The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
There are divisive songs, and then there’s Starship’s 1985 smash hit “We Built This City.” With its cheesy synths to its loud guitars to the radio DJ clip to the confusing lyrics and the repetitive chorus, “We Built This City” hit the Number One spot on the United States’s Billboard Hot 100 in August 1985, but is now often jeered as one of the worst songs of all time.
Blender put it at Number 1 on their “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever” list in 2004, with Rolling Stone magazine’s 2011 reader poll putting it at Number 1 by a considerable margin. GQ’s Rob Tannenbaum did a post-mortem “oral history” of the song in 2016, which accepts as its basic premise that the song is universally loathed. Stereogum’s Tom Breihan, as part of his series reviewing all Number 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits, at least conceded that there are worse songs out there (though his K.K. Slider quip may get him on the wrong side of 2020’s newest most rabid gaming fanbase). And last week, “Professor of Rock” Adam Reader gave a full-throated defense on his YouTube channel.
As Eurovision fans, we should be used to songs we love being trashed in the mainstream media as being garish, over-the-top, bubble-gum, disposable, silly, etc. Hell, some of our beloved contest’s winners have been accused of attacking the contest for that.
And wouldn’t you know, no less than three different artists who had varying degrees of luck at (or before) Eurovision are responsible for the composition of “We Built This City,” and today, we’re going to revisit this song and assess whether or not it deserves its reputation.
But first, a roll call of the three Eurovision related musicians behind “We Built This City”.
1.) Bernie Taupin. If you don’t know who Bernie Taupin is, consider your pop music fan card revoked. However, we’ll give you a pass on not knowing of his Eurovision connection, as it is not generally that well known that he and Elton John attempted to get a song of theirs to the contest in 1969. An early Taupin and John composition, “I Can’t Go On Living Without You” made it to the final of A Song for Europe 1969. Lulu was internally selected by the BBC, and “I Can’t Go On Living Without You” was voted 5th out of 6. Lulu won with “Boom Bang-a-Bang,” which ended up as one of four winners of the controversial Eurovision 1969 contest in Spain.
Incidentally, an early Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber song called “Try it and See” was also entered that year but it failed to make the final six.
2. Martin Page. Personally, I feel that Q-Feel’s “Dancing in Heaven” is one of the best Eurovision non-qualifiers of all time. The United States agree, as it charted there (seven years later!) and found cult fame being the final showdown number in the Sarah Jessica Parker summer dance movie “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” “Dancing in Heaven (Orbital Be-Bop)” came in 6th to Bardo’s “One Step Further” at A Song for Europe 1982, though the song was propelled to fame elsewhere. Q-Feel’s singer and bassist Martin Page moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter, found solo fame in the 1990s switching from new wave to adult contemporary.
3. Peter Wolf. In the 1980s, Peter Wolf and his wife Nina Wolf were a power songwriter and producer couple behind some of the decade’s biggest hits, including Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” which Rolling Stone called the second worst song of all time. Nina Wolf, who in 1979 was going by the name of Christina Simon, came in 20th and last at Eurovision 1979 with “Heute en Jerusalem.” Peter Wolf wrote and produced this entry for Austria, with Wolf even managing to rope in legendary American saxophonist Lou Marini – whom Wolf met while doing session work with Marini on Frank Zappa albums – and though this entry came in last, the Wolfs both ended up doing work with Starship singer Grace Slick on her debut album before Wolf teamed up with American producer Dennis Lambert.
We have covered Christina Simon and Peter Wolf before and in more detail, should you wish to know how they ended up providing a song for one of Top Gun’s most iconic scenes.
Now how did these three come together to produce a spectacle that has, in the words of Tannenbaum, “been playing, ceaselessly, for three [and-a-half] decades now, [staying] lodged in your brain, like a barnacle made of synthesizers and cocaine, for hours?”
First, a bit of Starship history. Short version: Jefferson Airplane -> Jefferson Starship -> Starship, with original members of the original dropping off as they morphed from ’60s counter-cultural rock to ’70s psychedelic rock to only vocalist Grace Slick remaining. Slick, age 46, found herself with remnants of a superstar group assembled over two decades and in search of a new sound to go with their new identity.
An eccentric recovering alcoholic whose signature voice was paired with a hypnotic stage presence and a penchant for the bombastic (personally and professionally), she was now shorn of the last vestige of the old act in Paul Kantner, who quit Jefferson Starship in 1984 after complaining they were becoming “too commercial.” Kantner and Slick were also in a relationship, having a daughter China, and were known in the late ’60s as the “psychedelic John and Yoko.”
Though professionally, as Wolf impolitely told GQ about Kantner, “Paul was an old hippie who was not relevant anymore. Everyone wanted to go more modern, and he didn’t want to.”
Kantner legally forced the remaining band to rename themselves Starship. Remaining with Slick was vocalist Mickey Thomas (recruited into the band after singing on San Francisco blues band Elvin Bishop’s excellent 1973 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love“), guitarist Craig Chaquico, bassist Pete Sears, and drummer Donny Baldwin.
Meanwhile, Bernie Taupin fancied writing about a dystopian future where the spirit of rock ‘n roll had been lost to canned corporate music, where music venues were literal wastelands with live musicians turfed out of work (“who took the wrecking ball to our guitars?”).
Taupin said in 2013 that “the original song was… a very dark song about how club life in L.A. was being killed off and live acts had no place to go.”
So to provide music for this song and “These Dreams” (performed to much acclaim by Heart and also a Billboard Hot 100 Number 1), Taupin sought out Page, fresh off a bright and up-tempo new wave number that, while it did not see him make it to Eurovision, got him noticed as a promising up-and-coming songwriter. Taupin wanted to branch out from working with Elton John, and after listening to Q-Feel wanted to try something new.
Page told GQ, “Bernie was moving away from working with Elton John. Everybody wanted him to work with a Tom Dolby kind of writer—someone using new technology. I wanted to impress Bernie: I did a demo of the song on a Fostex deck in my living room. It sounded like Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey.” I sent it to Bernie, who said, “Bernie Taupin comes into the future.””
And as you can hear from the Martin Page performed demo, the baffling “Marconi plays the mamba” lyric was introduced at an early stage, which lays the blame squarely at either Taupin or Page.
Lead singer Thomas told GQ, “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.””
Despite Taupin’s insistence you wouldn’t recognize the released version with the demo, the new wave style demo lays down a clear skeleton for producers Peter Wolf and Dennis Lambert to add meat on.
Wolf initially blasted Page and Taupin for the song not having a chorus. The refrain “We Built This City” is repeated constantly in the demo, but does not start the demo. In an unusual move, Wolf amped up that section and tacked it on the front of the song. Though Swedish producer Max Martin and others made kicking a pop song off with a chorus a standard practice, it was unusual to do so in the 1980s.
Wolf also arranged the song as a synth-rock anthem, with Page impressed at the level of technology brought into the studio to give his track more heft.
Guitarist Chaquico told GQ, “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.”
Wolf laid on the synth thick, but Chaquico’s electric guitar was also put in the front of the mix, with some great shredding at various junctures to propel the song forward.
But a significant change came with the deployment of Thomas and Slick in the vocals, with both playing off of each other. Page initially thought Slick’s deployment was a little too “sturm und drang,” but it certainly stood out, and it would be far to say the back-and-forth between Thomas and Slick in the tracks mirrors the warring feelings of selling out with corporate rock to Taupin’s original dystopian musicians vs. bland suits idea.
Slick told Vanity Fair in 2012 that “I was such an asshole for a while, I was trying to make up for it by being sober, which I was all during the ’80s, which is a bizarre decade to be sober in. So I was trying to make it up to the band by being a good girl. Here, we’re going to sing this song, “We Built This City on Rock & Roll.” Oh, you’re shitting me, that’s the worst song ever.”
Thomas disagreed, saying “Anybody who says the lyrics are dumb hasn’t taken the time to digest the verses. I don’t think there’s anything dumb about “looking for America, crawling through your schools.””
The demo contained a random radio news clip describing a police call out to downtown Los Angeles, but Starship’s management were inspired to make a gimmick out of it – though the YouTube upload has a DJ announcing a sunny Saturday afternoon looking out on the Golden Gate Bridge, the record label sent versions to radio stations with that part stripped out and encouraged local radio stations to add in their own local flair.
Though the band was mixed over the final version of “We Built This City,” particularly Slick and Sears, the record label was ecstatic. They chose it to be the lead single of Starship’s first album “Knee-deep in the Hoopla,” and released “We Built This City” on August 1, 1985.
The song was an immediate smash, hitting Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for three weeks. The album came out in September 1985, also hitting Number 1 of the Billboard Top 200 album charts, despite receiving a critical mauling.
Stephen Holden, a music critic for The New York Times, opined that the album is “A compendium of strutting pop-rock clichés. Knee Deep in the Hoopla represents the ’80s equivalent of almost everything the original Jefferson Airplane stood against—conformity, conservatism, and a slavish adherence to formula.”
Thomas argues that the back-and-forth in the lyrics of “We Built This City” defies that last judgment, but the “corporate rock” tag has stuck. “We Built This City” also earned a 1985 Grammy nomination for “Best rock performance,” but the award went to Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing.”
Starship had another Number 1 from the album, though it was a ballad written by Nina Wolf not-so-subtly describing the implosion of her marriage to Peter Wolf, who again produced. “Sara” also shows up on “worst song” lists, but is also a fondly remembered staple on American classic rock FM stations.
Another argument against “We Built This City” being the “worst song of all time”: it currently sits at Number 442 of the Top 500 Billboard singles of all time. A piece of disposable trash from 35 years ago would not be sticking around in peoples’ ears.
Nor would it be featured prominently in Disney’s The Muppets in 2011, or even chart briefly in the United Kingdom after an ad featured the song.
Though this particular homage should not be too surprising. It’s as if drummer Donny Baldwin, second from left below, knew he would be portrayed by Animal 26 years later!
Lad Baby took it to Number 1 in Christmas 2018, but in that crap British way of making a corny novelty out of everything, the refrain was changed from “we built this city on rock and roll” to “we built this city on sausage rolls.”
As for the legacy of “We Built This City,” I agree with Professor of Rock Adam Reader when he asks, “will it change the world? No, not likely. But it will make you smile.”
“We Built This City” is a glorious product of its time, with its penchant for not-so-subtle synth and guitar. It was bombastic, it was loud, and though the meaning of its lyrics will be debated, the lyrics are catchy and easy to yell in drunken reverie.
Do #YOU think “We Built This City” deserves the “Worst Song Ever” tag? Or do #YOU believe there’s a reason it is still being played consistently to this day? Let us know in the comments below, on our social media, or in our forum.
Bonus Eurovision – Jefferson Starship performances:
Junior Eurovision’s first ever winner, Dino Jelusick, who has built himself quite the career as a rock vocalist since 2003, earned plenty of plaudits in the summer of 2020 with his take on Jefferson Starship’s 1970s classic “Jane” (original vocals by Mickey Thomas). Jelusick modifies the arrangement to better suit his style, but pretty much nails it with guitars by Whitesnake’s Joel Hoekstra and drums by Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy.
A few years earlier, Gabriela Gunčíková also went online with a cover of “Jane,” a year before she represented The Czech Republic at Eurovision 2016 with “I Stand.” It is fair to say that Gunčíková, who also performs annually with Dino Jelusick in Trans-Siberian Orchestra, nails the performance as well.