It is amazing how one's environment breeds an interest in certain musical forms, so much so that it I am surprised John Locke didn't formulate a theory on Musica Rasa. But growing up in the Detroit area in the 70's seems to have engendered a need for gritty blues, grungy metal and high-decibel hard rock. When punk overtook more trendy music scenes in New York, LA or even Chicago in the mid-to-late 70's, Detroit merely shrugged. We had done that schtick years earlier with the MC5 and The Stooges. In fact, from the 1990's onward there has been a more thriving punk community in Detroit than there ever was in the 70's or early 80's. In any case, Detroit never seemed to favor angsty, emo prats like Television, or later, The Smiths and The Cure. It never was a city for self-obsessed whiners.
In the 1960's, Detroit was known as 'Hitsville U.S.A.', an R&B Shangri-la where Motown Records churned out countless hits from the likes of The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes and The Four Tops; but by 1970, the Motor City had transformed into 'Detroit, Rock City', a mecca for the great unwashed (and seriously stoned) masses to flock for some of the best concerts on the planet. Soon, disparate acts such as David Bowie ('Panic in Detroit'), J.Geils ('Detroit Breakdown'), KISS ('Detroit, Rock City') and Dire Straits ('Telegraph Road') wrote of their touring experiences here. Pink Floyd played 'Dark Side of the Moon' in its entirety for the last time at Detroit's Olympia Stadium in 1974, and would not play it again until 20 years later at the Palace (home of the Detroit Pistons). Also, Detroit could boast of hometown artists like the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, Mitch Ryder, Parliament-Funkadelic, Smokey Robinson, Patti Smith, and so on and on. And yes, Madonna and Diana Ross came from here, but we don't mention them in polite company.
Concerts were 'happenings' back in the 1970's, major events that sent counter-cultural shock waves through the city, and the wild (some would say drug-fueled) enthusiasm of fans was definitely appreciated by the performers. Hometown proud Bob Seger made this famous comment on his mega-platinum 'Live Silver Bullet': “As I told everybody last night, I was reading in Rolling Stone where they said Detroit audiences are the greatest rock-n-roll audiences in the world....I thought to myself, 'Shit, I’ve known that for ten years!'” But that was prior to the forming of the unholy trinity of MTV, the Internet and Ticketmaster -- a tripartite axis of evil that destroyed the album format, reduced musical compositions to single units of product and placed an outrageous premium on halfhearted performances. Don't believe me? Have you been to a concert recently? After various surcharges, fees and taxes (enough to make a cellular company's billing department blush), the tickets are well over $50, then it's $10 for parking, $10 for a beer, and what do you get? a quick 90 minute greatest hits package. There's more musical substance in a Time-Life CD collection infomercial. I'm surprised musicians don't have sponsor tattoos. Gone are the long concerts with multiple encores that put folks like Seger, Tull, Floyd, Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen on the map (and if you ever went to a Bruce concert in the 70's or 80's, you'll recall he'd play for so long that audiences were begging him to stop).
Oh sure, we still have Eminem, Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker hanging around 'The D', and Jack White -- the Johnny Depp of Rock -- still makes occasional curtain calls; yet, for all intents and purposes, he has split to Nashville along with The White Stripes and his artistic affectations. It seems the old vibe -- that musical melding of funky Motown and raunchy Rock City -- is gone, and Detroit itself resembles a burnt-out crater with still-thriving suburbs huddled around its smoldering rim, peering down warily into its Stygian depths. Statistically, the surrounding suburbs have for years had far more people in them than the city proper, as increasing suburban flight led to spiraling urban blight. As for the empty acreage, there are already plans in place to open for-profit farms by corporate pioneers upon the countless blocks and blocks of vacant land in clear view of downtown. Detroit has become an urban prairie overgrown with nothingness; blank areas on a map once filled with hundreds of houses and burgeoning neighborhoods.
Nowadays, anyone with any common sense and access to a bus-line sends their kids to schools in the suburbs, and they shop in the suburbs because there are no major supermarkets or Wal-marts or shopping malls within the city limits. But there are liquor stores. Liquor stores and pawn shops. And hair salons and storefront churches. Every block still standing has a pawn shop, a liquor store, a hair and nail salon and a storefront church or two. That way, you can sell the jewelry you just snatch-and-grabbed, buy your blunts, booze and lotto, and with whatever money is left over, get gussied up in time to pray for someone else's sins. Because the problem always lies elsewhere: it was your kids that shot up the bus stop and killed several high school students; your kids that robbed the restaurant and killed the pregnant manager; your kids that car-jacked a young man, stole his wallet and left his lifeless body atop a pile of garbage in an abandoned house. We shall pray for you and your criminal children. But beyond prayer, we won't actually do anything. Action requires critical thinking, whereas faith requires nothing but mumbling to empty air. And we do not think about things we do not think about.
So, in honor of pleasant memories of a city with more abandoned buildings per capita than anywhere west of Cairo's City of the Dead, I have prominently displayed a clutch of great Detroit jams, judiciously interspersed with many other molten musical gems from all across Planet Rock for your listening (and headbanging) edification.
Rock & Roll by Mitch Ryder
-- In a previous article, I had listed the Thirteen Greatest Cover Songs; unfortunately, I had neglected this monster Mitch Ryder cover of the tepid, thoroughly nancy original by The Velvet Underground. Ryder stole it from New York, moved it to Detroit, and gave it some balls. The original sounds like a flowery commercial for a feminine hygiene product.
A Light in the Black by Rainbow
-- Works by Ritchie Blackmore show up a couple of times on this list. Whether with Rainbow or Deep Purple, Blackmore unleashed several masterful metal monsters. Recently deceased Ronnie James Dio did the vocals on this one. What? Don't be silly. He did the performance while still among the living, of course.
Green Manalishi by Fleetwood Mac
-- One of the great lost classics of the Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac of the 1960's. Personally, I consider 'Green Manalishi', as well as the original acoustic/ electric singles version of 'Oh Well' (which is unfortunately unavailable on the Internet), to be the band's greatest compositions, exceeding even songs from the hit-machine Mac of the 'Rumours' era. Judas Priest did a cover of the song in the 80's, but you'll find none of the dark nuances and eeriness of the original version. Unless, of course, you enjoy pale, utterly sterile imitations.
Kick Out The Jams by The MC5
-- The MC5 was a band whose albums weren't allowed in the house. Oh, you might be able to sneak in an Alice Cooper album (as long as you didn't play 'Dead Babies'), but the MC5? Nope. It was the profanity. Those damned curse words would get you into trouble every time. Sure, they edited this song for radio airplay, but every time Rob Tyner bellowed, "KICK OUT THE JAMS, BROTHERS AND SISTERS!" You knew what he really said, and you wanted to hear what he really said, because The MC5 was anarchic and rebellious and their manager was the leader of the White Panthers. The MC5 and The Stooges started the whole 'mosh' thing, except with punches and biting and bottles broken over your head. Good times, good times.
Bad Motor Scooter by Montrose
-- This song is from Montrose's excellent eponymous first album that literally defined the term 'hard rock'. As far as other heavy duty tunes from the same album, I could have just as well added Rock the Nation or Space Nation #5. Oh, would you look at that -- I just did.
Be My Enemy by The Waterboys
-- The Waterboys were a seriously underrated band of the late 80's. 'Be My Enemy' is on the epochal 'This is the Sea' album. Based on the downright evil lyrics in this song, singer/composer Mike Scott is obviously very pissed off at someone.
Motor City Madhouse by Ted Nugent
-- Once upon a time, prior to his conversion to paranoic, gun-toting, fire and brimstone, right-wing libertarianism -- yes, even further back in the shadowy recesses of the past, before he became a heavy-metal, bow-slinging, Tarzanish parody of himself -- Ted Nugent was a great guitarist. No, I am not kidding. Nugent once cared more for rock & roll than high-testosterone wang-dang-poontangery or politically polemical peacockery. Would that he maintained his music and muzzled his mouth.
Panic in Detroit by David Bowie
-- Everyone's favorite chameleon and a rock legend who should thank his lucky stars that he made the acquaintance of the late, great guitarist Mick Ronson. These two songs are more about Ronson's guitar than Bowie's tenor.
Bottle of Smoke The Pogues
-- I suppose someone should have mentioned to Shane MacGowan that this song has no electric guitar. The leads are with an accordion. Never mind, I am sure he was too drunk to even notice that there was music playing behind him. For an added bit of drunken trivia fun, count how many time Shane drops the F-bomb.
Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper
Is It My Body
-- The first Alice Cooper offering is 'Billion Dollar Babies' from the 1974 album of the same name. And yes, that is the Irish hippie troubadour Donovan singing along with Alice. Not necessarily my favorite Cooper, but once again a profligate record company has prohibited most of the band's studio work for use on the Internet. In irritation, and after much rummaging around, I found two wonderfully campy videos of Alice on a local Detroit TV show in November, 1971, less than a year after the album 'Love It To Death' was released (January, '71). In the same month as the low-budget TV program, Alice Cooper would release the mega-selling 'Killer' and become superstars. Amazing: two albums in one year and a jump from a local Detroit club band to international stardom. It doesn't happen like that anymore.
Mississippi Queen by Mountain
-- God bless cow bells and the Great Fatsby! Leslie West was literally a mountain of a man and he came up with one of the all-time great riffs for Mississippi Queen.
Supernaut by Black Sabbath
-- Perhaps my favorite Sabbath tune. It almost forces one to play air guitar. Which makes it difficult to type.
I Wanna Be Your Dog by The Stooges
-- Iggy Pop is Ann Arbor, Michigan's favorite son, particularly since they haven't yet found the scientific means to resurrect Bo Schembechler. But Iggy never went to U-M; in fact, based on the simplicity of his lyrics, I am not sure he finished grade school. But who needs grammar and syntax when you are Iggy Pop? He obviously dropped his original name, James Newell Osterberg, because spelling was not on his itinerary. He was more interested in smearing peanut butter on his chest and body surfing out into the audience. I love rock & roll!
Going Down by The Jeff Beck Group
-- Two stellar rock-fusion jams from Jeff Beck & Company that I can't play on the guitar, but wish I could.
Highway Star by Deep Purple
-- Back in the 70's, every aspiring young guitarist attempted the lead on 'Highway Star'. Few succeeded. This version is from 'Made in Japan', one of the best live albums ever recorded. 'Made in Japan' is also notable for one of the greatest comments ever made during a rock concert. Right before the start of a song, singer Ian Gillan asked a sound tech, "Can we have everything louder than everything else?"
Help Me Baby The Frost
-- The Frost never really made it out of Michigan; well, except for maybe guitarist Dick Wagner, who played lead on Alice Cooper's 'Welcome to My Nightmare' and Lou Reed's 'Berlin' album. The Frost's riotous concerts are legendary. Or maybe the rioters at the concerts were legendary.
Stone Cold Crazy by Queen
-- 'Stone Cold Crazy' is, as its name infers, utterly crazy; however, 'Ogre Battle' stands at the foot of the 'Mountains of Madness', blasting away at the stone until it becomes a 'Lump of Lunacy'. Not for the faint of heart, or those prone to seizures from shrieking falsetto voices.
21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson
-- Heavy metal jazz? Hard rock fusion? Psychedelic electric Coltrane? Whatever you categorize this frenetic piece of acid jazz, there is no better jam, past, present or future. And I should know, I am sibyllic.
The House of the Rising Sun by Frijid Pink
-- Something about the vibrato vocal screeching and fuzz-toned guitars makes this cover by Detroit-based Frijid Pink particularly special. This song actually hit the top ten in the U.S. in 1970, which just goes to show you how much music has changed in 40 years. An argument could be made quite convincingly that it has not changed for the better. Strike that. I don't even have to argue the point.
Rocky Road To Dublin by Young Dubliners
-- Just when you thought it was safe to go back into your local pub: heavy metal Irish folk music!
Too Rolling Stoned by Robin Trower
-- You've heard of death by chocolate? This is death by Trower, burying you in a mountainous mess 'o' blues. If your home stereo has a good subwoofer, at high enough bass levels you can make your neighbors have bowel movements: "Margaret, I've just shit my La-Z-Boy! Damn that Robin Trower!"
Footstompin' Music by Grand Funk
-- The only organ-centric tune on this list is a keeper from the band from Flint, Michigan. They were really big in the 70's, but they have unfortunately gone the way of the dodo and the cowbell.
Trampled Underfoot by Led Zeppelin
-- Two heavy songs from the two best Zeppelin albums: 'Physical Graffiti' and 'Led Zeppelin IV' (aka 'ZoSo' or 'Volume IV', whatever). 'Trampled Underfoot' is exactly what its name implies, a devastating barrage of funk and John Bonham battering his kit, and 'Black Dog' has one of the best extended guitar lines ever.
Hymn #43 by Jethro Tull
-- So many songs, so little time. The problem with Tull is that, even at their heaviest, their songs variate time signatures, tone and mood so often that it's difficult to pick a song that can be defined strictly as a 'jam' in a hard-rocking sense.
The Great White Buffalo The Amboy Dukes
-- The Amboy Dukes and their Motor City Madman guitarist, Ted Nugent, hit it big in the 60's with Journey to the Center of Your Mind, but that song just isn't loud enough for this list. Nugent's crazy cover of Chuck Berry's 'Maybelline' is the most spastic version ever recorded.