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Detroit Rock City

Robert Downes - October 12th, 2006
If you’re a baby boomer who grew up listening to the sound of Detroit’s fabulous rock bands of the late ‘60s, you’re sure to enjoy the drive down memory lane with “Grit, Noise and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
Recently issued in paperback by author and Royal Oak native David A. Carson (University of Michigan Press, $17.95), the book begins with blues pioneer John Lee Hooker arriving in Detroit in 1943 and chronicles the birth of the city’s blues scene along with the rise of Motown.
But those chapters are just the appetizer for the main course involving the cornucopia of gritty, blue collar rock starting in the mid-’60s that put Detroit on par with the rock scenes of San Francisco and London.
Yet, therein lies a tragic tale. Although Detroit’s homegrown bands such as The Rationals, SRC, The Amboy Dukes and the Detroit Wheels often blew more famous visiting bands off the stage, unfortunately, most of the Motor City’s bands never made the mark they deserved on the national scene.
“Grit, Noise and Revolution” chronicles the rise and fall of Detroit’s rock scene and its genesis in a network of teen clubs ranging from the Hideouts in the Detroit suburbs to the Ponytail in Harbor Springs.

The importance of the Grande Ballroom gets special treatment. The Grande was established by junior high school English teacher and visionary disc jockey Russ Gibb, who was influenced by a visit to the Fillmore West rock palace in San Francisco. Located in a slum neighborhood on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, the Grande served as an incubator for many Detroit bands who warmed up for acts such as The Who, Cream, The Doors, Pink Floyd and scores of others. Originally a big band hall built in 1930 with a floating wooden dance floor, the Grande eventually degenerated into a virtual drug market with gross bathrooms that was ultimately deemed too shabby even for its audience of long-haired teen “freaks.”
But it was here that legends were made, such as the MC5, who served as The Grande’s house band. Much of Carson’s book involves the rise and fall of the MC5, who had the potential to be “the greatest rock band in the world,” with countless true-believer fans. One of rock’s greatest live albums was recorded at the Grande over a two-show period in October, 1968, with the MC5’s rallying cry to “Kick out the jams....!”
Unfortunately, the MC5 became entangled in the anarchist politics of John Sinclair’s Trans-Love Energies collective of artists, which morphed into the politically-naive White Panther Party. The party platform advocated sex in the streets, drug use and rock & roll as tools to revolutionize the world. That approach proved to be a roadmap for failure, and after Sinclair was shipped off to prison for marijuana possession, the MC5 found themselves rudderless and drifting into heavy drug use. Their second album, produced by rock critic John Landau, was a thinly recorded bomb.

Carson’s book also details the rise of the hippie culture of Plum Street in Detroit in tandem with the music scene. Here are sketches of John Sinclair, Russ Gibb, and promotors such as Jeep Holland, Terry Knight and Berry Gordy, among many others.
Although the MC5 gets well-deserved treatment as the centerpiece of the book, Carson also tells the story of bands such as Frijid Pink, SRC, Bob Seger’s bands, Third Power, Savage Grace, Iggy and the Stooges, The Frost, Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, Del Shannon, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad. Plus, Carson offers an epilogue to describe what happened to the bands after Detroit’s heyday.
There’s much more in the book: the importance of WABX-FM in launching “underground” radio and creating the template for album-length rock; the role of the “Fifth Estate” underground newspaper and “Creem” magazine; the dastardly dealings of music promoters; the 1967 riot in Detroit and the ‘68 riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; Michigan rock festivals and more. Carson’s short-and-sweet approach gives you a global view of the times and its main players without overwhelming you with information. Indeed, many of his subjects are worthy of entire books in themselves.

Ultimately, Detroit’s rock scene seems to have been hamstrung by its midwestern location, which was far removed from the media currents of the east and west coasts.
Often, as in the case of Bob Seger’s regional hit, “Heavy Music,” a band from Detroit would have a smash single in Michigan, but extremely poor distribution of its albums across the country. The MC5 (among other bands) went on tour to promote its album only to learn that record stores in cities such as San Francisco didn’t have it in their racks.
Some bands, such as Grand Funk Railroad and Frijid Pink, took their shows on the road nationally and came back to Detroit as stars while the likes of the MC5 and the Stooges were dumbfounded by their success, Carson writes. On the other hand, Alice Cooper arrived in Detroit as a virtual refugee from the west coast and was received with open arms by a Motor City audience who instantly “got” what he was trying to do with shock-rock theater long before the likes of Kiss or Marilyn Manson. His breakout hit, “Eighteen,” made Cooper a national star.

So what killed Detroit, Rock City?
Several factors: In the early ‘70s, the drinking age in Michigan was temporarily lowered to 18, resulting in the death of many teen clubs that couldn’t compete with bars. In turn, bars wanted dance music, rather than the art rock of groups such as SRC.
The impact of hard drugs also took its toll, as some musicians and their fans went from using pot and LSD to heavier drugs, including shooting heroin and smoking dope laden with horse tranquilizers.
The corporate influence on music also did its part to kill Detroit’s scene, Carson notes. Promoters of powerhouse groups from outside the area opted out of hiring Detroit bands to warm up their tours. And the free-form radio experiment of WABX fell by the wayside as FM radio developed its corporate playlist approach that cut out local talents.
Drugs, alcohol, corporatism, greed -- all played a hand in killing the scene as venues such as the Grande and the Eastown shut down and bands such as the MC5 fell apart. The golden age of Detroit rock flowered and died in a period from 1965-1972.
“I guess you could look at the MC5 at that point as an allegory for what was happening in Detroit,” says MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer towards the end of the book. “It went from being a boomtown to guns, heroin, and murder. An urban nightmare.”
But still, a great read. And if you happen to have been a part of that scene as a teenage fan, “Grit, Noise and Revolution” is impossible to put down.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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