This story is the fourth part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
Sure, the early ’90s grunge-era/dawn of alt-rock produced its share of Detroit bands that had national impact, but that impact was only fleeting. And of these bands, only one, Charm Farm, embraced the Detroit techno phenomenon that was impinging upon the world music scene. What’s funny is, it was dance music that finished off the band in the end.
To understand what an anomaly the so-likable-they-were-hateable Charm Farm was when they emerged here in the early ’90s, consider what was happening in the city — outside of techno — at the time.
On the post-punk front, Big Chief, culled from the ashes of late, great Northern Ohio hardcore punk band the Necros, took a wide-bodied Seattle sound and gave it a wry Detroit spin that embraced both the MC5 and P-Funk. The Chief’s 1993 Mack Avenue Skull Game album for grunge ground-zero label Sub Pop was a masterpiece of conceptual kicked-out jams and funk, replete with horn sections and a modern Pygmalion myth about a Cass Corridor hooker and a prominent doctor who met his end trying to save her (true story).
That the Chief would subsequently sign with Capitol only to be outshined by more radio- (and camera-) friendly local folk like Sponge and Hoarse speaks to what can be described as an age-old dilemma of Detroit acts: Spawned from the city’s unique mix of white and black underground ’70s culture (proto-punk garage and funk), they were so unique they had a difficult time translating local success to national relevance. (Witness Kid Rock’s slow start as a classic rock inclined rap-rocker for more modern evidence.)
Detroit acts signed to esteemed indie labels both domestically and overseas: Livonia’s dream/space-pop His Name Is Alive on England’s 4 AD label, home to the Pixies and Cocteau Twins; Ann Arbor’s Laughing Hyenas and Wig, which would eventually merge into sour-mash stompers Mule, signed to Touch and Go and Island respectively. And of course, eventually Sponge and Hoarse, modern rock all the way, signed to Sony and RCA.
But these Detroit bands came out of a post-punk tradition, which gave them indie cred but also limited them to it.
And then there was Charm Farm, unapologetic pop-rockers who took their cues from everywhere but the post-punk of their Detroit brethren: techno, ’80s new wave, even baggy Brit-pop. Charm Farm were the Romantics of the era, oblivious to the deep underground reference points of their peers, more concerned with dressing up, writing good pop songs and having a good time.
Charm Farm was founded by Dennis White, a Detroit-born, Utica-bred teen music prodigy from a good family. His grandfather was a major designer and supplier of luggage racks to the auto industry. “I came from an entrepreneurial family that really espoused the whole do-it-yourself ethic. So when I told them I wanted to start a band, they were like, ‘Great!’”
White matriculated to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, hooking up with Prince-obsessed classmate Tommy Onyx to envision a band steeped deeply in the proto-modern rock of INXS, the Psychedelic Furs and Thomas Dolby.
The pair moved back to Detroit after college, renting a loft at Gratiot and Riopelle, which, unbeknownst to them at the time, was becoming “Techno Row.” White’s neighbors were Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson’s KMS label and other DJ/producers whose Detroit-bred robo-soul was changing pop music overseas.
By the summer of 1989, Saunderson’s “Good Life” was a big hit in England, calling for a UK tour. Trouble was, Saunderson and his co-producers didn’t play any instruments.
White says he “happened to be in the room” when Saunderson brought this fact up to the fresh-scrubbed Berklee grads. “It was literally him saying, ‘I need a band,’ and me saying, ‘Well, we have a band,’ and him saying, ‘You’re hired.’”
The famed Big Fun Tour that followed featured Music Institute resident DJ D Wynn opening the show, followed by May and Carl Craig performing as Rythm is Rythm. White and Onyx backed the team of Saunderson and vocalist Paris Gray — aka Inner City — bringing the programmed sounds of techno to life as a live band to sold-out 2000-seat venues across England.
The experience for White was eye-opening.
“When we were rehearsing the tour, we actually set up in the boathouse of my grandpa’s cottage way out in the woods up North. So we had no frame of reference for this music,” White recalls. “Then in England, night after night, seeing the impact of this music, D Wynn just killing it — the way a DJ could be used to really set the tone of the night, how much effort was going into producing the concert as a night-long party instead of just a concert.”
White also saw a particularly British phenomenon: rock acts like the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Primal Scream playing raves. “Rave kids all had favorite rock bands. We were just trying to be that.”
Back in Detroit, White set about redefining Charm Farm by distancing himself from the local scene, using his profits from Inner City to turn his band into a social beacon of sorts.
“Live music was boring as fuck, so we started throwing parties, using rave-style promotion.”
White started small, playing Hamtramck bars like Paycheck’s, but doing it in a micro-version of the Big Fun tour: opening DJ, a novelty band and, as the party peaked, Charm Farm. “I knew I’d have to beg to open for bands like Second Self,” he says, “Then we’d be known as an opening band, and I wanted to be known as headliners, even if the only place we could headline was a bar in Hamtramck.”
White’s ambitious self-promotion caught the attention of Perry Lavoisne, talent buyer for Ritual Entertainment (now Clear Channel), who soon booked Charm Farm to headline St. Andrew’s Hall and Pontiac’s Industry. Again, White employed rave-party tactics with some degree of success.
Lavoisne says Charm Farm’s idea of instilling a rock show with a dance-club mentality worked well enough; the shows would, on average, draw about 400 people.
“White liked to go full-on in the productions,” Lavoisne says. “Charm Farm stepped up the game as far as getting out and promoting your band. Their idea of promoting was bigger — 10 times that of bands around at the time. For them, it was more about the presentation, not about the money.”
“Our idea that techno kids here would have favorite rock bands like they did in England didn’t quite work,” White admits, “but we damn sure could throw a good party.”
Soon after, the techno-influence began making its way into Charm Farm’s music. White’s band by now included Onyx, as well as guitarist Steve Zuccaro, bassist Dino Zoyes — kids from Utica he gave music lessons to on college breaks — and fresh-out-of-high-school drummer Eric Hoegemeyer. They played at dance clubs like the Warehouse instead of the usual dingy rock clubs. Their songs took cues from UK acts like Happy Mondays. Sure, a song like “Celebrate” seemed to lift its sing-along chorus from a Big Red chewing gum jingle, but it had a hook.
By 1992, White had landed a deal with indie label DRA, and recorded Flirt. Three years of playing party-gigs with everyone from Kid Rock to Majesty Crush ensued. Onyx left the band to work with Saunderson on Inner City-related projects, and was replaced by Ken Roberts. By 1995, Charm Farm had written another album, Pervert, which DRA released in 1996.
The songs were usually feel-good, beat-driven gems that wore their influences on their skinny-armed sleeves. One in particular, “Superstar,” was a neo-disco ditty with an undeniable chorus: “Everyone is beautiful.” And it did the impossible: it became a No. 1 hit on local commercial radio. “Yeah, it was me and all my friends and their families calling in making it No. 1, but it was on there,” White says wryly.
“Superstar” was perfect for then-WHYT’s first foray into the poppier side of the alt-rock format.
White explains. “We were friendly with Carey Bertrand [Onyx’s ex girlfriend] when she left 89X to be musical director of 96.3 [WHYT]. And [program director] Rick Gillette had just switched formats, so he didn’t know any better when she put us in rotation.”
The buzz surrounding a local band with a radio hit was not ignored by the music industry. (And Charm Farm wasn’t the only band; White notes Hoarse also had a WHYT hit at around the same time, which led to their RCA deal.)
Danny Goldberg had just left the Warner Brothers label to head Mercury Records, and when the label’s radio promo people got wind of an unsigned band from Detroit with a No. 1, Goldberg and A&R man Jim Ferret made Charm Farm their first big signing. According to White, Mercury wound up buying Pervert from DRA for $400,000. “It’s a perfect ‘Behind The Music’ story,” says White, “I got $25,000 to make the record, Mercury paid [DRA] $400,000 for it, and all we got was another 15 grand.”
White opted not to seek management, acting on advice from his old label, DRA, the same label that sold his record for almost half a million dollars and paid him only $15,000.
“Instead I got a big music industry lawyer, which meant I was paying him a lot of money and he didn’t take my calls.
“I saw the Mercury deal as a way to get into the business,” White adds flatly. “I didn’t think I needed management. I remember talking to Kid Rock and he’d always say, ‘Just sign anything to get into the game.’ I thought we’d sell a million albums and then re-negotiate the deal.
“In Detroit, we were so used to having to do everything ourselves that when you get plugged into a major label, if you don’t have a manager helping you find a comfort level with eight different parts of a label steering the eight different parts of your career you used to do yourself, you’re screwed,” he explains. “I’d book my own photo shoots and the label’s art department would be like, ‘That’s our job.’ They hated me.”
The disco-pop bent of “Superstar” also led to troubles with Mercury’s promotion department when it came time to take the record to radio.
“That’s really when I could have used a manager as a buffer between me and the label,” sighs White.
Mercury’s radio promoters didn’t understand a rave-styled rock act with a penchant for dance grooves and guitars. One of Pervert’s tracks, “Sick,” wound up getting played on WRIF, but “Superstar” was still the obvious single as far as Mercury was concerned — even if it was removed from the band’s admittedly danceable but certainly more alt-rock sound. Says White, “They didn’t know what to do with the album.”
Mercury did, however, know what to do with the song: remix it into an even more catchy dance hit. White did his best to steer the Mercury-commissioned mixes back to his techno roots, enlisting Carl Craig, Mike Clark and Kenny Larkin and paying them out of his pocket.
But it was Los Angeles producer Richard “Humpty” Vission who rebuilt “Superstar” around background singer Taj Bell’s vocals and into a pop-dance club smash. Says White, “It was the cheesiest, commercial, raved-up-four-years-after-rave-was-cool mix I’d ever heard. I forbade Mercury to release it.”
Vission, however, had other plans, and released the record himself as an underground dance track. Soon it had sold 4,000 copies on vinyl alone and was in major rotation on Los Angeles’ Power 106 commercial dance radio station.
“I hated it. I knew it was going to destroy the idea of Charm Farm as a rock band,” White admits. He fought bitterly with Goldberg over releasing the mix. “He basically told me, ‘Either you get on board with this mix, or fuggit, we’re not going to release your record.’”
Pervert wound up getting its release — with “Superstar” in all its raved-up glory. The results were disastrous. In Los Angeles, hundreds of copies of the album sold one week — only to be returned the next week by angry dance fans thinking they were going to get an album full of songs like “Superstar.”
“We’d get calls for bookings and then show up with this rock band and the promoters would be like, ‘I don’t want this.’ We’d go on these radio shows doing interviews and people would call in telling us how much they loved the song and how much the album sucked.”
The same commercial aspirations that led White to pen a neo-disco pop song were now unraveling the band.
White — the guy who had helped turn Inner City into a live band — now had the bizarre challenge of turning Charm Farm into a dance act — with just Taj Bell and himself acting as “circus master,” as he puts it, working a keyboard and backing tape playing Vission’s version. “It was the end of Charm Farm,” White says.
The band demo’d songs for a second Mercury album, but the label opted out. Charm Farm was done in 1997.
“The band just disintegrated after that,” says guitarist Steve Zuccaro. Hoegemeyer was the first to go.
“He was just too talented to just be the drummer,” White says.
Hoegemeyer and Bell had already begun working as dBass, a Massive Attack-influenced trip-hop act. White enlisted Zuccaro and Roberts in the more electronic-bent Control Freq, which had moderate local radio success with “Sweetest Day” that led to a 1998 deal with New York’s F-111 label. The electronic music label folded before Control Freq’s album came out.
Zuccaro rejoined Hoegemeyer to serve as Uncle Kracker’s touring band for two years; before the pair rejoined Zoyes to form Gold Cash Cold with Hoegemeyer acting as frontman.
“We were just so tired of doing the whole pop thing, we wanted to get back to real rock ’n’ roll,” explains Zuccaro. The guitarist still has fond memories of Charm Farm, although the music isn’t one of them.
“A lot of the songs I don’t think hold up that well over time. I mean, our shows were more social events than concerts. But I learned a lot from Dennis. Like tipping the soundman 40 bucks at a gig. It’s little things, but that’s the kind of stuff Dennis was really good at.”
White, meanwhile, has reinvented himself as Static Revenger, a DJ/producer.
“I was sick of signing rock acts to not-rock labels to not have my records come out,” he laughs. “Back in 1994 Carl Craig was busting my balls to start my own dance label. I was seeing these guys I used to play with when we were doing Inner City, and they owned their masters [recordings], they had careers. They could get rich off of selling 10,000 copies of a record, because they owned their own labels. Here I was, eight years later, starting over.”
White landed other record deals, moved to Los Angeles and scored a 2001 international club hit with “Happy People.”
“I made more off that song than off of three major label deals combined,” he says. His remix (with Richard Vission) of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl” was a huge chart hit. He’s worked on tracks by Felix da Housecat, Tyrell, Supreme Beings of Leisure, Kinky, the Crystal Method and the Cooler Kids. His remix of Weekend Players’ “Into The Sun” was Billboard Magazine’s No. 1 dance track last year. And in an even odder twist, White has started writing rock songs again for an as-yet-untitled project. He’s even revisiting the decade-old sounds of his Paycheck’s years. “It’s come full circle.”Hobey Echlin is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org