LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics: Rick Astley vs Starship
Welcome to the next matchup in our continuing search for the most satisfyingly cheesy pop songs of all time! A LeBlog Cheestastic Classic should be both undeniably corny or over-the-top while also possessing some quality that makes some of us grin and pump our fists in gleeful irony. Some people might also use the term “guilty pleasure.” But I’m not going to. For our purposes here, these are “LeBlog’s Cheesetastic Classics.” The skill and talent involved in producing some of these songs may, in fact, be quite impressive and at their core these songs might actually be rather superior to some which are considered cool. But somewhere along the way the songwriter or performer took that wrong turn at Albuquerque and landed themselves in the land of cheese.
Okay people, here it is. The ultimate matchup of cheesy ’80s pop songs that have become more and more notorious as the years have worn on. If you had asked members of the graduating class of 1988 about these two songs you probably would have gotten one of a couple of responses. One would be some version of “Ugh. Those mass-produced pieces of fluff? Who cares about them. I’m trying to forget them.” The other would go something like “Oh, those are fun songs! Have you heard ‘Together Forever’ yet?” Both of these responses might have suggested that “We Built This City” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” would have relatively short lives in the collective pop culture consciousness…but that’s not what happened.
Our last pair of nominees proved a little perplexing for some of our readers, and that mixed reaction can be reflected in how the voting turned out. While both Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me” and Barbra Streisand’s “Woman In Love” did end up getting the required votes to be included in our list of Cheesetastic Classics, neither really ran away with the designation. As I write this, “I’ve Never Been to Me” holds a solid, but unspectacular 61% “yes” votes, while the former #1 single “Woman In Love” is just eking by with only 52% percent of us selecting it as a Cheesetastic Classic. Our list is growing, though, and I don’t see any reason why today’s article won’t continue that trend.
Our first nominee likewise threw people a little when he first appeared on the scene with his notorious debut solo recording, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Many people who first heard the song on the radio before catching the video expressed surprise to find a slightly dorky, pasty British guy attached to that voice. Give it a listen.
This is pretty firm Cheesetastic ground if you ask me. The unapologetically cheery tone and repetitive nursery rhyme level lyrics paired with Astley’s Howdy Doody persona offer up qualities that could definitely be considered cheesy. Meanwhile, there’s just something undeniably euphoric about the recording. If you’re willing to give yourself over to it you just might find yourself shimmying and smiling in the privacy of your own home. I’m sure plenty of you are going to rubber-stamp this as a definite “yes” and I won’t be able to blame you. There’s a reason “Never Gonna Give You Up” holds the place it does in pop culture. But I’m going to personally offer a vote of “no” here because even when I’m able to let go of my musical snobbery enough to offer a few head bobs and to enjoy the recording’s cheesy pleasures it never lasts the length of the entire record. Eventually I lose steam and end up wishing to hear something else.
Astley took to music early in life, but initially as a drummer rather than as a singer, playing with multiple bands in his native Northern England. It was only when one of his bands began to fragment that he offered up his own services as lead singer and gained the attention of a record producer. He was hired to do work around the studio with the understanding that he was to be groomed as a singing act of his own. His first appearance singing on a released single was as part of a duet with Lisa Carter called “When You Gonna,” but the recording got no attention and no airplay. That trend would reverse itself in a major way when his first solo single showed up, and “Never Gonna Give You Up” raced to the top of the pop charts in multiple countries, including the UK, the United States, Australia, Canada, Belgium, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The notoriously contrarian Irish and Swiss let the song languish at just #2. His following singles discography is all over the map after that, with different songs chosen for release in different countries, but for a while there he scored a long list of hits around the globe. This included three more top 10 hits in the U.S., most notably the number one smash “Together Forever.”
Any time a recording act has a big hit the record company is sure to demand a follow-up exactly like the one that brought so much success. Thankfully for Astley, he already had that song in “Together Forever.” If you’re a fan of “Never Gonna Give You Up” there’s absolutely no reason you won’t find this one almost as intoxicating. In fact, I’m sure an argument could be made that this should end up as one of our nominees eventually. Rick Astley’s hey-day was certainly compact, with just one more U.S. top 10 to his name after January of ’89 (the 1991 ballad “Cry For Help” that I don’t remember at all). He popped up once more in 1993, stalling at #28 with “Hopelessly” and then faded into obscurity as a product of his time, right?
Well, not exactly. Two of the pleasures of the internet are that it delights in its long pop culture memory and its willingness to take a prank too far. In the mid aughts the internet site 4chan had been running a site-specific prank in which every instance of the word “egg” was replaced by the word “duck.” (I’m not sure why this was supposed to be funny, but whatever) This of course resulted in “egg roll” showing up as “duck roll” and some enterprising person took it upon themselves to attach a link to the appearance of “duck roll” which would take anyone who clicked on it to a picture of a duck with wheels.
This unlucky reader was then said to have been “duckrolled.” Okay, this is at least a little bizarre, but again I’m left a little curious as to why this caught on. Then in 2007 the same site responded to the difficulty users were having in getting ahold of the trailer video for the video game Grand Theft Auto IV by pretending to offer up a link to that video only to have it take people to the video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Considering the ultra-masculine violence of Grand Theft Auto, this seems like a pretty decent prank. I’m betting plenty of video game bros were pretty pissed off to be looking at ol’ Rick Astley. From there, the prank simply exploded in lots of different directions and was administered in many different ways, sometimes via the traditional dishonestly placed link and sometimes simply by inserting Astley into the key moment of what was otherwise the video its viewer had thought they wanted. In doing research for this article I came across a few examples of seemingly NSFW gifs that prank viewers by having Rick pop up just when nudity is about to occur.
Here’s one of the tamer ones.
The idea was to lure a person in with something they really wanted to see only to bait and switch them with one of the squarest singers and songs in pop music memory. The prank became so widespread that seemingly overnight the video’s numbers on Youtube went through the roof. According to a poll conducted in early 2008 something like 18 million American adults had been “Rickrolled” in the space of about a year. Astley himself got in on the fun by making a surprise appearance interrupting another artist’s performance in that year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Eventually, the definition of “rickrolling” was expanded to include being tricked into reading lyrics from the song in unexpected places. A friend took advantage of the Stranger Things Christmas lights gif generator to Rickroll everyone on Facebook earlier this year.
Feel free to post your own Rickrolls in the comments section. Keep it clean.
Rick’s partner in cheese today has its own claim to dubious notoriety. Like a couple of our previous nominees, Starship has a pretty respectable background in popular music. Just not as Starship. If you’re someone who is completely new to Starship’s history, the song they are being nominated for here might seem pretty innocuous. If not, you might grit your teeth all the way through it.
There’s no doubt that in a vacuum, “We Built This City” is a relatively catchy pop rock song with its fashion and production firmly rooted in the traditions of the 1980s. Where it really slips up even on its own terms is that it purports to be championing the ideals of Rock ‘n’ Roll while making use of tools and styles which are anathema to many of your more serious fans of the genre. The deep stack of instrumental production which characterizes most of the length of the recording is not present in its first half minute or so, leaving us with echo-enhanced accappella harmony and heavy synthesizer. Neither of these are very evocative of the core of Rock ‘n’ Roll and you wouldn’t have to stretch your imagination too far to picture the band’s longtime fans absolutely retching in horror.
If you’re a younger reader you might not realize who Starship was. Well, what they were was the hollowed out remains of one of the most iconic and legendary bands of the psychedelic scene of the 1960s. They appeared first under the name Jefferson Airplane, and their second album, 1967’s “Surrealistic Pillow,” is one of the signature records of the counterculture movement of the time. The band was made up mostly of San Francisco area musicians who had traveled in the same circles as people like Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, and David Crosby. Singer Grace Slick joined up when the previous female singer left to have a baby and contributed two songs to “Surrealistic Pillow.” These are the two songs most associated with the band’s “classic” era, as it turns out.
Their first hit was the soaring and confrontational love anthem “Somebody To Love” which had previously been recorded by her earlier band, The Great Society, under the title “Someone To Love.” It had been written by her brother-in-law Darby, so carrying it over to her new project ended up being possible.
Darby wrote the song in response to the revelation that a lover had been unfaithful to him and he used the lyrics to call into question the “free love” ethos that it would eventually be used to help promote. “Somebody To Love” made a big splash nationwide on the radio, hitting #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a pretty simple song, and it’s pretty easy to hear that it was Slick’s vocals and the band’s ragged attack on the track that made it surge with urgency. Any other combination of performers on the song might have left it as completely forgotten.
The follow-up single was Slick’s own thinly veiled drug parody on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland “White Rabbit”…
She has openly stated that “White Rabbit” was intended as an indictment of older people who would criticize user of psychotropic drugs after having put their children to bed with something as hallucinatory as the Alice stories. The resulting recording is somehow both epic in sound and less than three minutes in length. Slick has claimed that musically the song was inspired by the continual crescendo of Ravel’s famous composition Bolero. Whatever its intentions or inspirations, “White Rabbit” is an undeniably bracing and experimental piece of psychedelic rock that grabs hold of you loosely and then tightens its grip. It would also hit the top 10, shooting up to #8 on the singles chart later that same year. After two huge and iconic summer of love hits, Jefferson Airplane was poised to become one of the biggest rock acts in the world.
Unfortunately, the band never really found the magic of those two recordings again despite being very prolific for the next five years. In 1972 they made the unconventional decision to split into two bands, resulting in Hot Tuna and the perhaps progress-minded named Jefferson Starship. The latter band featured Slick, Paul Kantner, and Marty Balin at different times, along with an ever-changing group of other players and guest musicians, racking up close to forty different members during its history. They did manage four different top 40 hits in the mid ’70s, with the mid-tempo love song “Count On Me” probably having the most legs to this day.
That doesn’t sound a whole lot like the two iconic Jefferson Airplane hits, does it? But there’s a real earnest and pleasingly lush sound to it that indicated the members of the group had matured as songwriters, musicians, and in the studio. It’s the sort of song that sounds great when you’re kicking back with a drink on the porch on a sunny day. Nobody was expecting to hear the shocking brilliance of those early songs and this was pretty darn good anyway.
Unfortunately, the laid-back sound of their hit songs belied how things were going internally. A pair of gigs in Germany resulted in one no-show by the band and a second in which a highly intoxicated Grace Slick peppered her performance with obscenities, sexual innuendo, and suggestions that everyone in Germany had a hand in the Nazi atrocities that were thirty years in the past (while that’s not very long in the grand scheme of things, it’s also not very likely that the Germans attending the concert were adults at the time of the second World War). Slick was fired for a span of a few years before returning in 1981. By this point it had been a while since the group had had a major hit and things seemed to be petering out. The group’s founder Paul Kantner finally left the band saying that it was not something he was proud of anymore and took legal action to make sure the rest of the members couldn’t use the name Jefferson Starship…
So they called themselves Starship instead and went about making the most blatantly commercial music of their careers. In addition to “We Built This City,” Starship scored #1 pop radio hits with the ballad “Sara” (a song a classmate of mine ruined forever for me by singing it in a high-pitched lisp) and their contribution to the soundtrack for the male fantasy comedy movie Mannequin, starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
The ’80s were a corporate playground dominated by baby boomers who were throwing their money at the heroes of their youths. Please believe me when I say that songs like “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” were very very far from the worst songs recorded by veterans of the hippie movement and then shoved down our throats. They were merely reasonably tuneful pop recordings that didn’t sound too different from a lot of the other stuff on the radio.
“We Built This City” however, was a whole different story. The cheesy synths and over-produced sound were de rigueur for the time, but when you paired it with the long-venerated musicians who were simultaneously trading on their legendary status and crapping all over it, any serious student of rock ‘n’ roll had to cry foul. And then there’s that break in the middle of the song so a DJ can remind you the band is from San Francisco, so That’s the city they built on rock ‘n’ roll, okay? Do you want to be considered for inclusion as a Cheesetastic Classic? Write a spoken break into your song to explain something that any chimp could have figured out from the rest of the song. Spoken breaks are cheese magnets.
It should be no surprise then, that “We Built This City” has taken it on the chin over the years. Blender Magazine pronounced it the Worst Song of All Time in a poll back in 2004 and some members of the group, including Slick, don’t appear to disagree too vociferously. Still, the magazine has folded and the band’s musicians are still playing somewhere.
So what does everyone think? Are these fantastically cheesy songs deserving of inclusion in our list of Cheesetastic Classics? Or are these simply bad songs? Vote here and tell me about it in the comments section.
Posted on September 14, 2016, in Cheesetastic Classics, Music, Nostalgia, poll and tagged Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane, Never Gonna Give You Up, Rick Astley, Rickrolled, Starship, We Built This City. Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.