We Built This City: The History of the Song
Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)
Regardless of whether you are a child of the ’80s or not, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the song “We Built This City” that was featured quite heavily on the radio at the time. It was a catchy ’80s tune that relied on the choir-like chorus and glorified rock and roll, although it was leaning more towards pop music. By the time the ’90s came, people got fed up with the song and declared it one of the worst songs in the world. Today, it’s just a painful reminder of how bad the ’80s pop rock really was. Here is a bit of history on this “classic.”
Back in the ’60s, one of the most influential bands in rock and roll was, no doubt, the psychedelic masters, Jefferson Airplane. Their music brought San Francisco back into the rock spotlight and inspired a number of other bands and movies. When the band broke up in 1974, one of its original members, Paul Kantner, created a touring band he called Jefferson Starship. The band’s music was based on Jefferson Airplane, but it soon strayed away and ended with Kantner leaving the band. The remaining members (none of which were in the original Jefferson Airplane) were forced to abandon the name and continue their careers under the name Starship and with a drastically different sound. That is when the obnoxious hit “We Built This City” came to life.
It might amaze you to hear that the song actually has four credited songwriters, although it really consists of a couple of lines of verses, a random DJ rant, and the infamous chorus. Among the songwriters are Bernie Taupin, known mostly for his work with Elton John; Martin Page, his frequent collaborator, and keyboardist on that famous Ghostbusters tune; Dennis Lambert, who produced music for bands like The Righteous Brothers, The Temptations, and The Commodores; and, of course, the prolific Peter Wolf, who also worked on various film scores and received the Austrian Cross of Honor. Over the course of years, almost all of them stated that they were somewhat disappointed with the song, except for Peter Wolf who is as delighted now as he was back then.
The Making of “We Built This City”
According to Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s frequent collaborator, the final version of the song “We Built This City” was quite different from the demo he had written. He envisioned a song where he would discuss the lack of live acts in the LA and, therefore, the decline of rock and roll. All of that changed, however, when the Austrian producer Peter Wolf came on board. He changed the song and created that catchy optimistic chorus – “We built this city on rock and roll.” After this move, Taupin basically distanced himself from this entire project. Wolf knew they were making a hit song and, though some of the band members opposed to it, they all eventually agreed to make it. The bassist was fairly vocal about it and tried to remind everyone that they were a continuation of one of the greatest psychedelic bands of all time. It was all in vain.
The song consists of a couple of verses, a chorus and a segment done by DJ Les Garland. It is in this last part that the song truly showed its commercial nature. Namely, in the original recording, Garland talks about the Golden Gate bridge and admires the view. This was, in a way, a tribute to their hometown of San Francisco. After that, however, he uses a number of different nicknames for cities, referencing the aforementioned SF, along with Cleveland and New York City. The idea was to make the song as universal as possible by having various DJs add their own segments, personalizing the song for every city and town. The verses apparently describe the band’s confrontation with various music corporations though they, in the chorus, remind them that it’s the music that counts, not the money. Yeah, right.
There is no doubt that the song was quite popular at the time, thanks to its catchy chorus, heavy rotation and the fact that it fit in nicely with the ’80s groove. However, the song didn’t really age nicely. After the decade ended, most people grew tired of it and placed it on various lists of the worst songs ever. Today, it is considered a representative of a bad pop-rock of the ’80s and something of a warning to all the young bands just starting out. Perhaps, in time, people will decide that “We Build This City” is something of a hidden gem that should enter the Hall of Fame as a great rock anthem. It is highly unlikely, though.
Is “We Build This City” among your favorite tunes of the ’80s and why not?