Between stately art deco theaters and the haunted ruins of downtown, between 250-year-old churches and Mexicantown, across the multiethnic expanse of bars and factories, there is a rattle and an energy in the Motor City that is undeniable. And it is so powerful that you can feel it resonate when you simply stand on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown.
For a city that is at once dirty and menacing, heartbreakingly lovely and compassionate — yet segregated and brawny — there is, of course, friction. And friction makes for great narrative and song.
Detroit is a city in which it is OK to be an oddball, a place where it is OK to just be. It’s a place where everyone has a tale to tell. It is town that is so far-removed from time and place that its heart beats completely out of rhythm with the rest of the world.
Perhaps that’s why Detroiters are smarter than most, particularly when it comes to music. The city isn’t pretentious like Los Angeles or haughty like New York City, but it has the musical literacy of both places combined. Detroit has a hard-nosed, hard-won, blood-on-the-tracks wisdom. A well of insight that its artists continue to survive on, continue to add to.
Smokey Robinson could never figure out what it was that made this city so musically literate. He laughed and blamed it on the water.
It makes sense then that Detroit continues to gift the world with real, life-altering musical artistry. This bizarre mix of ethnicity, culture, empathy and blue-collar tradition has bestowed upon the world some of most brilliant R&B and rock ’n’ roll records ever made.
Maybe it’s the friction.
Whatever it is, we’ve composed a list of R&B and rock ’n’ roll records that we think shook the world in some way, that generated new genres and cast dramatic light across cultural landscape.
What Detroit has given us is immense. Think of the Temptations, Grand Funk Railroad, the Romantics, Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Mitch Ryder, MC5, even Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes. Think about the should-have-been-huge bands like the Rockets, the Frost, the Tornados, the Mutants. The list goes on and on, and the aforementioned aren’t even in our Top 10.
Neither is MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” the quintessential Detroit rock ’n’ roll record to many fans. For all its socio-political impact (the White Panther, John Sinclair, dope-and-fucking-in-the-street thing), we don’t think it had the same far-reaching effect as, say, the Stooges’ first record or the others here. And that’s what we looked for, the far-reaching effects. The friction.
So take a look at what our group of editors came up with, and let us know which hip-shaking, mind-blowing records would make your own top 10:
• Alice Cooper's Love It to Death nailed the hippie coffin shut and ushered in a whole new era of rock ’n’ roll.
• In "Boogie Chillen", John Lee Hooker anticipates by almost 20 years that world-famous Motor City prime directive: Kick out the jams!
• Perhaps no other LP crystallized the countercultural aesthetic quite so deftly as Funkadelic’s self-titled debut... They took the funk national.
• Before Eminem's Slim Shady LP, the only white faces associated with hip hop were a joke.
• Motown’s constant stream of distinct musical personalities and amazingly sexy singles delivered Detroit to a brave new world.
• Madonna's self-titled debut hit the shelves as MTV was catching on, as disco waned and just after punk gave way to New Wave.
• The eight-song Stooges debut album is the first punk rock record — at once spare and haunting, brimming with sex and raw as fuck-all.
• Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You signaled the arrival of the new kind of voice, a rallying cry for feminism, sexual liberation and racial equality.
• One of the most amazing albums ever made, Marvin Gaye's What’s Going On is an intimate lesson in contemporary urban black history.
• Mick Collins and Carl Craig talk about the influence of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions — it's the sound of an artist at the peak of his powers.Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at [email protected]