Knee Deep In The Hoopla

by John Holbo on September 2, 2016

Earworms are having a moment. As if they needed one. “All Songs Considered” served up a rewind of an old episode on “Worst Songs”. (I really can’t imagine hating Meatloaf, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. It’s just a blues cheese track that doesn’t take itself seriously, in a Rocky Horror way. What’s to hate? It isn’t even an earworm. Also “We were barely 17 and we were barely dressed” is great lyrics.)

But mostly it’s this GQ article getting linked around on FB: an ‘oral history’ of Starship’s “Built This City”. Here’s my favorite bit:

Thomas [the singer]: When the song went to No. 1, I said to Bernie, “More than ever, people are gonna ask what ‘Marconi plays the mamba’ means.” He said, “I have no fucking idea, mate.”

Page [co-writer]: Hmm. Marconi was the first one to send music across the ocean. I saw “We Built This City” as saying stop the corporations, we need to play music.

Thomas: 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.

Chaquico [guitarist]: Marconi’s the guy who invented the radio, and his style of music was the mamba. But listen to the radio now. Do you hear any mamba? That’s how I look at the lyric: Things change. I could be totally wrong.

Thomas: At one point I did start to sing “mambo,” to try and be more grammatically correct, and after a while I thought, “Fuck it,” and went back to “mamba.”

That is, the best part is the fact that Bernie Taupin apparently just wrote the lyrics by themselves – stand-alone poem – then shopped it round, to get someone to add music, someone else to perform this could-be tone-poem. It’s like Nigerian email spam: ‘make millions from your own home selling meaningless poetry’. Or: ‘Poets hate it when you use this one weird trick.’ Or: ‘If you can set this poem to music, you may have a future in the music industry!’

Say you don’t know me, or recognize my face
Say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place
Knee deep in the hoopla, sinking in your fight
Too many runaways eating up the night

Marconi plays the mamba, listen to the radio, don’t you remember
We built this city, we built this city on rock an’ roll

Bernie Taupin has the most ironic existence on the planet.

What are the odds that you could write something like that, in evident confusion as to the difference between Cuban dance music and snakes; send it out in the hopes someone will write music; have someone write music – by acclaim, the worst music – and the combination is GOLD! PLATINUM!

I’m an Elton John fan – not ashamed to admit it! – and I think Taupin’s lyrics are often well-suited to those old hits. So it’s not like he never did nothing worth anything ever. But I always figured lyrics came second. Hearing a song that needs lyrics and writing something that fits, maybe helping to tighten it up? That strikes me as a plausible job. Writing incredibly clever lyrics, or incredibly beautiful poetry, that glows on its own? Then having someone add music? Seems like a thing. Just writing some hoopla mamba junk, dropping it in the mail, then collecting fat royalty checks for the rest of your life? It’s the craziest, best job ever.

So what I’m saying is: the synths are the least of the puzzle.

Bonus: read the comments for the YouTube video for “Built This City”. At the top, as of 2 months ago, Hamilcar Barca is barking: “WHAT the Fuck did happen with music of today ?” And other commenters try to figure out why the music industry went downhill after “Built”. Is it autotuning to blame? I always suspected that the music video for “Built This City” was playing on a loop in Plato’s Cave! Now I know.

Bonus bonus: how could you come up with Hamilcar Barca, as your handle, and not think to modify it to Hamilcar Barcalounger. So far, no further? What’s that about?

{ 59 comments }

1

bad Jim 09.02.16 at 7:07 am

Did no one ever say to them, “You didn’t build that”?

2

ZM 09.02.16 at 7:25 am

It sounds like Bernie Taupin did write some music for the song in a demo, then this producer added a chorus and changed the music or something :

” Bernie Taupin (lyricist, in 2013): 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. A producer named Peter Wolf—not the J. Geils Peter Wolf, but a big-time pop guy and Austrian record producer—got ahold of the demo and totally changed it.… If you heard the original demo, you wouldn’t even recognize the song. “

I think it shouldn’t have the Golden Gate bridge in if its meant to be about LA though. Or else they should have changed “city” to plural cities” to include San Francisco as well as LA. But I am a bit pedantic.

3

John Holbo 09.02.16 at 7:30 am

I guess maybe you’re right, ZM. Bernie, if you are reading this, I’m sorry to imply you did nothing to add a tune, if indeed you added some demo tape something or other.

4

Sumana Harihareswara 09.02.16 at 8:09 am

“We Built This City” is also the music for a fantastic, over-the-top fanvid of Stargate Atlantis that I recommend to your attention.

5

Lee A. Arnold 09.02.16 at 10:31 am

Neil Innes wrote an Elton John/Bernie Taupin sendup and it is also an earworm:

“Godfrey Daniel” (1982)

6

John Holbo 09.02.16 at 11:56 am

Lee, that is the most dead brilliant parody I have ever seen!

7

Marc 09.02.16 at 12:12 pm

That reminds me of Robert Hunter and the mystifying lyrics he wrote for the Grateful Dead. Exhibit A, China Cat Sunflower:

Look for awhile at the China Cat Sunflower
proud-walking jingle in the midnight sun
Copper-dome Bodhi drip a silver kimono
like a crazy-quilt stargown
through a dream night wind

Krazy Kat peeking through a lace bandana
like a one-eyed Cheshire
like a diamond-eye Jack
A leaf of all colors plays
a golden string fiddle
to a double-e waterfall over my back

Comic book colors on a violin river
crying Leonardo words
from out a silk trombone
I rang a silent bell
beneath a shower of pearls
in the eagle wing palace
of the Queen Chinee

8

jake the antisoshul soshulist 09.02.16 at 12:26 pm

Considering the amount of hallucinogens the Dead took, the lyrics probably made perfect sense to them.

9

Austin Loomis 09.02.16 at 1:29 pm

@ZM: I suspect the “Looking out over that Golden Gate Bridge” bit was only added when Starship came on board, due to SF being the band’s ancestral hometown.

@Marc&jake: And then the moon came out and it was like Jerry willed it!

10

Yan 09.02.16 at 1:42 pm

http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2015/04/area-philosopher-proves-we-did-not-build-this-city-on-rock-and-roll.html

“Rock Realists have brilliantly exploited the so-called companions in guilt strategy. “If we denied that this city is built on rock-and-roll,” Shafer-Landau explained,”we would also have to say that we started the fire (Joel 1989), that the grass isn’t green and the girls aren’t pretty in Paradise City (A. Rose at al (1987)…and of course, we’d also have to Stop Believin’ (Cain et. al 1981). I don’t know about you,” Shafer-Landau continued, “but I’m just not willing to bite those bullets.”

11

rea 09.02.16 at 1:57 pm

Personally, I’ve Stopped Believin’ ever since I realized that South Detroit would, geographically, be Windsor Ontario.

12

casmilus 09.02.16 at 2:07 pm

The music comes and goes in the wind,
Comes and goes on the brain.

(“Listening To Jefferson Airplane”, Thom Gunn).

13

casmilus 09.02.16 at 2:10 pm

To be fair to Elton, I think he was knowingly self-parodic since at least the “I’m Still Standing” video. Certainly the “Wrap Her Up” video with George Michael.

According to an interview he did in the mid 90s, when he was at his most cocaine-fuelled in the 70s, he did actually ring up hotel room service and demand they stop the wind blowing outside, as it was annoying him.

14

John Holbo 09.02.16 at 2:12 pm

I’m just watching “Godfrey Daniel” over and over. It’s an earworm.

15

bianca steele 09.02.16 at 3:31 pm

Two questions:

1. Is there a hidden allusion in the title to the online service that lets you borrow albums essentially from your library?

2. Has a book event or two gone missing from the sidebar? In particular, the one about capture of the court system by corporations?

16

Alan White 09.02.16 at 5:05 pm

The DJ/announcer is Les Garland, who worked at KFRC (the big 610!) in San Francisco among other places. As a teen in the North Bay I listened to KFRC and bought my very first album put out by that local group Jefferson Airplane–Surrealistic Pillow. So naturally I’ve always associated the song with SF. And yes, damn it–that is one very catchy/kitschy tune.

17

phenomenal cat 09.02.16 at 5:46 pm

I hear you, Holbo. The profession of “Rock Lyricist” has always struck me as good work if you can get. I remember being dumbfounded as a teenager to learn that Bernie T wrote lyrics for Elton John–and made a tidy living from it. It didn’t sit right with me, seemed un-rock-n-roll. I mean, this is a bit exaggerated, but it’s like finding out that some guy name Eddie Cohen wrote the lyrics to Pretty Vacant after a nice TM session at his Malibu beach house.

Of course, someone upthread quotes Robert Hunter lyrics. And I do think Hunter was indispensable to the Dead. His lyrics channeled the tropes of old blues and folk music in ways that was not artless or just rank imitation, but actually extended those forms. Seriously, Friend of the Devil is a definitive American song. Dock Boggs and Henry Thomas would have immediately understood it.

What was the movie Built this City was marketed with? Was it Short Circuits or Mannequin…?

18

AcademicLurker 09.02.16 at 6:18 pm

Has a book event or two gone missing from the sidebar? In particular, the one about capture of the court system by corporations?

Corporations have become so powerful that they can make entire book events disappear!

19

Kiwanda 09.02.16 at 6:20 pm

Any discussion of lyrics brings to mind the greatest living poet, Bob Dylan.

20

Ragweed 09.02.16 at 6:36 pm

“That strikes me as a plausible job. Writing incredibly clever lyrics, or incredibly beautiful poetry, that glows on its own? Then having someone add music?”

I once saw Joan Baez talking about the process of working with a Nashville music-writer to turn some of her lyrics into songs. She said she walked into the studio and this guy with a beard and guitar is like “So what do you want Joan? you want a waltz? You want rumba?”

21

mrearl 09.02.16 at 7:09 pm

Well, for rock ‘n roll lyrics you can’t top the last four minutes of “Hey Jude.”

22

Ben Alpers 09.02.16 at 9:04 pm

@phenomenal cat:

Starship’s follow-up hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” was featured in Mannequin.

(When it comes to silly rock lyrics — by a great lyricist no less — it’s hard to beat “Phenomenal Cat.”)

23

Lee A. Arnold 09.02.16 at 9:09 pm

I haven’t been able to evict this earworm for weeks, with a sweet love lyric:
“No one sees you’re on a vampire planet / No one sees you like I do”

A song first released by Cracker (1993), but this great version is by the late lamented Sparklehorse (1998):

Sick of Goodbyes

24

P O'Neill 09.02.16 at 10:26 pm

Back in one of the earlier times when Bon Jovi was a thing, I vaguely remember that someone had come to the them with the line “you give love a bad name” and they worked the song around it. Can’t easily verify that but it is interesting to look at the range of songwriting credits that go to Child (including that one). Career on a par with Bernie.

25

BBA 09.02.16 at 10:29 pm

Somewhere in the TV Tropes list of rejected page titles is “We Built This City on Thought Control,” which is an objectively better chorus.

26

John Holbo 09.03.16 at 12:26 am

You’re on a roll, Lee. I love that old Cracker song and I love Sparklehorse, but I didn’t know about the cover. It’s great!

““We Built This City on Thought Control,”

It would be good to do a music video based on bits from “Dark City”

“Say you don’t know me, or recognize my face
Say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place
Kiefer in the hoopla, desperately hoping you’ll
Save us from the Strangers, because you’re Rufus Sewell.”

27

Chris G 09.03.16 at 1:52 am

> It’s just a blues cheese track that doesn’t take itself seriously, in a Rocky Horror way…. Also “We were barely 17 and we were barely dressed” is great lyrics.

It’s not a great song but it’s a really fun song.

28

Henry (not the famous one) 09.03.16 at 2:03 am

Apologies for repeating myself, but what’s the first thing a Deadhead says when getting out of detox? “This band sucks!” (thanks to Dennis Murphy, a Deadhead himself, who told me this joke 20 years ago).

29

Bruce Webb 09.03.16 at 3:06 am

“how could you come up with Hamilcar Barca, as your handle, and not think to modify it to Hamilcar Barcalounger. So far, no further? What’s that about?”

like a lot of nyms borrowed from history and not invented from scratch. Turns out that is the name of Hannibal’s father (the guy with the elephants and not the fava bean/chianti one)

30

Michael Cain 09.03.16 at 3:52 am

I think it shouldn’t have the Golden Gate bridge in if its meant to be about LA though. Or else they should have changed “city” to plural cities” to include San Francisco as well as LA. But I am a bit pedantic.

Taupin wrote occasionally odd things about the US. Indian Sunset is an incredible mashup of bits from all sorts of old movies.

31

maidhc 09.03.16 at 3:54 am

That’s a funny parody. It sounds an awful lot like “The Border Song”. I used to play in a band that did that and “Burn Down the Mission”. I like “Burn Down the Mission”, but I have no clue what it’s about really.

I remember feeling let down when “Crocodile Rock” came out because he’d had turned away from these heartfelt but incoherent lyrics.

Rock music isn’t that much about lyrics anyway. Steve Allen used to get laughs by reading the lyrics of songs like “Be-Bop-A-Lula” like they were poems. Apparently Phil Spector went on his show once and said “You’re missing the point! It’s the rhythm!” and started banging on the table and shouting “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Or so I’ve heard. I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

BTW I’ve been to Surf City and there aren’t really two girls for every boy.

32

nnyhav 09.03.16 at 5:07 am

@6 I’ve heard that, back in the day, knowledge of what’s next in the China Cat Sunflower lyrics was used to keep undercover cops from infiltrating left coast groups.

33

John Holbo 09.03.16 at 5:09 am

“Turns out that is the name of Hannibal’s father”

Oh, most definitely. But we have TV and the internet now, not just elephants. We are more barcalounger than barca in spirit. Was my point.

34

John Holbo 09.03.16 at 5:15 am

“Taupin wrote occasionally odd things about the US. Indian Sunset is an incredible mashup of bits from all sorts of old movies.”

There is a gibberish genius to Taupin, I don’t deny it. I’ve spent the last day digging through the archives, lyrically. It’s consistently insane but I generally like it. And you call really recognize the Taupin brand of gibberish. Often there’s that weird US touch.

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad

Like in the parody. “Let him go back to Ohio”. A great many guilty pleasures in the pile, anyway. But I still can’t imagine just buying nonsense without even music yet to go with. I think Elton John and Taupin collaborated closely, process-wise, whereas I was struck that the “Built” case seemed more like phoning it in, gibberish-wise.

35

Lee A. Arnold 09.03.16 at 12:00 pm

Well there is a “tradition” of lyric writing in pop music since the 1960’s which is impressionistic — or perhaps it’s expressionistic, I’m not sure which. I mean the cases where the imagery deliberately takes on a vaguely genre quality, without ever committing to the full discourse of ideas, & sometimes proposing the opposite meaning in an ironic way, but not always doing that, either.

For example, the Biblical allusion in the lyrics of “Lady Madonna” (1968 McCartney, by The Beatles) and “The Weight” (1968 Robertson, by The Band). You become invested in your own meaning of the song’s story by hearing vague echoes from your own past.

It always struck me that Bernie Taupin often writes in this way. However, the discourse of ideas that he touches upon is “standard, middle-of-the road pop imagery” as the targeted genre itself. Then he strives to make it into plain speech, and leaves logical lacunae to create the echoing mystery of the story.

Taupin mostly avoids inventive word-play that calls attention to itself (e.g. Lennon) and explicit psycho-social criticism (e.g. Pete Townshend, who is also an excellent writer of prose). Having flawless execution (by a flawless vocalist like Elton John) may be a necessary requirement to making it work. In this sense, Taupin is Warholesque.

36

Mike Schilling 09.03.16 at 12:05 pm

Barca is willing.

37

Lee A. Arnold 09.03.16 at 12:15 pm

@35 – It also appears from a lot of interviews that Taupin usually wrote the lyrics first, and Elton John set them second. There is an episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” wherein Elton John demonstrates at the piano how he can set any bit of prose to a new tune.

38

Ben Alpers 09.03.16 at 2:18 pm

Well there is a “tradition” of lyric writing in pop music since the 1960’s which is impressionistic — or perhaps it’s expressionistic, I’m not sure which. I mean the cases where the imagery deliberately takes on a vaguely genre quality, without ever committing to the full discourse of ideas, & sometimes proposing the opposite meaning in an ironic way, but not always doing that, either.

From the above-mentioned Robert Hunter, e.g.:

Lady finger, dipped in moonlight,
Writing “What for?” across the morning sky.
Sunlight splatters, dawn with answer,
Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye.

Speeding arrow, sharp and narrow,
What a lot of fleeting matters you have spurned.
Several seasons with their treasons,
Wrap the babe in scarlet colors, call it your own.

39

Lee A. Arnold 09.03.16 at 3:10 pm

I listen to Dick’s Picks versions of “Althea” and “Eyes of the World” almost once a week. Found a slow tempo “Eyes of the World” on the live “Without a Net” with Branford Marsalis that is 16 minutes long and pretty great.

40

bjk 09.03.16 at 3:55 pm

WBTCORR is like “TV Killed the Radio Star” and the Dire Straights song “Money For Nothing,” they’re all songs about MTV, which is why they MTV played them all the time (and this was when people really watched music videos). That’s probably why it succeeded, more than anything else. It wouldn’t have been on the radio if it wasn’t played continuously on MTV.

41

doug 09.03.16 at 6:52 pm

I’ve never seen the lyrics to China Cat Sunflower written out before, but now I can see why I’ve never heard a recording of Jerry remembering or pronouncing them all audibly or with much clarity. Thanks a lot, Hunter! Might as well be the digits of pi, or “Kubla Khan.”

…still a killer tune, though.

42

The Temporary Name 09.03.16 at 7:07 pm

My favourite bit from the GQ article:

Chaquico: 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.

He understood it as a technological wonder, which is odd given that so much of the chart at the time had that kind of vacuum-sealed sound.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billboard_Year-End_Hot_100_singles_of_1985

43

phenomenal cat 09.03.16 at 7:39 pm

“Starship’s follow-up hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” was featured in Mannequin.

(When it comes to silly rock lyrics — by a great lyricist no less — it’s hard to beat “Phenomenal Cat.”)” Ben Alpers @ 23

Ah, thanks. I see where you going with above, but it seems like a category mistake. Whereas Phenomenal Cat is indeed kinda silly or nonsensical (not unlike I Am the Walrus), We Built This City is cheese–two different musical classes, silly and cheese. Both have their charms of course.

44

Ben Alpers 09.03.16 at 7:57 pm

The last thing I wanted to do was suggest any real similarity between “Phenomenal Cat” and “We Built This City”….let alone between the Kinks and Starship!

45

Lee A. Arnold 09.03.16 at 8:08 pm

Speaking of nonsense and “I Am the Walrus”, I think that another parody by Neil Innes is as good as the original:

Piggy in the Middle

46

Dan Riley 09.03.16 at 11:10 pm

Writing the libretto before the score has been common, even standard, for centuries. Writing a libretto (or lyrics) that can be set to a score is a skill entirely distinct from writing incredibly beautiful poetry.

47

Alan White 09.04.16 at 2:16 am

Well America has to be one of the most famous curious lyrics successful groups.

48

js. 09.04.16 at 3:13 am

I’m just going to throw out here that not only do I find We Built This City to be dismally bad, I think White Rabbit (the radio version) is a seriously good song. Come at me.

49

js. 09.04.16 at 3:14 am

Also, obviously I know it’s different bands/incarnations.

50

Ragweed 09.04.16 at 6:59 am

I am not an Elton John fan, so I have never heard Indian Sunset until a few minutes ago. O. M. F. G. that was one of the most horrible schlock appropriation songs I have ever heard. I think some of the Native folks I know would explode if they heard that. Wow.

51

D. P. 09.04.16 at 8:47 pm

Well, that clears up an aural mystery, sort of; I’ve always heard it as “Marconi plays “La Bamba.”

(My brain has a bad habit of correcting lyrics for grammar or logic.)

And twenty years ago I started muttering, “They didn’t build this city–they built a boutique.” Make of that what you will.

52

Suzanne 09.04.16 at 9:13 pm

@45: Some of Innes’ Rutles songs seem less parodies than knockoffs. They don’t have much in the way of teeth, unlike the mauling of John Lennon in his primal scream/”Lennon Remembers” period by the National Lampoon on “Radio Dinner” with Tony Hendra’s titanic “Magical Misery Tour.”

This pair might seem a bit out of place in this context, but Oscar Hammerstein II wrote his lyrics first and then Richard Rodgers set them. Rodgers could also work the other way; with his previous partner, Lorenz Hart, he composed the music first and then Hart wrote the lyrics.

53

dave heasman 09.04.16 at 10:20 pm

– the National Lampoon on “Radio Dinner” with Tony Hendra’s titanic “Magical Misery Tour.” –

“I was the walrus, Paul wasn’t the walrus, I was just saying that to be nice.. genius is pain..”

54

McCnnll 09.05.16 at 12:12 am

I’m delurking just to point to the classic corporate parody jingle, “We Built this Starbucks.”

It was originally reported by The Stranger,”, but the Seattle alt-weekly seems to have taken down the audio file.

55

dr ngo 09.05.16 at 5:11 am

Gilbert wrote the words first, then Sullivan wrote the music – except once, I believe, in one of their later light operas (Gondoliers, perhaps?). I grew up on G&S and simply assumed this was the standard, if not only, way lyrics and music worked together.

56

bad Jim 09.05.16 at 6:55 am

An old joke:

A politician delivers a speech to an American Indian audience. After every line the audience shouts “Hoopla!” The politician takes this as encouragement.

Afterwards, his hosts take him to a local monument, walking across an open field where cattle are meandering. One of them warns him, “Be careful not to step in the hoopla”.

57

bad Jim 09.05.16 at 7:27 am

ReJoyce, approximately:

Chemical change (like a laser beam)
you’ve shattered the warning amber light
Wake me warm, let me see you
moving everything over
smiling in my room, you know
you’ll be inside of my mind soon

There are so many of you
White shirt and tie, white shirt and tie, white shirt and tie,
wedding ring, wedding ring.

Mulligan stew for Bloom,
the only Jew in the room
Sexton’s sick on the holy dregs
and they’re constant getting throw up on his leg.

Molly’s gone to blazes,
Boylan’s crotch amazes
any woman whose husband sleeps
with his pillow buried down at the foot of his bed.

I’ve got his arm
I’ve got his arm
I’ve had it for weeks
I’ve got his arm
Steven won’t give his arm
to no gold star mother’s farm;
War’s good business so give your son
and I’d rather have my country die for me.

There are so many of you
Sell your mother for a Hershey bar
grow up looking like a car
there are
All you want to do is live,
all you want to do is give
but somehow
it all
falls
apart

58

David 09.05.16 at 8:19 pm

Much better than built this city is Half Man Half Biscuit’s, built this village
https://youtu.be/Jp9mxUtsLJQ

59

Teachable Moe 09.06.16 at 4:55 pm

I’d always assumed We Built This City on Rock and Roll was a nod to the WH Auden line

sad is Eros, builder of cities

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