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There’s an old joke that the best thing about Detroit is the freeway leading out of the city. This is not very fair, but it does capture a recurring theme in the musical history of Detroit: escape.
In the 60s, working class kids in Detroit faced a lifetime on the production lines; many of them threw themselves into rock music with a fierce determination to escape their drab fate on the factory floor; their teenage desperation is reflected in the aggressive sounds of the MC5, the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes and a dozen other garage bands.
The gritty hard rock culture of Detroit was documented by Creem Magazine in the 70s, particularly in the work of the magazine’s Lester Bangs, who championed the work of local garage band heroes like ? and the Mysterians, the MC5 and the Stooges. It was Lester Bangs who (along with British rock writers, like Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray) who articulated the punk/trash aesthetic and basically wrote the manifesto for the next wave of punks in the 70s.
Detroit also produced the slick soul sounds of Motown. But even the glossy pop sophistication of Motown was driven by the energy of kids who were determined to escape the poverty of the public housing projects.
Motown itself escaped from Detroit’s inner city urban decay in the early 70s, when the label moved west to LA (but somehow the music lost its special edge under the Californian sunshine).
In the late 80s, techno musicians like Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May, urged listeners to forget the urban decay around them with hypnotic electronic mantras that propelled them into an alternative universe in the dance clubs. This tradition of escape through the Groove (sometimes with chemical assistance) has some of its roots in the surreal psychedelic funk of Detroit’s influential Parliament/Funkadelic.
The Hideout (20542 Harper, Harper Woods)
In May 1964, two young music promoters, Dave Leon and Ed "Punch" Andrews, rented a hall in Harper Woods and opened the Hideout Club, to showcase a promising young band called the Fugitives. The Fugitives didn’t get very far, but the club became the core of the exploding Detroit pop music scene of the 60s.
Regular performers included Ted Nugent, Glen Frey (later of the Eagles), Bob Seger, and the Chosen Few (featuring Scott Asheton, later of the Stooges); and behind the counter worked a young Suzi Quatro. The club closed down in 1967, and the site is now occupied by an office building.
Motown / Hitsville USA (2648 West Grand Boulevard)
Some of the most magical moments in the story of pop music were recorded in the basement of this very ordinary looking, two-storey clapboard house. In the tiny downstairs recording studio (known as the Snakepit), Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations and dozens of other sorcerers of soul, recorded some of Motown’s greatest hit songs.
The studios were built by Berry Gordy in 1959. He lived upstairs while the bands recorded downstairs, and later they expanded to open a publishing office next door (which now displays Motown memorabilia). The label moved to LA in 1972, but somehow they never quite recaptured the intensity of their Detroit years.
The building is open daily between 10 am and 5 pm, except on Sundays and Mondays, when it opens at 2 pm.
Grande Ballroom (8952 Grand River Ave)
Some people (including Henry Rollins) consider the MC5’s first album one of the best albums in the history of rock music. It was recorded during their 1968 Halloween shows at the Grande Ballroom.
The Ballroom as opened on 6 October 1966 (by coincidence, the day LSD was criminalised by the American authorities) by high school teacher and part time WKNR DJ, “Uncle” Russ Gibb.
The venue regularly featured the hard-core punk sounds of the MC5, the Psychedelic Stooges and the Amboy Dukes over the six years that the Ballroom operated, until it closed in 1972.
The Ballroom was built in the 1920s in the style of a moorish palace, featuring lots of ornate plaster work and a dance floor which was supported by big springs. The ballroom fell into disuse in the 50s and early 60s, until Russ Gibbs reopened it.
Today, the Grande Ballroom building is still standing, but it is abandoned.
The Music Institute (1315 Broadway)
Derrick May's dance club in the 80s.
Trans Love Energies Commune (1510 Hill Street)
The MC5 were very serious about their rhetoric about youth revolution and they lived in this Hill Street commune until 1970, when they moved to a house in the countryside following the release of their last major label release, Back in the USA.
The communne was located in the middle of the bohemian zone surrounding Wayne State University (the commune also included households at numbers 1520 and 1522).
The commune was founded by John Sinclair, poet, jazz fan and activist, who became the manager of the MC5. Sinclair was sent to jail for 10 years in 1969 for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. He served 3 years of his sentence, until he was released after the State Supreme Court reduced the maximum penalty for his crime to 6 months.
During his imprisonment, a number of Free John Sinclair rallies were held, including one attended by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Dec 1971 at Cisler Arena (Uni of Michigan). Other performers at the rally included Commander Cody, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Ochs, Stevie Wonder, and political activist Jerry Rubin on bongos.
The Stooges’ House (Packard and Eisenhower Streets)
The band rented this grand old house with their advance from Elektra. A bank now occupies the site.
Belleville High School (501 W Columbia Ave, West Detroit)
Three of the creators of Detroit’s techno music scene went to school together at Belleville: Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins (Carl Craig, who was part of the next wave of techno, went to school over at Cooley High, 15055 Hubbell St).
Their genius was in acquiring the cheapest second hand musical equipment they could find (particularly a failed bass synthesiser and obsolete drum machine made by Roland) and pushing this redundant equipment to its limits.
The music they created in the late 80s swept the globe, but ironically, there are few places in Detroit today where techno music can be heard – it is all but ignored in the city where it was first manufactured.
Old Mariner's Church (170 E Jefferson Ave)
This is the church where former guitarist with the MC5, Fred “Sonic” Smith, married Patti Smith in 1980 and where his funeral was held in 1994, after he died of a heart attack. A memorial to Smith was erected outside the church: a simple motif of 2 crosses on an anchor.
Michigan Theatre (Corner Bagely and Grand River Aves)
This theatre was where the Stooges recorded their live album Metallic KO. The building still stands, but it has now been converted into a car park, however traces of the old theatre can still be seen.
Jackie Wilson’s Grave (Westlawn Cemetary, 31472 Michigan Ave, Wayne)
Wilson was a soul musician who became a cult figure for British mods in the early 60s. Van Morrison and Dexy's Midnight Runners mentioned him in song. He died in Jan 1984, and one of his early classics, Reet Petite, became a world wide hit in 1986 (after it was adopted as an advertising soundtrack by the Levi clothing company).
Roseland Cemetery, Berkley, Michigan
Rob Tyner, singer with the MC5 died of a heart attack on September 18, 1991. Tyner's headstone was designed by poster artist, Gary Grimshaw. The inscription "Let Me Be Who I Am" is a lyric from the MC5's anthem Kick Out the Jams. Tyner was buried wearing an MC5 T-shirt.
Iggy Pop’s Childhood Home (Lot 96, Coachville Garden Mobile Home Court, 3423 Carpenter Rd, Ypsilanti, Michigan)
Young James Osterberg grew up in a trailer park about five miles across town from his young friends Ronny and Scotty Asheton.
Jimmy became drummer with local show band, the Iguanas (and was later christened Iggy by a Detroit record shop owner / producer Jeep Holland - ). Iggy went on to recruit his childhood friends Ron and Scott, and together they created a new kind of primal industrial blues under the name the Psychedelic Stooges.
The Stooges were vilified by hippies of the late 60s and then went on to become idolised by punks of the late 70s.
Days Inn (2207 W Bristol Rd, Flint)
This is the actual motel where Keith Moon drove a car (a Lincoln Continental in fact) into a swimming pool – a famous moment in rock history, although the accuracy of the story has been debated for many years.
Despite being terribly drunk, Moon remembered enough of his high school physics to wait calmly in the submerged car, until it filled up with water, which equalised the pressure between inside and outside and he was able to easily open the door and swim safely to the surface.
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