No, contrary to popular belief, they did not build that city.
Not on rock ’n’ roll or anything else. But members of Jefferson Starship – and its earlier incarnation, Jefferson Airplane – did build some of the most recognizable sounds of the 1960s and ’70s.
The band, which started out informally as a supergroup featuring Jefferson Airplane members and other Bay Area musicians, morphed into a bastion of the psychedelic-rock era. Today, the group is led by Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner and Quicksilver Messenger Service founder and former Jefferson Airplane bandmate David Freiberg.
Cathy Richardson, who previously sang on tour with Big Brother and the Holding Company, joined the band in 2008, taking over the female vocalist parts once sung by Grace Slick. Percussionist Donny Baldwin, keyboardist Chris Smith and lead guitarist Jude Gold round out the group.
These days, the group does its best to keep the spirit and style of that San Francisco sound alive. Freiberg, who still lives in the Bay Area, said there was something special that drew so many bands – from Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish – to come west. Together, they helped to define the counterculture era.
“There was some sort of mysterious aura about (San Francisco),” Freiberg said from his Novato home. “My parents took me on a motor trip when I was barely in high school. We drove to San Francisco, and as soon as we came over the 101 into the city, I saw fog and the sunset. The way the city looked, I knew that was where I was going to live. Then I screwed up my life up enough in Ohio that I had to get out of town and came here. Herb Caen said it’s ‘49 square miles surrounded by reality,’ or something like that. And that’s what it was.”
After Jefferson Airplane disbanded in the early 1970s, some of its key members stayed together and reformed as Jefferson Starship. The group released its first album, “Dragon Fly,” in 1974. Over the next decade, the group released eight albums and had hits with singles including “With Your Love,” “Count on Me” and “Jane.” In 1996, Kantner and his founding Jefferson Airplane bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The confusion enters when Jefferson Starship gets conflated with Starship, the offshoot that formed in the early 1980s when Kanter and Freiberg left the band. Slick and Mickey Thomas went on to pop rock fame with megahits including “We Built This City” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” While successful, “We Built This City” has been much maligned, including by Blender and Rolling Stone magazine polls, as one of the worst rock songs every written.
“We left and didn’t build the city,” Freiberg said. “I think it becomes very confusing because the record company blended the two on a number of releases. Everyone thinks it’s Jefferson Starship that did ‘We Built This City,’ but we didn’t. So we’ve refrained from covering the Starship stuff. I have nothing against it. I do not believe it’s the worst song ever written. It had a very talented songwriter in Bernie Taupin (longtime Elton John collaborator). I think it was quite catchy, actually.”
Still, you’ll hear none of the mid-’80s era music from Jefferson Starship these days. The band, which reformed in the early ’90s, didn’t begin recording again until the late ’90s. At live shows, expect a mix of Jefferson Starship, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and more thrown into the sets. Freiberg said the group’s music has evolved organically over the years. But, he said, the show today stays fresh as ever.
“(Our music) kind of changed with the times. People’s ears are always open and always listening to what’s happening,” he said. “Shows are different every night. Everyone is listening to everybody else. Things can change because Paul will change something. Right now, I’m having more fun playing with this band than ever before. This particular incarnation is fantastic.”