Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More Deciphering Classic 80s Songs

Ben and I took a small roadtrip this weekend from Washington, D.C., across Virginia on U.S. 50 to Morgantown, West Virginia.

En route, we listened to the "Rock 'n' Roll Classics" playlist on my iPod. Despite having some questionable entries -- Sheryl Crow? Sting? -- I have put some gems in there among the 87 songs on the playlist. One of which is the Starship classic "We Built This City."

If you are only casually acquainted with the song, you know the chorus:
We built this city--
We built this city on rock and roll!
But there is a brief transition at the end of every verse to the chorus. And we wanted to figure out what it was.

Maybe you want to take a listen first?

The second line is quite clearly "Listen to the radio." But what the heck is the first line?

Ben's first guess was "Cody plays the bambam," and he argued that a "bambam" was a form of drum. I wasn't really buying this. So we gave it another listen (or six), and it dawned on me that the first word had three syllables and -- aha! -- was "Marconi," referring to Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio. So I was going with "Marconi plays 'La Bamba'; / Listen to the radio." That seemed like a plausible guess.

But when we looked up the lyrics, the Internet told us that the lyric was "Marconi plays the mamba." What? Isn't the Cuban dance known as the "mambo"? What's the "mamba"?

The Internet yielded this suggestion from someone else vexed by this mystery:
According to my Chambers Dictionary, a mamba is a (deadly African) snake. Since Marconi is widely credited as the inventor of radio (and the next line is “Listen to the radio”) this could be a reference to the oscillation of radio waves resembling the movement of a snake and having a similarly dangerous potential for social change — or it could just be a preposterous lyric from a crap song.
Elsewhere on the Internet, a similar theory was proposed:
So what does Marconi playing the mamba mean? Clearly, "Marconi" is referring to the radio itself. The marconi. The device. The radio plays a deadly snake. Listen to it. We built this city. The snake -- the mamba -- is slithering from the speakers. Ready to kill greedy corporations. Ready to squeeze the life out of the police. Ready to free the world of all that is evil, and to leave behind only the youthful idealism that is encompassed by the tenets of rock and roll.
In response to this theory, quite a number of comments have been posted:
The MAMBA in the song is not the snake. It is a musical instrument that plays notes when your hand is near it. Hitler was known to play it during one of the olympics in germany.
The other comments, however, reject that counter-theory and suggest that Hitler was fond of the Theremin.

1 comment:

Nick Toloudis said...

As a longtime connoisseur of all things Jefferson, I can tell you that Mickey Thomas is proud of this song. It has a "dark underbelly," he thinks. For more, see his interview here, about 2:20 into the piece:

Don't get me wrong: this guy is a talentless asshole hack. So I don't know if his take on anything is worth two bits.