When you say “Detroit” it conjures images in people’s heads of ruins and urban decay. Photos and news footage of a skyline surrounded by vacant lots and piles of rubble.
But me, I think of the Detroit I spent my teenage years growing up in. The bland and boring suburbs I couldn’t wait to get out of. And get out I did, fleeing for New York as soon as I could. Spending my entire adult life bouncing back and forth between the coasts.
So, when I think of Detroit, I might think of a dead or dying city. But more likely I will remember my own, very personal version of the place. A place that was as cookie cutter as any, with the same strip malls and look-alike suburbs. The harsh winters and nasty, bug-filled summers.
But most of all, I will remember the music.
Detroit has always been a music town. Motown. STEVIE WONDER, SMOKEY ROBINSON, THE SUPREMES…But I missed all that. Don’t get me wrong, the shadow of Motown was still mighty, even in my day.
Even the most average, uninformed citizen knew who ARETHA FRANKLIN was. We weren’t complete Neanderthals, after all.
But I didn’t get much of that Motown hay day. Not even close.
What I got was this: THE STONES, THE BEATLES, LED ZEPPELIN, THE WHO and PINK FLOYD. Those five bands ruled the airwaves to a degree that would have made MICHAEL JACKSON jealous. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for much of anything else.
Keep in mind, I’m old. This was a long way back. We’re talking late-Seventies and early-Eighties, here.
NIRVANA didn’t exist yet. If you wanted “alternative rock” you had to scan to the far left of your dial. You hoped, usually in vain, to find some college radio station that would play some unknown upstart like U2 or REM.
If you wanted anything more radical than that, it took some very serious work. It was out there. But “alternative” back then was hard to come by.
Needless to say, this was also the time before EMINEM or KID ROCK. I’m sure there were already some interesting things going on in that world but I was oblivious. There could have been a whole universe of innovative house music or early hip-hop out there. I wouldn’t have had a clue. Wasn’t my thing then and still isn’t.
What I had was classic rock, Detroit style.
There was also a smattering of New Wave. But you were far more likely to hear “Stairway to Heaven” seventeen times in a day before hearing one of those bands even once. That’s just the way it was.
Yet, out of that environment came a few bands that Detroit was proud to call its own.
These bands usually weren’t great. But they had something. Ripping guitar riffs. Gravely-voiced rock n’ roll vocals. A certain catchiness that made the songs stay in your head until you could hear them again between “My Generation” and “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Their songs were part of daily life in Detroit. Bands and songs which the rest of the country usually didn’t give a damn about.
But they mattered to me and a whole lot of other people living in Detroit back then. These were no run-of-the-mill classic rock songs.
These songs were ours.
He was the “Motor City Madman.” Back then, we thought it was just an act. Given his behavior in the decades following, a lot of us aren’t so sure now. But there is one thing we could all agree on, the man could play guitar. “Stranglehold” is still a great song. The rest of the hits, like “Cat Scratch Fever,” not so much. But still. He could play and he belonged to us.
He was already a massive star back then with THE SILVER BULLET BAND. Hits like “Hollywood Nights,” “Night Moves” and “Turn the Page” had already established him as Mr. Mainstream. But what I will always be grateful to Detroit for is that they dug deep in tribute to one of their own. “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” which came out in 1968, could still be heard regularly. It was Seger back in his days with the BOB SEGER SYSTEM before all that national fame. It’s a great song, as is “2 + 2” and a couple of others off that first BOB SEGER SYSTEM album. Sadly, I think it’s out of print now.
MITCH RYDER AND THE DETROIT WHEELS
They only had a couple of big hits. There was “Devil with the Blue Dress On” from 1966 and there was “C.C. Rider” from the same year. Both were still played regularly on the airwaves in Detroit, fifteen years later. They was catchy and if they were on, I usually left them. The band would break up in 1967 and two of its members would go on to form another band that managed to make a local name for themselves. They were called THE ROCKETS.
Unlike most of the other bands on this list, THE ROCKETS never really broke out of Detroit. They remained local mainstays all through the Seventies and into the Eighties. But in Detroit, they had a real following. They could fill the same auditoriums that hosted national acts like JOURNEY, PAT BENATAR and whoever else was big back then. The Rockets meant something to Detroit and could put on a really good show. I know, I went to a few of them myself.
Talk about catchy. In 1980 THE ROMANTICS released “What I Like About You.” They had an even bigger hit in 1983 with “Talking in Your Sleep.” It was pop rock somewhat reminiscent of THE KNACK and it propelled these kids from Detroit to national stardom. For a few brief years, THE ROMANTICS could fill the largest concert venues in the country. Timeless? Not exactly. But you have to admit “What I Like About You” still puts you in a good mood despite yourself.
RHYTHM METHOD (AKA RHYTHM CORPS)
These guys were super-local. But they got big enough to be the warm up act for a lot of bigger acts that came through the city. They even toured with the above mentioned, ROMANTICS. The group were probably as well known for losing their lawsuit and having to change their name from RHYTHM METHOD to RHYTHM CORPS as they were for their music. But I always like that first RHYTHM METHOD EP when it came out in 1982. “Broken Halos” was just fine in a New Wave/Extremely Bubblegum sort of way.
“DAVID BOWIE? Like ZIGGY STARDUST, DAVID BOWIE? You do know he’s from England, right? What the hell does DAVID BOWIE have to do with Detroit?!”
Well I’m glad you asked. This: “Panic in Detroit.”
For reasons which point to the primal nature of rock fans, if an artist refers to a specific city, the people in that city love it. Just look at what happens at concerts when a rock star yells “Hello (your city here). How ya’ doing tonight?”
So, it kind of makes sense that this became one of the most heard Bowie songs on the radio in Detroit. It wasn’t quite up there with “Changes” but close. And it’s a fantastic song. Great lyrics and that unforgettable guitar riff by MICK RONSON.
It was supposedly inspired by none other than BOWIE’S friend and colleague, IGGY POP, who grew up a couple of hours away from Detroit in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He was talking to BOWIE about his experiences during the 1967 riots which tore the city of Detroit apart. Riots which separated the city center from the surrounding suburbs, and their wealth, forever.
It was the beginning of the end for Detroit. And for all its attempts at “renaissance” it has never recovered. It was already bad in the 80s. It has gotten even worse.
However, as crappy as it got in Detroit, there was the music. Good, bad or otherwise, it will always be Detroit Rock City. A name, by the way, derived from a KISS song of the same name from 1976.
It was the third single from the DESTROYER LP. Its B-Side, a mushy ballad called “Beth,” became the surprise hit. It reached #7 on the BILLBOARD charts. “Detroit Rock City” never even charted. It was completely rejected at the time. A result which somehow seems typical of anything Detroit related.
But at least we’ll always have “Cat Scratch Fever.”