How Martin Page’s Classic “We Built This City” Hit #1 Again (Thanks to a British Puff Pastry)
By Martin Page • February 5, 2019
“We Built This City (On Rock ‘n’ Roll)” was the first song I wrote with Bernie Taupin. It was back in the early ‘80s and I had only been in LA for a short time, after arriving from London with my new-wave band, Q-Feel. Never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen the success, the impact or longevity this song would generate over the following years.
I remember being quite nervous when Bernie handed me the finished lyrics up front for “WBTC.” I had grown up a massive fan of Elton John’s and Bernie’s work, so I didn’t want to disappoint or fail; this was a huge opportunity for me. Mainly, I wanted to impress Bernie so that he’d be encouraged to work with me again. I recorded a home demo of the song on a Fostex 8-track tape machine, using only a Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizer, a Linn drum machine and a cheap, borrowed microphone. The demo was very organic and darkly funky, in some ways reminiscent of Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey.” It metamorphosed into the rocky pop song we know today when Starship got their hands on it. My god, the first song I wrote with Bernie topped the US charts in 1985, and from that day on, “WBTC” has been extremely kind to me.
In fact, a parody version of “We Built This City,” by YouTube blogger and internet celebrity LadBaby, topped the 2018 UK charts over Christmas – over 33 years after I wrote the song...before LadBaby was even born. Surreal!
The #1 song at Christmas in the UK (“Christmas #1”) is a very, very big deal indeed. Established in 1955, it has since become the most coveted and revered target for artists. The UK Christmas #1 record spot is almost sacred, an institution, as such. Even “bookmakers” (as in horse racing) take bets every year on what song is going to make it. On Christmas day, after the Queen’s speech on TV, when British families are recovering from their festive dinner & drinks, the #1 song is rolled out and honored on the end-of-year historic “Top of the Pops” TV chart show. As I said before, it’s an institution. This was also a big deal for me personally, because it was my first #1 in England, my home country. Mum would have been proud.
In fact, the song had previously charted twice in the UK before hitting #1. Starship’s original version hit #12 upon its first release back in 1985, and in March 2014 (29 years after it was #1 in the US), it returned to the British charts at #26, when a commercial for a mobile phone company used it and the accompanying video – charming and youth-oriented – went viral.
“We Built This City” refuses to go peacefully into the good night; it just keeps turning on new generations, internationally. LadBaby’s version is a parody with changed lyrics. When I was first made aware of it, I giggled and thought no more of it. “WBTC” garners hundreds of license requests every year for its use in commercials, films, TV shows, etc.; so I just thought this was another harmless, fun gimmick cover. Although the lyrics were changed to “We Built This City – On Sausage Rolls” (only in England!), the music and melodies were left untouched, and the record was musically very faithful to Starship’s version. Having thought little about it, I was soon made aware by a family member back in England that LadBaby had entered the charts at #2 and was about to leapfrog Ariana Grande and Ava Max to conquer the UK chart. I’ll say it again – surreal!
I had no idea of the huge internet following and groundswell LadBaby had behind him. He’s a street-cred, loveable character (who loves sausage rolls) and was whipping up quite a storm with his fun, good-hearted version of “WBTC.” When I saw his video of the song, I could completely relate to the appeal. I recall contacting Bernie about this odd fairytale story; he just said, “’We Built This City’ is our little song that continues to give.”
I’ve heard many versions of “WBTC.” I like to think it’s a song that can wear many disguises, can take on many different lives, and LadBaby’s version was for a good cause. I think what hit me the most with LadBaby’s version was the overwhelming response of the young kids in the UK. At Christmas, the internet was deluged with videos from different homes of children singing and dancing to my melodies; the song had yet again been reborn with a new generation discovering it, as if it had been written fresh today. Even soccer crowds in Britain were chanting it at the games over the holidays. I was told it had become a bit of a national anthem (it sold 75,000 units just in the week before Christmas)!
When I first came to the States and gained some success as a songwriter, I was often asked what my motivation was, what spurred me on? I remember always answering that I hoped to write songs that would transcend the fashion of the day and stand the test of time…and that still remains my goal today. “We Built This City” has somehow seeped into the consciousness and fabric of popular culture. There’s even an art shop named after it in London!
Let me tip my hat here and acknowledge my fellow conspirators, I mean, collaborators, on “WBTC” who, with their unique qualities, contributed immeasurably to the make-up of the song. Of course Bernie Taupin, who started the ball rolling with his initial finished lyric, and Peter Wolf and Dennis Lambert who came aboard a little later, in the production stages.
“We Built This City” has taken some hard knocks and bad raps over its long, extended life, I think unjustly. It’s just the nature of the beast when a song becomes so renowned. I’m immensely proud that “We Built This City” has spanned three generations and brought so much joy.
I think every songwriter, like myself, dreams of one day writing a few songs that have longevity. I’m profoundly grateful to be experiencing that now.
Martin Page is a songwriter, producer and recording artist from England, responsible for writing and co-writing massive hits including “We Built This City” (Starship), “These Dreams” (Heart), “King of Wishful Thinking” (Go West, featured in Pretty Woman), “Fallen Angel” (Robbie Robertson), and many more for such artists as The Commodores, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones, Paul Young, Brian Ferry, Phil Collins, Josh Groban and Robbie Williams. Page gained success in America for his own band Q-Feel with the dance hit, “Dancing in Heaven,” and earned a substantial pop and adult contemporary hit with “In the House of Stone and Light,” the title track from his debut solo album – which became the longest-charting single in Billboard’s A/C Chart history. Page has since released five more solo albums on his own IroningBoard Records, most recently an ambient/experimental album called The Amber of Memory. Visit him online at facebook.com/martinpagemusic, and find out more at martinpage.com/songfacts.html and martinpage.com.