The text that follows is a modifed version of the handout distributed at the event. Will post Chinese translation when I have it, plus pics of the event afterward.
Selections for HomeShop: Music from Detroit and Michigan
A group of us are starting out on about twenty days of travel and research through different parts of China, beginning with a week in and around Beijing. Four of us come from current homes in the midwestern part of America, specifically the states of Wisconsin and Illinois. Together and separately, we have been writing and making art about the many ways that the economies, social movements, and institutions based or begun in the Midwest gave birth and remain tethered to the global systems of exchange that now bind humanity in a single flow of information, capital, biology, and cultural forms. This event helps to serve the purpose of introducing ourselves to you, of telling you where we are coming from, and of describing through music another of our place obsessions, Detroit.
The music history of Detroit and lower Michigan is as rich as that of any other American region. But unlike the older musical traditions of regional America—for example, the Delta, Appalachia, or New England—the musical culture for which Michigan is known is newer. Michigan artists did not make a collective impact nationally and internationally until the 1960s. But beginning in that decade and continuing ever since, a steady stream of artists with Michigan origins have put out sounds across genres that have entertained and influenced millions of listeners far and wide, in contradistinction to the very specific and provincial characteristics of Michigan society. Obviously I can only deliver a very limited introduction in one evening, leaving scores of important artists and hundreds of outstanding songs and albums not even mentioned, much less heard. A comprehensive introduction is hopeless, and, I must emphasize, my knowledge is pretty superficial. Instead, I have brought along seven long-playing records and suggest we go deep into them. The playlist emphasizes rock but includes a significant chunk of soul. It is through these records that I can give you some idea of the culture of Michigan—a culture that is now emerging as a post-industrial present from which other places all around the world can and must learn.
The musical culture of lower Michigan was fertile in the 1960s because of several factors. First of all at the material level, the state was by then an established economic engine, creating the conditions of marketplace, education, and leisure time. The postwar generation of autoworkers, due to the long growth phase of mid-century America and to the political power of the unions, became probably the best paid working class the world had ever seen. The management and owner classes, for their part, enjoyed an overflowing affluence akin to the tech fortune amassed on the West Coast a generation later. This was the consumer/producer society in a kind of temporary and relatively stable balance, at least regionally. There were good jobs for the working kids and good universities for the bookish ones. Individual workers had not yet been deskilled but also performed the part of the mass consumer. The conditions were ripe for hugely increased local consumption and production of media in general, and of popular music in particular.
Then there was the mix of cultures, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. The massive influx of economic migrant communities over the decades of industrial expansion created in lower Michigan a northern stew unlike in any other place, especially when the proximity of Ontario is recalled. With the longtime presence of both Canadians and Mexicans, vast numbers of southern blacks and southern whites, small but intense Chinese and Korean communities, big Polish, German, Greek, Jewish, and Arab communities, the mix of cultures contributed to the trading of influences evident in the work of, for example from the 60s Mitch Ryder or the Funk Brothers, and in the 80s with the innovations of the Belleville Three. In particular, black owned media was strong early and consistently in Detroit, including in radio. In recent times the tradition of artists upholding a musical multiverse continues in the Detroit scene. For example, for those who understand southeastern Michigan it probably was not a surprise that the first white rapper to earn a large and hard-won black fanbase, Eminem, came out of the Detroit area. Similarly, African American musicians like Mick Collins keep race-based genre-definition unbalanced now, as did Question Mark and Mysterians forty years ago (in the years before the lead singer legally changed his name to “?”).
It must also be said that while the mixing took place constructively at the level of cultural innovation, on the political and economic levels there was a constant low level of class-defined strife even when times were good. Add to the primary class division the intra-class fault line between blacks and whites, plus the many lines of separation between different ethnic communities, and you see the complicated tensions present. The Detroit rebellion of 1967 was only the most dramatic and violent uprising in a social landscape made up of everyday inequalities of power, economic and political, that are being played out in the present-day politics of austerity even as we speak. So while the industrial strength and wealth of lower Michigan did not fashion a conflict-free society at all, the musical output as a whole was and is, truly, the sound of a polyrhythmic, multi-vocal, politically clued-in family of subcultures. Formally innovative, sonically seductive, bodily pulsating, emotionally uninhibited, and artistically committed, in the musical realm this was and is a literally unofficial harmonious society. And a loud one.
As a native of the state, I declare the places that I lived, Saginaw in the mid-1970s and then the suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit in the mid-1980s, amazing places to grow up with musical sounds in the air, for kids like me, grade school and then teeanage consumers of popular culture. My generation went from grooving to the national AM hits on the transistor radio—everything from Afternoon Delight to Abba and the Ohio Players—to hearing harder stuff on Detroit’s legendary free-form radio station in its late years, WABX. Lots of stations mixed local and regional acts like Grand Funk Railroad, Martha and the Vandellas, and Alice Cooper in with the national stuff, thereby launching a great many careers. Even as we studied the soul and psychedelic sounds from the earlier generation, in my young memory disco wasn’t so bad and the synth-pop/indie/alternative/punk mix that dominated the suburban 1980s also made sense. Not everybody liked everything, but in that place and in those years we were exposed to it all, and had artists we could believe who represented where we were from.
Please note! This is a sequence of tracks delivered pretty much in the order that they appear on the records. That is how we will listen to them, just like I would do at home. This whole exercise is about listening to records, not deejaying or play-list writing.
Laughing Hyenas—Life of Crime
Here We Go Again
Life Of Crime
The Stooges—Fun House
Down On The Street
100 Proof Aged In Soul—Somebody’s Been Sleeping In My Bed
Somebody’s Been Sleeping
Love Is Sweeter (The Second Time Around)
I’ve Come To Save You
Ain’t That Lovin’ You (For More Reasons Than One)
Martha Reeves—eponymous first solo LP
Power of Love
Question Mark And The Mysterians—Action
Don’t Hold It Against Me
Just Like A Rose
Do You Feel It
The Paybacks—Harder and Harder
Can You Drive
The Guide: A Random Selection of Twenty-Five Artists and Entities with Michigan and Detroit Connections
This is laughably basic list. No geeking out here. Hopefully there is a name or a factoid that my music geek friends had not known of before. But, really, this is a guide for people who have no context, no experience with the broad outlines of Michigan music history, and possibly no working knowledge of rock history in general. And yet there is a thriving rock scene in Beijing, with lots of kids going for the image, the look. Let's help them get deeper into the spirit of the thing. Dylan just played Beijing like a month ago; how is anybody supposed to get Dylan without a bit of context? It is important that we make the info available, beginning with the basics that we who grew up in America tend to take for granted. So:
1. Hank, Thad, and Elvin Jones
One of the great families of jazz, spanning pianist Hank’s mastery of the 40s and 50s styles to trumpeter Thad’s big band arranging to Elvin’s landmark work with John Coltrane and and his own groups after.
2. Mitch Ryder
One of the original rock and soul voices of Detroit, blending black soul styles and harder white rock, who came up in the mid-60s with his group the Detroit Wheels. He still performs in clubs.
A 1980s punk band from the Lansing scene whose lyrics and sound were harshly anti-authoritarian, perfect for the Reagan-era America, or, for that matter, right now. Founding singer Doc Corbin Dart remains vocally radical and antiwar.
4. Carolyn Franklin
Talented sister of Queen of Soul Aretha and daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a black preacher widely renowned for his oratorical performances from the pulpit. Along with sister Erma, Carolyn performed backing vocals for Aretha on a number of different recordings and also wrote songs for her.
5. Bob Seger System
Led by the raspy-voiced singer who came out of the Ann Arbor youth scene, the band is remembered for a hard rocking antiwar single “2+2=?” Seger later recorded the album Live Bullet at Detroit’s Cobo Arena, the last of his rock efforts before going on to mainstream success.
6. Grand Funk Railroad
A rock outfit from Flint that became one of the country’s biggest selling arena acts of the early 70s. After the group’s demise, a bunch of the alumni formed a short-lived band called FLINT.
7. Mabel John
The first female vocalist to be signed to the Tamla label, the label Berry Gordy founded before he reincorporated it as Motown. The lesser known but equally talented sister of rhythm ‘n’ blues legend Little Willie John.
Recently rediscovered proto-punk/hard rock band, with reissued lost demos and studio cuts for a mid-70s record that never happened.
Starting from the D12 crew to becoming one of the biggest selling musical artists of our time, he also starred in the 2002 movie 8 Mile, which put Detroit back into the popular consciousness as a post-industrial society and culture.
10. Detroit Cobras
For more than fifteen years Rachel Nagy and Mary Ramirez have lead a group in performing garage rock covers of obscure soul singles.
A late 60s-early 70s lost folk-soul legend who somehow gained a cult following first in Australia and then in South Africa and Latin America, in all cases years after he’d first recorded and been consigned to obscurity in the US, including in Michigan.
12. Mary Wells
The song My Guy was one of Motown’s biggest early hits and helped to establish the label. Mary Wells had record company disputes and health problems for years after that kept her career limited, passing away at age 49.
13. Sun City Girls
Though the experimental and avant garde Sun City Girls formed in Phoenix, the Bishop brothers grew up in Saginaw. Their Middle Eastern musical influences came to them through their Lebanese relatives, part of a large lower Michigan Lebanese community.
14. Jackie Wilson
Wilson was one of the most amazing singer/dancers of his generation. Even though other artists named him as an inspiration, by the time of his death in 1984 he had been largely forgotten on the popular level as an outstanding talent. Michael Jackson kept his memory alive by often citing Wilson as a key influence.
15. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
One of the Motown label’s earliest and longest-represented artists. His career with the Miracles, and as solo artist and record company executive, was celebrated with a National Medal of the Arts lifetime achievement award in 2002.
16. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
A country rock outfit from Ann Arbor with a honky-tonk barroom sound unusual for the time, and that went completely against the grain of the hard rock psychedelia of the local countercultural scene.
17. The Go
Part of the same late 90s scene that produced the White Stripes, but with a touch of psychedelia, helping to bring honest, dirty, loud guitar riff-based rock music back onto the national scene in the early 2000s.
18. The Layabouts
Originating out of the Cass Corridor scene of early 1980s Detroit, inspired by Crass, the Clash, and the new political music of that time, the Layabouts are still together today. Over the years they have played their fun but acerbic radical songs at continental anarchist gatherings, all kinds of political rallies, and countless benefits.
19. Dennis Coffey
Session guitarist from the Upper Peninsula who played as a member of the Funk Brothers on many of the Motown tracks from the labels second phase, when many of the artists were turning to a harder, acid-influenced sound. He regained critical appreciation with a new record in 2011.
20. The Up
Along with the MC5, The Up played as a house band at the Grande Ballroom, the performance space around which the late 60s Detroit counterculture centered. Unlike the MC5, they never recorded for a national label. Until a compilation of their singles was released in 1995, the band was hardly remembered and even less heard.
21. Big Mack label
A Detroit label from the 60s and 70s golden age that pressed many singles by casual semi-pro local talents over its twenty years, scoring no more than a few very minor local hits. The label’s catalogue was given the Numero Group Eccentric Soul treatment in 2006.
22. Insane Clown Posse
Using a carnival/horror concept for a tasteless hip hop act that many have never understood or taken seriously, this group with Detroit origins somehow manages to sell multiple millions of records.
23. Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival
If you see a car bumper sticker reading “See you in August!” they’re talking about this festival held on private rural land on the state’s west side, the largest and most complete of its kind. Womyn-built, womyn-sponsored, womyn-consumed, the festival has been a kind of long term practical project in constructing a temporary but perennial womyn’s world.
24. The Belleville Three
Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins were three teenagers in the early 80s living in Belleville, a suburb between Detroit and Ann Arbor, often credited with inventing the sounds that become Detroit techno. The culture born partly out of the innovations of these three lead to the establishment of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival as the first and still biggest event of its kind in the US, beginning in 2000. May and Saunderson both took a turn managing the festival.
Suburban Ferndale studio founded by musicians where dozens of Detroit artists and groups have recorded some of their most important work over the past twenty years.
John Hersey—The Algiers Motel Incident
John Sinclair—Guitar Army
Angela Jimenez—Welcome Home: Building the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival
Craig Werner—Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul