Thursday, June 04, 2009

Detroit Breakdown

If you're looking for the ultimate case study in American urban decay, look no further than Detroit. The only major city in the United States to sit directly north of Canada (thanks to a bend in the river) has been heading south for several years now, and today finds itself in dire straits. This week's news that General Motors is officially bankrupt is just the latest bruise to the Motor City's ego.

I went to Detroit a few years ago for the Super Bowl. I'd heard all the stories, but found a city that, while troubled, was trying to look up under the leadership of a charismatic young mayor. But since then Kwame Kilpatrick has been booted from office and served time following a cringe-inducing sex scandal, and what is left of the city's major industry is now crumbling as the automakers suffer the full force of the economic downturn. Such is the extent of urban flight out of Detroit that the entire city of San Francisco would now fit in the empty lots left behind. It all adds up to a frightening picture, told in all its misery here, and with a little more humour here.

Faced with this barrage of bad news, I wanted to focus on what Detroit does have to shout about, not least its stellar musical history. We'll start with maybe the least obvious one of the lot. Detroit came to be known for the Motown sound and a string of garage bands, but before all of that it was home to John Lee Hooker, the Mississippi-born ex-sharecropper who found his way North to work for Ford after serving in World War II. Chicago was where most of the northern Blues scene was centered, but Detroit had its own little enclave in Black Bottom, and Hooker was its king.

John Lee Hooker - Hobo Blues (I'm John Lee Hooker, 1960)

And then came Motown. From its founding in 1960 to its eventual move to Los Angeles 12 years later, Motown dominated Detroit's music scene and became one of the great stories in American recording history. Though not quite on the same rustic scale as Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis, Berry Gordy's original business model was simplicity personified as artists flooded to 2648 West Grand Blvd 22 hours a day to record, most often with the Funk Brothers as their backing band to provide the consistent Motown Sound of pop-based soul music

Because I'm putting this together, Diana Ross & The Supremes are conspicuous by their absence, but here's five of the best from Motown.

Junior Walker & The All-Stars - (I'm A) Road Runner (Shotgun, 1965)

Marvin Gaye - This Love Starved Heart of Mine (It's Killing Me) (Love Starved Heart - Rare and Unreleased, 1994)

Barbara McNair - Lone Lonely Town (Ultimate Motown Collection, 2004)

The Four Tops - Reach Out, I'll Be There (Reach Out, 1967)

Stevie Wonder - Superstition (Talking Book, 1972)

As the 60s went on, Detroit became home to another sound, somewhere towards the opposing end of the scale to Gordy's sweet soul. And much more up my street. Detroit would become home to some of the greatest garage rock bands of all time, emerging from the rock 'n' roll scene that sprang up in the middle of the decade. My personal favourites would be Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, who combined the garage sound with blue-eyed soul as they ripped through a series of cover versions of soul and blues classics. Then came the likes of the Amboy Dukes and Frijd Pink who brought in a touch of psychadelia, before the Stooges and MC5 took over with a harder edge. Also tagged on here are Destroy All Monsters, a band from nearby Ann Arbor who would become a semi-retirement home for ex-Stooges and MC5 members, and ultimately destroyed only themselves. 'Bored', their first proper single, was released in 1978 when the cracks were already showing despite the arrival of former Stooge Ron Asheton and MC5 bassist Michael Davis.

The Amboy Dukes - Baby Please Don't Go (The Amboy Dukes, 1967)

Frijd Pink - House of the Rising Sun (Frijd Pink, 1970)

The Stooges - I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges, 1969)

MC5 - Motor City Is Burning (Kick Out the Jams, 1969)

Destroy All Monsters - Bored (Bored, 1978)

Eminem aside, Detroit's music scene of late has been dominated by descendents of these garage bands, mostly thanks to the huge success of the White Stripes (even if it took until the third album for the world to sit up and take notice). Jack White is at the centre of most of this music, as the Detroit Cobras began life on his Sympathy for the The Record Industry label, as did the Von Bondies. White produced their debut, Lack of Communication, and championed the band until it all turned ugly in a brawl and they went their separate ways. Brendan Benson stands out for his pop sound, but then hooked up with White in the Raconteurs. The Bellrays stand to one side, but are clearly mining from the same rich seam of Detroit's musical history.

The White Stripes - Hello Operator (De Stijl, 2000)

The Detroit Cobras - Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat) (Baby, 2005)

The Von Bondies - Lack of Communication (Lack of Communication, 2001)

Brendan Benson - Spit It Out (The Alternative To Love, 2005)

The Bellrays - Detroit Breakdown (Have A Little Faith, 2006)

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