Mickey Thomas & Starship: Is "We Built This City" The Greatest Protest Song of the 80s?
Quick, what’s the biggest protest song of the 80s? Chances are you didn’t say “We Built This City,” now did you? That song – written by Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin and sung by Starship vocalists Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick – contains an argument between the singers and a music industry executive accused of playing corporate games with their band’s music. In response to this slight, the singers remind the industry villain of the band’s importance and the influence of rock and roll: “Listen to the radio, we built this city on rock and roll.” In truth, “We Built This City” may be one of the most under-appreciated rock and roll music industry protest songs of all time – or maybe not. While it did top the charts in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, it also topped a 2011 Rolling Stone poll of the worst songs of the 1980s.
What you think of singer Mickey Thomas and the band he’s bringing to the Avalon Ballroom probably has a lot to do with which of the line-ups you consider to be the best when talking about Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and of course, STARSHIP. While Jefferson Airplane may be revered as one of the pioneering bands of the 60s psychedelic San Francisco music scene, it was STARSHIP that had a string of hits in the 80s, including three #1 songs over an 18-month period. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that Starship is as much a part of the 80s as Phil Collins solo albums and John Hughes movies. With songs like “Jane,” “Sara,” “Find Your Way Back” and “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us Now” still mainstays in the set list, Thomas and his bandmates continue to extend the legacy of STARSHIP to heights never quite achieved by the Airplane. In support of his upcoming show in Niagara Falls, Thomas (who also sang the hit "Fooled Around And Fell In Love with Elvin Biship") took time out to talk to GoBeWeekly about the band, the song, and the joys of still touring at age 70.
GoBe: I know this is paraphrasing a Grateful Dead song, but looking back over your career, you have to admit -- what a long strange trip it’s been.
Mickey: Well, yes. (laughing). I think that any time you’re lucky enough to have a career that lasts as long as mine has, plus the kind of changes I’ve been through, the different bands and different people, a lot of colourful characters have come into my life at various points. So ya, you could say it’s been a long strange trip. I’m good with that.
GoBe: A former bandmate of yours once famously said that “old people don’t belong on a rock and roll stage.” I saw both the Stones and The Who this year and I’d have to disagree with that assessment. You’re going to be 70 in December – what’s your thought on this apparent ageism in the music industry? They don’t complain when Buddy Guy steps on stage do they?
Mickey: Or Tony Bennett who’s well into his 90s. I say keep on rocking. My thing is, if anyone asks me when I’m going to retire, it’s like, well, never I hope. I love to do what I do. I still have my voice. I still have my health. I love being on stage. I enjoy travelling. Why would I stop doing that when you’re fortunate enough to do what you love at 70. Mick Jagger said he couldn’t imagine singing “I Can’t Go No Satisfaction” at 40 years old. Now he’s singing it at 75. That was Grace (Slick) who said that, and she was always self-effacing in that way. She felt that she should not be on stage doing rock and roll past the age of 40. At least we talked her into sticking around until she was 50.
GoBe: From the outside, I think there is probably an erroneous assumption by people, many who don’t know what it takes to record and tour and be away from home, that it’s easier than it looks. I think Aerosmith may be the only band that’s lasted 50 years with all its original members.
Mickey: I think you might be right. That’s a good call.
GoBe: In your experience, what’s the biggest roadblock to keeping the internal harmony required within a band to keep them touring and recording and living that often transient lifestyle without killing each other? You’ve got an alumni of over 20 past members with Starship. You’ve been a constant. What do you think is the key to holding it all together?
Mickey: Well, I think the biggest challenge when you’re in a band of people who have been together a long time is – especially the way we used to tour being on the road for six or seven months straight and not being at home, and being on a tour bus in close quarters with a lot of people – you better get along. It’s hard to keep relationships civil and fresh. It seems to me the biggest problem with bands, the thing that causes the most friction, is generally resentment. Sometimes resentment builds up for one reason or another. Resentment can be really hard. It’s hard to get over that. The way things are today, we don’t go on the road for six months. We’re kind of weekend warriors. And I have the luxury of my wife travelling with me a great deal of the time. With the Starship band, it’s been kind of my decision on who was coming into the band. Everyone in the band I enjoy working with. My drummer and keyboard player have been with me over 25 years each. The bass players been with me for 20 years. I have people around me I really like.
GoBe: In Starship’s 80s heyday you recorded six albums over the course of a decade. When you look at that in the context of today’s music industry, when bands are lucky to release maybe two albums a decade, do you look back and go ‘what a crazy volume.’ Or would you not have it any other way.
Mickey: That was kind of pretty much standard operating procedure. Generally we tried to get two albums out every three years or so. We’d put out an album, then tour for a year, then come back home and write songs. So we’d have about 18 months between the release of an album and touring and then starting to record a new album. That was kind of the schedule that worked for us. It’s weird today because I see a lot of bands come out, put out a couple of great albums, and they fall of the map. They seem to have a shorter shelf like than we did in the 70s and 80s.
GoBe: What helped Starship was certainly a string of great songs. You were up against a lot of different genres, including the tail end of the 70s punk movement, disco, hair metal, new wave and boy bands. Did you make a conscious decision to just do what you wanted to do musically while avoiding sailing into those prevailing winds of change in pop music?
Mickey: Well, we did make the music we wanted to make, but I will say I was influenced by a lot of the music being made. I loved the punk scene when it came along. I loved a lot of those bands so we picked up a little bit of that, a little bit of the club era, the dance era. I liked that music. My roots were more in blues and R&B. When you look at Jefferson Starship and Starship of the 80s, there was everything from “Jane,” “We Built This City” to “Nothin’ Gonna Stop Us Now.” We explored a lot of different musical themes and ways of making music with a lot of sounds. We were influenced by a lot of music. Maybe that’s why we were lucky enough to have three #1 singles in the span of about 18 months.
GoBe: You mention “We Built This City,” a song with such a catchy vocal hook. Why do you think that song is so triggering for some people? The people that love it, love it a lot. And the people who hate it seem to think it’s some harbinger of evil in the music industry.
Mickey: (Laughing) That might be reading a little too much into it. It’s a polarizing song, but it’s so polarizing on one side that it became a #1 song, because a lot of people around the world liked it. I understand the other side of it as well. As I mentioned, we were exploring different ways of making music in the mid-80s, working with different sounds. Technology was evolving really fast in music and we were on board with that. That’s pretty cool, we can use samples, we can use computers, and all these digital toys. We did that and it worked for us with “We Built This City.” But it was also a double-edged sword, because there were a lot of people who didn’t like the changes taking place. Those people looked at “We Built This City” on the surface and went, ‘oh they sold out, they made a commercial song with no substance that betrayed the legacy of the Jefferson Airplane.’ That was not true to me. We were just making records, man.
GoBe: So what attracted you to the song?
Mickey: Really, what attracted me to that song initially, was the lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin. The lyrics were what I liked from the get-go. I think what happens is people don’t get past the chorus of “we built this city” to listen to the lyrics and verses, because there’s a lot of pretty good information and imagery in the lyrics Bernie was expressing. It was really a protest against a lot of the things that were happening in music – clubs closing down and people telling you where to go and what to listen to. There’s a lot of the typical ‘society trying to suppress rebellious youth’ going on in the lyrics to “We Built This City.”
GoBe: It’s true, people sometimes have nothing but a superficial understanding of the songs they’re listening to. Given that, do you think that rock and roll is the cultural force it once was? Or can it be again?
Mickey: Probably not, and that’s just because of the world we live in and how it’s changed. We’re so bombarded by media in the society we live in. It makes it impossible to come along and have the power to change things or to inspire people in the way it did in the late 60s. For a long time we used to say ‘who are the next Beatles?’ Well, the next Beatles turned out to be MTV. It wasn’t a band at all, it was MTV that changed the world. Then it became digital music and downloads and streaming that changed things. I don’t think there’s going to be a band that comes along to change things. I don’t think there’s going to be a Beatles or a Stones or a Hendrix or a Morrison or a Jefferson Airplane again. There’s going to be great music, but it won’t have the cultural impact.
GoBe: Speaking of making great music, you’ve still got a great voice. How do you take care of that instrument these days? Is your intake a little different than it might have been in the 70s?
Mickey: (laughing) A little bit you might say. You know, I try to eat right, I try to eat healthy. I try to work out a little bit, mix in a little bit of exercise. My vices are pretty much limited to my chardonnay these days. I like a lot of good chardonnay.
GoBe: Well, there are about 100 wineries within 100 kilometres of the venue you’re playing up here so I hope you get out while you’re visiting. For you now, what are you most grateful for at this stage of your career?
Mickey: I guess I’m most grateful for the fact I can still get out there and do it. My voice is still able to sing all those songs in the original keys. I’m proud that my voice allows me to do that. Aside from that, I’m thankful for the love from the fans and the people who have kept these songs alive for decades and allow me the opportunity to still go out there and perform and have people come out to see me.
GoBe: So what can fans expect at the Avalon Ballroom?
Mickey: Well, we’re going to try and touch all the bases and cover all the stuff that I’ve had a hand in creating with Jefferson Starship and Starship, which of course means “Jane,” and “Find Your Way Back,” and “We Built This City” and “Nothing’s Going Stop Us.” And of course there’s still “Fooled Around and Fell IN Love” from my Elvin Bishop Days. There’s still a lot of people surprised that I’m the guy that sang that. And then Stephanie my female vocalist and myself do a little tribute to the iconic Airplane songs, “White Rabbit and “Somebody to Love.” I do some early Jefferson Starship like “Miracles” and “Count on Me.” We leave no stone unturned.
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