Monday, November 19, 2007

Grit Noise and Revolution - The Birth of Detroit Rock'n'Roll by David A. Carson

This book is a comprehensive overview of the Detroit r’n’r scene which basically started in the 40’s with the unique blues sounds of John Lee Hooker. Moving into the 50’s, vocal groups such as Hank Ballard and Thee Midnighters and Andre Williams (as a member of the Don Juans) were bursting from the streets and taking over the country. Of course, the 60’s is when Detroit literally exploded musically, culturally and politically.

As much of a fanatic as I am regarding Detroit r’n’r, there is plenty in here that I knew nothing about and the stories are augmented by some amazing pictures. I am particularly enamored with a couple of amazing photos of the early Bob Seger System playing a small club and looking like some of the trashiest rockers from any underground scene instead of the slick performer that he became.

But, I’m getting ahead of the book here. The 60’s start out in Detroit with Berry Gordy forming the Tamla record label, which would eventually evolve into Motown Records. The r’n’b scene grew with greats such as Della Reese, Barrett Strong, Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson coming out of the city.

The early local r’n’r movement of the late 50’s and early 60’s included such bands as Johnny and the Hurricanes and solo artists such as Del Shannon. David tells the story of a young white singer names Billy Lee who was turning heads in the black, r’n’b community. Once he hooked up with the local band, the Rivieras, they took Detroit by storm – blowing away national acts that they would regularly open for. Eventually, they were brought to New York to record and their manager didn’t like the name, so opening the phone book, changed Billy Lee to Mitch Ryder and the band to the Detroit Wheels. Their first single was a country-wide smash, “Jenny Take a Ride”.

As the 60’s continued, more and more bands came up from the ranks. Suzi Quatro led the sexy, sassy and talented all-female Pleasure Seekers, who recorded the oft-covered teen anthem to drinking “What a Way to Die”. The Rationals, led by Scott Morgan (later of Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and who is still playing to this day), broke out with their brand of white-boy r’n’b. Question Mark and the Mysterions took over the nation with their smash “96 Tears”. Carson recounts many of the other Detroit bands’ local hits, as well.

There is a return to the immensely influential Motown Records story in one chapter, listing many of the artists as well as the local white boys' reactions to the grooves. Bassist James Jamerson is especially cited as a big influence among many musicians throughout the city as well as the country.

The next section documents the rise of John & Leni Sinclair and the Detroit Artists' Workshop, as well as their growing relationship with aspiring rockers, the MC5. As this association evolved into Trans-Love Energies, it became more involved in the local music scene as a management team, graphic artists creating band posters, rehearsal space and more. The rise of the all-important Grande Ballroom is also given plenty of space.

The Detroit riots of '67 are detailed in the following chapter, including the author's reminiscence of almost driving right into the middle of the melee! This affected pretty much everyone in the city one way or another and certainly worked its way into the sounds emanating from the locals.

Carson focuses on the Detroit scene that we all know and love and as such he detailed the meteoric rise of sudden fall of the MC5. They seemed to be poised to take over the music world when the backlash hit and hit hard. In hindsight, they made incredibly bad choices, as well, but they were caught up in the times and weren't necessarily thinking of their "careers". Sad to think where this world might have gone if the MC5 had become popular! Hard to even imagine...

As he has throughout the book, he continues to discuss the importance of media to the scene. Obviously, the AM and FM radio stations and DJs were extremely important, and he also catalogs the start of Creem magazine - one of the best r'n'r rags ever.

Some time is naturally spent on the late 60’s white soul bands that gained nationwide popularity such as Flaming Ember with "Westbound #9" and Rare Earth and their versions of Motown's (the label that they were signed to) "I Know I'm Losing You" and "Get Ready".

Terry Knight in the Pack went through many evolutions before becoming Grand Funk Railroad, which made their mark in other parts of the country while Detroit thought of them as minor traitors for not building their reputation in the city first. Unfortunately, too many local bands who did well in city never broke out of those confines.

Another band featuring Detroit-born Vincent Furnier had actually started in Phoenix as Alice Cooper, where the singer moved as a child, put out two albums on Frank Zappa's Straight Records in LA and then returned to Detroit due to the reception they would receive when they would play there and the fact that they related to the local scene. About this time, their Love It To Death LP was released and local radio station CKLW broke their fantastic single "(I'm) Eighteen". That grew exponentially until it was another nationwide hit from the Detroit area.

But bands like Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad were the exception to the rule and as the MC5 was crashing and burning in a haze of drugs, so was the entire Detroit scene. Heroin came into the picture and destroyed many bands. Clubs and ballrooms could no longer make ends meet, corporate rock steamrollered over the small bands and even Motown Records left the city.

While bands still formed and found places to play, the amazing cohesive scene never again was recreated and while some groups have still come from the area and risen to fame (i.e. the White Stripes), it will never be the same.

I am discovering little factual errors and typos (and some bigger ones, such as implying that Ron Asheton was still playing guitar in the Raw Power-era Stooges), so, as with most rock books, I tend to believe the gist rather than the details. But David has done some major research and tells the story in a way that draws the reader in. Well worth it to any lover of this city and the incredible music that came out of it.


Post a Comment

<< Home