Starship’s Mickey Thomas Stands Up for ‘We Built This City’
The 1985 song has taken some heavy criticism over the years, topping several notable “worst” lists, including Rolling Stone’s worst songs of the ‘80s in 2011. It’s been panned for being shamelessly corporate with nonsensical lyrics. Over the years, Slick has agreed with much of the negativity, and industry commentator Bob Lefsetz recently reported he discussed it with her during a visit to her home.
“I didn’t like it when it was released, when they inserted the name of every local city for radio stations,” Lefsetz wrote in his email newsletter. “But all these years later ... it kind of cracks me up -- anthemic rock, with exuberant vocals.”
He added that Slick “didn’t like singing other people’s songs. It’s not like being in a band, living it together, having experiences. … So Grace starts going on a rant. ‘There’s no city built on rock 'n' roll! As a matter of fact, all the cities pre-date rock 'n' roll!’
“She agreed with Rolling Stone … and Grace is testifying, ‘What do the words mean? Who can relate to them?’ And then she reveals the nugget, the essence: The lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin about the closure of bars in Los Angeles, you know, which was built on rock 'n' roll! Whew, I never knew that! … So Grace says Bernie’s a great lyricist, she respects him, but not on this one. So she quit.”
Watch Starship's 'We Built This City' Video
In response, Thomas wrote an email of his own, which Lefsetz shared as a follow-up. Arguing that criticism of the song began 15 years after its release, Thomas said, “Does anybody out there really think that Grace Slick would sing a song that she absolutely hated? … I spent seven of the best years of my career recording and touring with Grace. Many long hours in the studio and on the tour bus. … I think I know her pretty well, and I think the world of Grace.”
He recalled presenting the demo of the song to his Starship bandmates because of the “imagery and interpretive nature of Bernie’s words." “I felt it was a protest song, but not really in an angry sense," he said. "It impressed me more as a feeling of lost innocence.”
He said the “city” was “an allegory for any collection of people anywhere who came together to express themselves through the power of music. … It was both a celebration of rock 'n' roll and a protest against those who try and tame it. I never for a moment thought that anyone would think that I was actually singing about concrete and steel or bricks and mortar. … The ‘we’ in the lyric to me always signified a collective we: the artist and the audience singing together as one.”
Thomas admitted the addition of the “anthemic chorus” as the band reworked the song felt like a “double-edged sword," in that while it provided “the most commercial appeal," he was concerned it would “obscure the dark underbelly of the verse lyrics.” "Therefore, the element that assured the song’s success also provided the fodder for all the naysayers,” he noted.
He went on to ask, “Why can’t a sophisticated listener enjoy both aspects of the song simultaneously? Why not sing along with the gleeful chorus while still appreciating the protestation of the verses? They are not mutually exclusive.”
Referring to the line most often used to argue the song’s flaws, Thomas remembered calling Taupin the night the song reached No. 1: “I asked him a question, ‘Bernie, now more than ever people are going to ask me, what does “Marconi plays the mamba” mean? He instantly replied, ‘I have no fucking idea, mate, but it sounds good doesn’t it?’”
In conclusion, Thomas said he's "very happy for the pleasure that ‘City’ brought, and continues to bring, to people all over the world. In my not so humble opinion, something that universal is hardly dreck. Be careful when you jump on the bandwagon ... it might hurt when you fall off.”