11 bands that shaped Detroit punk, from MC5 to the White Stripes
Detroit in the 1950s and ‘60s was a “boomtown,” according to MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. “It was the manufacturing center of the world,” he wrote in the October 2003 issue of Mojo magazine. “If you wanted it built, we could build it in Detroit. Jobs were there for anyone willing to put in an honest day’s work, and those jobs held the city together. A real Norman Rockwell, Converse sneaker-wearing, baseball-loving place to make a life.”
"Detroit has a beat: the pounding out of Fenders, the pounding of bumpers, the day-by-day grind that made us," schoolteacher/radio DJ/rock businessman Russ Gibb told the Detroit Free Press in 2003. "You had to have the beat because even on the line, things came through with a rhythm. Every three or four minutes, that line would move, and you'd have to pound on the hubcaps. There was always a rhythm to Detroit."
Keeping that beat across three shifts for The Big Three automotive manufacturers – Ford, GM, Chrysler-Plymouth – meant you wanted to play as hard as you worked. The best soul music on the planet emerged from Detroit, in the form of Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records. A true independent success story, Gordy ran an R&B assembly line as tight as Ford Motor Company’s, out of a house at 2468 W. Grand Boulevard dubbed “Hitsville U.S.A.”
He had teams of incredible songwriters and producers, a supreme in-house rhythm section of jazz-trained killers dubbed the Funk Brothers and a basement recording studio capturing secularized gospel sounds igniting AM radios and dance floors the world over. You know the records: "Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" by the Four Tops, "Dancing In The Street" by Martha & The Vandellas, "My Girl" by the Temptations, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye. Honestly, the list of great records pouring out of Motown for its first 10 years alone is endless and astonishing. Motown truly sold soul music to the world. And it had an impact on white teens tuning up Sears guitars in Detroit garages.
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The Motor City’s garage-punk outfits of the day probably had as much Motown in their bones as carbon monoxide, and the dust rattled from the ceiling by the blast of their fuzz pedals. You can hear it when the Rationals – featuring a preternaturally good singer named Scott Morgan – howled through the Kinks’ "I Need You." It’s audible as a pre-fame Bob Seger finger snaps, moans and growls about "Heavy Music." Then there are the bands who made getting fatalistically wasted sound like the most fun thing in the world: The all-girl Pleasure Seekers, featuring a teenage Suzi Quatro and her sisters, admitted they’d take a bottle of Stroh’s over a man on "What A Way To Die." Then there’s the Amboy Dukes, whose lead guitarist Ted Nugent eventually became a heavy-metal pioneer. They made an LSD trip sound like a beer bust on "Journey To The Center Of The Mind."
The latter became one of the regular acts gracing The Grande Ballroom’s stage. Built for dance orchestras in the ‘20s, it was a mattress factory when Gibb rented it in 1966, inspired by a visit to San Francisco and seeing Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium operation. The Grande offered a forum for local talent such as Alice Cooper, the Up and SRC, frequently pairing them with touring rock monoliths such as the Who, Led Zeppelin and Cream. Gibb would also eventually invest in Creem magazine, whose visionary editor Lester Bangs helped codify the punk ethos in his gonzo writings. But no one defined punk-in-action better than The Grande’s two best-known acts…
In many ways, the story of punk begins with the Stooges, fronted by the exploding human missile named Iggy Pop. True, they were the MC5’s “little brothers” and rode the more established bands' coattails into their Elektra Records contract. There were also bands who presaged their absolute commitment to delinquent raw power — Link Wray, the Sonics, the Who. Iggy himself has pointed to the catalytic power of the Kinks’ fuzzbox classic "You Really Got Me."
But once his co-Stooge Ron Asheton abused his Fender Stratocaster through misuse of a fuzzbox and wah-wah pedal, the guitarist’s brother Scott Asheton pounded out a simple, hypnotic groove on the drums, and Dave Alexander plucked out these unadorned basslines? Pop gained a healthy pocket to lay back into and express the utter blandness and futility of low-rent American life: “No fun to be alone/Walking by myself/No fun to be alone/In love with nobody else.” Then consider his absurdist take on fronting a rock ‘n’ roll band: launching himself face-first into the third row, diving onto broken beer bottles or walking on the audience’s hands and baptizing them with peanut butter after smearing it on his chest. Yeah, this was hardly “Everybody get together/Try to love one another right now.” As he told ‘70s talk-show host Dinah Shore, “I think I helped wipe out the '60s.”
BEST HEARD ON: I Wanna Be Your Dog
There was nothing simple about the MC5, even though they were the bridge between garage bands playing local teen clubs and the furious blasting at The Grande Ballroom. They went from tight covers of Rolling Stones numbers to buying Marshall amps and wedding Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s power chords to science-fiction blues virtuosity of the Yardbirds’ Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Their sonic wizardry was then bolstered by free jazz’s intellectualized, atonal improvisation.
As Dennis Thompson exploded Keith Moon-style all over his drumkit and Michael Davis on bass bridged the gap to Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith’s twin dogfight guitars, singer Rob Tyner exhorted audiences to "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” Their live ferocity made international touring acts scared to follow them, while their rabble-rousing left-wing politics got them on the radars of the Detroit Police Dept., the CIA and the FBI. Bands ranging from Radio Birdman and the Clash to Motörhead and At The Drive-In learned more than a little from the MC5.
BEST HEARD ON: Kick Out The Jams
Sonic’s Rendezvous Band
Sonic's Rendezvous Band was the bridge between The Grande Ballroom and ‘70s punk rock. They were the convergence of many of the crucial members of Detroit protopunk’s best bands: MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, the Stooges’ Scott Asheton, Rationals vocalist Scott Morgan and the Up bassist Gary Rasmussen. Had they released more than the insanely good single "City Slang," they might have become as big as the Ramones. Posthumous live releases indicate they had strong material and a powerful sound. Alas, lack of funding and many bad tactical decisions blunted their reach, a 1978 European tour backing Iggy being the only moment they broke out of the local bars.
BEST HEARD ON: Sonic's Rendezvous Band
Destroy All Monsters
It began as an early ‘70s visual artists collective, fronted by local painter Niagara, named for a 1968 Godzilla movie, playing freeform noise assaults. With ex-Stooge Ron Asheton and MC5 bassist Michael Davis joining, they became another modern world bridge to Detroit’s protopunk roots, as well as more of a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll band. Destroy All Monsters’ punk phase also proved they could write decent, proper songs, such as their JFK assassination musing "November 22nd 1963." Since the mid-’90s, Niagara’s highly collectible pop art canvases of femme fatale imagery have gained her much art world respect and credibility.
BEST HEARD ON: Bored
“We loved the Stooges. We loved the MC5 — that kinda fast, hard, boom-boom-boom-boom! That was a big influence,” Cinecyde vocalist Gary Reichel told Detroit Punk Archive in 2018. He additionally cited the influence of science-fiction movie soundtracks in the same interview. He and childhood friend Jim Olenski (guitar) began the band in roughly late 1975, out of dissatisfaction with the day’s mainstream rock, as born out by debut single "Gutless Radio." Their Tremor Records label became a prime outlet for releases by the bands with whom they shared the Bookies stage. Their extremely well-produced 1982 debut album, I Left My Heart In Detroit City, features an enormous wide-screen guitar sound couching taut compositions such as "Don't Come Crying To Me." Reichel and Olenski continue leading Cinecyde to this day, varying the rhythm section several times over the years.
BEST HEARD ON: I Left My Heart In Detroit City
The Ramrods emerged at a basement show on East Grand Boulevard Aug. 17, 1977 - the day after Elvis Presley died. Fronted by future Creem writer Mark Norton, sonic reducers such as "I'm A Ramrod" and "Nothin' To Do In Detroit" sounded as if someone took all the tracks from Iggy And The Stooges’ Raw Power and played ‘em all simultaneously. Norton completely channeling Iggy onstage — moves, confrontationalism, the whole nine yards — didn’t hurt an iota. Neither did guitarist Peter James’ James Williamson impersonation, and bassist Dave Hanna and drummer Robert "Bootsey X" Mulrooney clearly studied the Asheton brothers. Not long-lived by any stretch of the imagination, the Ramrods were over by early 1978. But they left enough of a dent in Detroit’s psyche for local-boy-done-good Don Was to reunite them for a typically riotous appearance at a 2008 live history of Detroit music at Orchestra Hall.
BEST HEARD ON: Gimme Some Action '77-'78
Nikki And The Corvettes
A longtime local music fan going back to the halcyon days of the Stooges and MC5, Nikki Corvette was coaxed onto the stage at a club called the Red Grape, to front an ad-hoc group purpose-built for her: the Ramrods’ James and Mulrooney, and bassist Skid Marx from Flirt. Going through a few lineup changes, Nikki And The Corvettes eventually moved to L.A., signing with Bomp! Records and scratching label owner Greg Shaw’s yen for power pop. They recorded a number of releases for Bomp!, and toured nationally several times, before winding down in 1983. Corvette continues to tour and record, respected among power-pop cultists internationally.
BEST HEARD ON: Nikki And The Corvettes
Necros were one of the bands who helped usher Detroit into the hardcore era, though they began as Maumee, Ohio high school students. With Barry Henssler’s bratty bark surfing Andy Wendler’s corrosive fuzz guitar and Todd Swalla’s triple-time drums, Necros’ blur-action rock went through several bassists before Corey Rusk assumed the role. Touch and Go fanzine editors Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson fronted the money in 1981 to release four tracks from a rawer-than-raw demo they’d recorded the year before.
The resultant Sex Drive EP became the debut release from one of America’s most respected indie labels, Touch And Go Records. Followed by the I.Q.32 EP, then the classic Conquest For Death album and extensive touring, Necros became a Midwestern hardcore powerhouse. Rusk left to concentrate on running Touch And Go, as the band went on to incorporate more and more metal into their sound, becoming a brilliant hard-rock band before dissolving in the late ’80s.
BEST HEARD ON: Conquest For Death
“Negative Approach will fuck you up!” singer John Brannon yelled on the mic as he invaded Saturday Night Live’s stage. It was the final straw in getting Fear banned after their Halloween 1981 appearance on NBC’s venerable sketch comedy institution. Brannon’s own band would never get booked on SNL to begin with — too noisy, abrasive and angry, operating at speeds emphasizing their music’s resemblance to a Waring blender grinding a metal fork to bits. Their string of 1981-1982 releases on Touch And Go are some of the most brutal hardcore to come from Detroit. Brannon’s gone on to helm vicious noise outfit the Laughing Hyenas, then The Grande Ballroom-damaged Easy Action. In recent times, he’s also toured with a reconstituted Negative Approach. He remains the single angriest-sounding singer in all of rock.
BEST HEARD ON: Total Recall
“We rejected musicianship in favor of being the most butt-ugly sounding band you could be,” Gories mainspring Mick Collins told Riot Fest in 2021. Detroit punk seemed all but dead when scrappy mods Collins, fellow guitarist Dan Kroha and drummer Peggy O'Neill came along with their raggedy take on garage-rock. Shot through with their ultra-primitive musicianship and the neanderthal blues of John Lee Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor, their beyond-raw sound and deliciously undercooked albums such as Houserockin’ and I Know You Fine, but How You Doin’ took them around the world.
Their chemistry was toxic, however, with their 1992 breakup allowing Collins to move on to various fine outfits such as the Dirtbombs, as Kroha began killer bands such as Demolition Doll Rods and O’Neill headed to '68 Comeback, among others. Reunited many times over the last ten years, the Gories certainly made the world safe for the last band here.
BEST HEARD ON: I Know You Be Houserockin'
The White Stripes
A supposed brother and sister act, later revealed to be a divorced couple, bashing out a slightly more developed version of the Gories’ primitivist garage-blues on a plastic guitar and minimalist drum kit, dressed strictly in red, white and black. How could the White Stripes lose? Mind you, Jack White was a brilliant songwriter and guitarist, and Meg White’s primal bashing filled any holes in her former husband’s sonic landscapes. They helped bring garage-punk back to the mainstream and briefly reflected their spotlight onto the Detroit scene that spawned them. They didn’t create the Motor City’s punk renaissance. But they were certainly its biggest and most representative exponents.
BEST HEARD ON: The White Stripes Greatest Hits
SEE ALSO: Death, all-Black protopunks rediscovered in the last 10 years; the Punks, mid-’70s protopunks bridging The Grande and Bookies eras, yet to be rediscovered; the Boners, late ‘70s snot-punks fronted by Jerry Vile; the Mutants, irreverent, reconstituted Grande band, with future Creem writer J. Kordosh on bass; the Romantics, red leather-suited power-pop hitmakers with “What I Like About You”; the Meatmen, satirical snot-core outfit, fronted by Tesco Vee.