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The Motor City's Still Burning

A brief tour through Detroit's Musical Legacy
April 28, 2003

Story and Venue Photos by Tony Bonyata
All Other Photos - Publicity Shots

Detroit is a gritty, hardworking city of high hopes. It may be best known as the Motor City, but with an influx of young garage bands just as rough around the edges as the city itself, the moniker Detroit Rock City (from the 1999 movie of the same name), seems to apply more than ever today.
The recent interest in the Detroit music scene can be single-handedly attributed to The White Stripes, the garage-rock duo of ex-spouses Jack and Meg White. Although they had a small but fervent fan base in their hometown when they formed in 1999, it wasn't until they landed on the shores of England that they made a major splash. With virtually every U.K. music publication bowing at the heals of these two unlikely rock stars, the attention immediately turned to their hometown of Detroit, where it was found that a burgeoning underground garage rock scene was in full swing.
Just as fellow Detroit area bands, such as The Stooges and the MC5, did three decades before them, this new breed of garage rocker has grabbed hold of the mid-'60s Nuggets-era sounds of bands such as The Sonics, The Kingsmen and The Strangeloves and left their own dirty imprints on them.
Despite their new found taste of fame, however, The White Stripes weren't the ones to actually jump start this whole Detroit garage-rock movement. Jack White is the first to attest to this, as he did two weeks ago at a hometown gig in Detroit when he ended their performance with the humble statement, "The only reason that two stupid people like us can fill up The Masonic Temple is because of The Dirtbombs and The Detroit Cobras and The Greenhornes and The Piranhas and Soledad Brothers..." continuing through a long list of other Detroit-based bands that helped break ground for the successes that they're now reaping.
While Jack White may have mentioned many of his immediate influences, the history of this city's music hardly starts with The Dirtbombs and The Detroit Cobras. In fact, it's startling to discover how many musical genres were actually forged here. From urban soul and R&B to punk rock and techno, they all had their start in The Motor City. Here we present a brief musical overview of some of Detroit's more famous sons and daughters, along with some of their musical haunts.

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker Like Muddy Waters, who relocated from the deep south to Chicago during The Great Migration, Hooker also headed north from his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi to Detroit in 1943. It was here that Hooker would develop his signature sound while still working as a janitor in one of the city's steel mills. He cut his first single "Boogie Chillin'" in 1948, and it was this type of harrowing, bone shuffling rhythm and deep growling voice that became his signature sound throughout his career; a sound that helped set both himself and the city of Detroit apart from the then burgeoning Chicago / Chess blues scene (which, among many other different labels, Hooker also recorded for).

Other notable Detroit area artists from the '50s: Bill Haley

1960s and '70s

MotownWhen part-time songwriter Berry Gordy left his job as an auto upholsterer to start his own Hitsville record label on seed money from his family in 1957 he wasn't sure how it would turn out. Just a look back at the artists who's careers he started answers any doubts; Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson Five as well as many others. Gordy not only made dozens of lucrative careers for these talents, but also defined the pre-British Invasion sound of America in the early '60s. Gordy's studio and house has been turned into the Motown Historical Museum and is open to the public.

Iggy Pop and The Stooges
The StoogesPunk rock's Big Bang. Not from Detroit proper, but rather the outlying suburb of Ann Arbor, this motley group of Midwestern misfits, consisting of Iggy Pop (vocals), Ron Asheton (guitar), Dave Alexander (bass) and Scott Asheton (drums), were Detroit's confrontational fist-in-the-face answer to the peace and love movement flowering out of San Francisco in the late '60s. Similar to the grating, industrial noises that were pounding out of the auto factories, their's was a sound built on sweat, electric power and metal-on-metal. The Stooges' early records still sound as riveting and dangerous today as they did over thirty years ago.

Similar to The Stooges, the Motor City Five's sounds were aggressive and hard-edged. But more than Iggy and Co., the MC5 leaned further to the left with their political involvement in John Sinclair's radical White Panther Party. Their opening rally cry of, "Kick out the jams, mother[expletive]!," on their 1968 debut album helped further solidify Detroit as a city of sonic anarchists.

Alice Cooper
Alice CooperPass the eyeliner and headless chicken, please. Shock rock didn't start with Ozzy and Marilyn, but rather when Detroit native Vincent Furnier changed his name to Alice Cooper and started hanging out with boa constrictors and hooded henchmen. Mixing the macabre of Vincent Price with the razzle dazzle of Bob Fosse on stage, Cooper became an instant success. But more importantly, with a guillotine-basket full of teen anthems and indelible hard rockers, such as "I'm Eighteen," "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy," his early music still sounds as relevant as ever.

The Clubs and Venues:
Teen Clubs:

Prior to the mid-'60s Detroit was void of any real rock clubs, or any rock scene for that matter. Then in 1964 two young entrepreneurs opened a teen club called The Hideout that featured many of the talented bands from the area, such as The Fugitives, The Mushrooms (featuring a young Glen Frey), Doug Brown & The Omens (with then unknown Bob Seger on lead vocals) and Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes. It didn't take other's in the area long to see that local kids where hungry to pack into these clubs and dance to the dirty pop from these early primitive garage rock bands. Soon teen clubs, such as Hullabaloos, Crows Nest, Fifth Dimension, The Pumpkin and The Club, began springing up around Detroit almost as quickly as prospective bands were receiving their guitars from the Sears-Roebuck catalog.

Grande Ballroom:
Grande BallroomFrom the vital rock scene that was quickly forming in the late '60s - due largely in part by the teen clubs in the area - the need for a larger venue for rising local talent, as well as major touring acts seemed inevitable. The Grande Ballroom was the answer to this need. Patterning the large venue after the successful West Coast hippie vibe of concert halls such as the Fillmore and the Avalon, The Grande became the place to see not only the MC5, Iggy & The Stooges and Alice Cooper in their infancy, but national touring acts, such as The Doors, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Cream, as well. Although popular in its heyday in the late '60s, by the early '70s The Grande closed its doors due to competing venues and money problems. Listen carefully as you drive by this vacant, shelled-out building today and you may just hear the faint thunder of drums and piercing guitar wails echoing from the broken windows of this great early rock 'n' roll shrine.

Other notable Detroit area artists from the '60s and '70s:
Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, Brownsville Station, ? and The Mysterians, Grand Funk Railroad, George Clinton and Funkadelic, Dell Shannon, Rare Earth.

1980 and '90s
Techno music

Out of the urban decay of Detroit came a new form of futuristic music in the mid-'80s. Hypnotic, repetitive and hard not to get caught in its frenetic web of electro beats and swirling synths, Techno got its start in the Detroit dance clubs. While unknown outside of underground circles, early pioneers such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes, are, nonetheless, revered among all-night ravers worldwide. Funny, though, how music this icy can still get dancers so sweaty some twenty years later.

The Gories
This three piece outfit, featuring Mick Collins (vocals / guitars), Dan Kroha (guitar) and Peggy O'Neill (drums), lit the powderkeg for the current Detroit rock revival when they started performing their punked-up R&B back in 1986. (Howling guitars, no bass, girl drummer; remind you of anyone?)

Other notable Detroit area artists from the '80s and '90s:
Madonna, Eminem, Marshall Crenshaw

Detroit Garage rock (revisited)

White StripesSimilar to Seattle in the early '90s, Detroit is currently attracting its far share of attention from the media and music lovers alike. The DirtbombsUnlike Seattle, however, which became synonymous with the Grunge movement with bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, Detroit doesn't yet have a convenient moniker - other than the rather broad term "garage rock," which has been in use since the middle '60s. That doesn't seem to bother the virtually hundreds of artists and bands that intermingle, swap bandmembers, shoot each other's album covers, and open up their houses to one another, though. There's a refreshing camaraderie and friendly give-and-take attitude between many of the artists. The list of gritty rock bands that are blasting out of Detroit at the moment is astronomical: The Dirtbombs(formed by The Gories' Mick Collins), Soledad Brothers, The Electric Six, The White Stripes, Bantam Rooster, Brendan Benson, The Greenhornes, The Hentchmen, The Detroit Cobras, The Von Bondies, The Paybacks, Rocket 455, The Clone Defects, The Come Ons and it seems that the list keeps growing everyday.
"The Motor City is burning, babe!," cried MC5's Rob Tyner back in 1968, and 35 years on it's still burning as hot as ever.

The Clubs and venues today:
The Majestic / Magic Stick

(4120 Woodward Ave) Hip theatre /club / bar / bowling alley complex where at lot of out of town and local rock acts come to play.

Lager House
(1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit) Dinky and dank, this is the perfect dive to catch today's Detroit garage bands before they make it big.

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