Ah Detroit. Motown. Home of the Stooges, the MC5, “the Sound of Young America”. Soul meets Punk meets revolution. Today the scene of the biggest blues revival in popular music. What more exciting and legendary music city is there in western music?
Situated in the far North of the USA in the State of Michigan, across Lake Erie from Canada, Detroit has always been a mixing pot for different cultures. When slavery was abolished in the North but not the South black slaves flooded North and the liberalism and relative open-mindedness of Detroit made it a favourite settlement. Jobs in the famous car construction factories were another pull, the 40’s and 50’s were the boom periods for General Motors and Detroit was a rapidly growing city. Jazz and blues clubs sprang up all over the city; The Flame Show Bar was one of these, opening in 1949. Berry Gordy and his family were in-charge of photo concessions at the club and the multitude of black and white stars were to play a large part in Gordy’s early musical education. By late 1957 Berry Gordy had his first commercial success when he co-wrote “Reet Petite” for Jackie Wilson. Next year Gordy began the first incarnate of his record label, Tamla Motown was born and the first group on the roster were Smokey Robinson’s Miracles.
The early sixties saw steady if unspectacular progress for the newly named Motown records but by 1965 through 70 Motown would become one of the most well-known record labels in the world. In the 70’s the label would move to LA and this saw a vast down turn in quality emitting from the label, a coincidence? Home-grown talent such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops etc. were Motown’s staple, the list goes on. The rise from obscurity to world-wide stardom for these poor black kids from Detroit was inspiring not just for black Detroiters. The late 60’s saw an explosion of white bands playing rock n’ roll influenced equally by the English invading bands like The Rolling Stones and The Animals as by Motown. Mitch Ryder was an early example of Detroit rock n’ roll, ballsy garage rock with a distinctly soulful undercurrent. Ryder even fronted an all black band known as the Peps, showcasing Detroit’s racial diversity and comparable harmony. The Sonics were another early exponent of the ‘Detroit rock sound’. Raw and unhinged, The Sonics would cover artists such as Rufus Thomas and The Coasters but deliver the songs with rock n’ roll abandon. These artists were instrumental in the arrival of two of Detroit’s most famous bands, The Stooges and The MC5.
Formed in 1964 while still in high school, The Motor City 5 grew up on Motown, British invasion rock n’ roll, Mitch Ryder and The Sonics. In 1966 the MC5 began regularly playing at the famous Grande Ballroom where they were soon noticed by radio host and political activist John Sinclair. Sinclair along with bringing political awareness and a revolution mindset to the band also introduced them to the avant-garde, artists like Sun Ra and John Coltrane. Funk legend George Clinton was discarded by Motown and also played regularly with the MC5 as he was based in Detroit, once again highlighting the city’s multiculturalism. The close relationship the band had with Sinclair’s ‘White Panther Party’ would prove both electric and troublesome. Shows would often end up in riots and even ones that didn’t sounded like riots. Revolution rock n’ roll was the MC5’s speciality and no band could compete. Except maybe the Stooges…
The Stooges were signed to Elektra in 1968 when a scout went to Detroit to see The MC5 and ended up signing both bands. Fronted by the maniacal Iggy Pop, The Stooges were revolutionary in every sense, Ron Asheton’s feedback drenched riffs along with the pulsating tribal rhythms were revolutionary on their own but it was Iggy who always stole the show. Like a man possessed he possessed a confrontational style much copied since but never bettered.
The MC5 and The Stooges have gone on to influence countless artists, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and more recently the White Stripes, holders of the Detroit rock flame.