Sunday, July 28, 2019

Re: We Built This City | Lefsetz Letter

From: mickey thomas
Subject: We Built This City
A Different Point of View

I don’t engage in debates over the validity of “We Built This City” or any of my work. It’s not my nature and I don’t really see the point of it, but there comes a moment when enough is enough.

It bothers me to read revisionist history by people trying to protect their own agendas. The main criticism of “We Built This City” didn’t really start until 15 years after the release. We all know where the gist of that came from. I’m someone who was also “THERE” when it all went down. So let me ask you a question…”Does anybody out there really think that Grace Slick would sing a song that she absolutely hated?”…… That’s what I thought you were thinking. 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. We enjoyed many fascinating conversations…A lot of highs and a few lows. I think I know her pretty well and I think the world of Grace.

I brought in the demo of “City” to present it to the STARSHIP band. (Not Jefferson Starship BTW) I was attracted by the lyrics of the song. I loved the imagery and the interpretive nature of Bernie’s words. I felt it was a protest song but not really in an angry sense, it impressed me more as a feeling of lost innocence. I discussed my thoughts on what “City” meant in the lyrics with the band. It was never about a real city to me. It 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 and 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. I was actually thinking about Woodstock when I was recording this song. The “We” in the lyric to me always signified a collective we. The artist and the audience singing together as one.

The song then went through an evolution in the studio. The big anthemic chorus was added. This always represented a double edged sword for me. I knew that it was the “hook” that would give the song the most commercial appeal, but I was always afraid that it might obscure the dark underbelly of the verse lyrics. Therefore; the element that assured the songs success also provided the fodder for all the naysayers. I realize that “We Built This City” became the poster child for a lot of what was happening in music at that time that angered some folks. The technology invading the process and sanding down the rough edges of rock. For me it was like getting a new set of toys to play with, new tools to work with, a new pallet to paint with. We were just going through a new period of music. The “Knee Deep in the Hoopla” LP didn’t mean I would never sing “Jane” or “Find Your Way Back” or “Fooled Around and Fell in Love’ again. I realize some of the vitriol associated with “We Built This City” can be attributed to the transformation of the band….from the romanticized 60’s to the big business music of the 80’s. But hey….. that’s a whole other subject I won’t delve into at the moment.

The question for me is this: 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…Paradox anyone? The night “We Built This City” went to number one, I spoke to Bernie Taupin on the phone. 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?” Aha!… Sound over sensibility!

Sometimes late at night after more than a little chardonnay, I can envision angry arboreal reptiles emerging from the radio speakers and slithering away into the night, looking for the ship of fools that’s crawling through your schools. I had no idea that “City” would be such a big hit…hell I never even thought of it as a single. I am 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.

Peace and love,


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