it’s one of the biggest TV-deals ever for a guest-role stint. He’s just terrific in the show; as he was in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood on Netflix.
NAMES IN THE NEWS — Zach Martin; Tom & Lisa Cuddy; Danny Fried; Donnie Kehr; Barry Fisch; Eppy; Robert Lamm; Scott Shannon; Ken Dashow; Mike McCann; Lee Jeske; Andy Greene; Ron Sheffield; Kurt Loder; Jodi Ritzen’ Andrew Sandoval; and, CHIP!