Without argument, the most polarizing song in the history of all time has to be “We Built This City” by Starship. Love it or hate it (I love it) the single sold well over 6 million copies in the 1980s (and millions more since), and has gone on to be a “go-to” cut for movies and TV shows around the world.
The voice behind that megatune and dozens more — including “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “Jane,” “Find Your Way Back,” “Sara,” “No Way Out” and even Elvin Bishop’s hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” — is Mickey Thomas.
Starship continues to soar with a new CD and a busy touring schedule. Mr. Thomas spoke about his musical journey and the double-edged sword that is “We Built This City.”
Question: How did you end up as Elvin Bishop’s singer?
Answer: Through my mentor, the gospel singer Gideon Daniels. He brought me to California to sing with Gideon and The Power. We did some background vocals on a couple of Elvin’s albums. In 1975 Elvin invited me to become a permanent member of the band. The first record I did was “Strut My Stuff,” which had “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” on it.
Q: Did you life change after “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” became a hit?
A: Not right away. Because the record said “Elvin Bishop Band,” people assumed Elvin Bishop was singing it. Then it became a cool story as word got out in the industry that it wasn’t Elvin singing. It was this other guy: me.
Q: How did you join Jefferson Starship?
A: My intention was to pursue this solo career. Out of the blue I got a call from the Jefferson Starship‘s people asking me if I would be interested in meeting and maybe singing with the band. My impression of the band at that time was they were kind of like a soap opera. Lots of infighting.
Grace [Slick] and Marty [Balin] had both just left. That was why they were looking for a new singer. Once we started jamming and listening to the new songs, I thought, “Oh, wow! This is not the musical impression I had.” I applied my gospel blues background to their rock bed of music, and it sounded unique and original.
Q: What was your relationship with [Jefferson Starship leader/guitarist] Paul Kantner like?
A: My relationship was pretty good with Paul in the beginning, unlike most people in the band. It’s kind of Paul’s nature to be very confrontational. He thrives on that. If everything is going along smoothly, Paul will create chaos or conflict.
Q: Grace Slick had quit the band before you joined, but then came back?
A: The song “Jane” came out of the box gangbusters and set the tone for the new Jefferson Starship. We were at the end of making the second album, “Modern Times.” Grace started showing up in the studio. She had been through rehab. She asked, “Would you guys like to have a female background vocalist?” Yeah, right, “background.”
Q: The blending of the voices worked. Did the blending of the personalities work?
A: Yeah. I always got along great with Grace. We didn’t have any problems until right at the very end.
Q: Was there more creative freedom once Paul Kantner left?
A: He left in 1984. Paul was on one side of the fence and everybody else was on the other. He would say, “If you don’t do it my way, I’m gonna take my ball and go home.” That was when he stole the master tapes.
He went to the studio on a Saturday, put them in the trunk of his car and drove away. The president of the label, RCA, called him up and said, “Paul, you can’t do this. We have close $400,000 to invested in this album.”
After that he was out.
Q: Did his departure lead to the shedding of the “Jefferson” in the name?
A: That was part of it. We were able to incorporate a settlement with Paul into dropping “Jefferson” from the name. It didn’t really bother us because everybody was calling the band Starship anyway.
Q: How did the megahit “We Built This City” come to be?
A: My friend Martin Paige brought me a demo of the song that he had written with [Elton John songwriter] Bernie Taupin. I thought it had a nice nostalgic feel to it. I wanted to do the song, but I never thought it was a single.
Q: Was that song a blessing and a curse?
A: The song was a double-edged sword. A few years back, Blender magazine decided to name it the worst song ever recorded. And obviously it’s not the worst song ever made. It’s not “Disco Duck.”
Q: Currently there are two Starships touring, yours and Paul Kantner’s Jefferson Starship. Does that cause confusion?
A: I think so, in spite of my best efforts. The first page of my contract is spelled out: “this is how the band is to be billed.” They [Jefferson Starship] don’t go to such effort to make a distinction.