Michigan Basement pt 3

In the first edition of Michigan basements I reflected on the incredible performance of Brötzman and Nilssen-Love, a group which pummeled the boundaries of free jazz with relentless and explosive rhythms. I added how this experience really forced me to think about whether (in these modern times of eternal knowledge and unlimited access to art and culture) we still have a connect with where we come from? Being in europe was like looking into a mirror, seeing who I really was, not just an american but a guy from Michigan. So I decided i would write this blog about Michigan music.

The second entry was a digression, I wrote about Joe Meek, a British visioneer who recorded top ten hits in his second story apartment twenty years before everyone else would be doing it. Joe Meek popularized WEIRD sounds into POP music, as heard in Telstar and many of his other works. Telstar was important because it was one of the FIRST number one hits in both the USA and UK. People were beginning to explore space, and it was fascinating and strange, much like the sounds on Telstar coming through their radios. BUT NOW…. it’s time to talk about Detroit.

If you visit Detroit, you’re going to see entire streets leveled, houses burned out, rubble…. here is a photo from the inside of the Grande Ballroom. This venue was once on the circuit for all major touring rock bands (Jethro Tull, The Who, Jeff Beck, Black Sabbath…) but ALSO an essential home base for area groups trying to catch exposure as opening acts. The MC5 and the Stooges were the house bands, and for them the Grande was a sort of laboratory where they test the limits of their sonic experiments. In other words, they could play however they liked, which was usually very loud. Aside from guitar music, the Grande also billed avante garde jazz artists like John Coltrane and Sun Ra. This was the place to go for music. My dad attended many shows as a teenager, and his older brother (my uncle) worked as a stage manager.

“We discovered there was a way you could set amplifiers by really cranking them up to make a sound that was unlike anything anybody had ever made with an electric guitar before,” MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer.

Playing loud, distortion, fucked up sounding guitars is something we take for GRANTED. But at the time this was something new, it was revolutionary in so many ways.”Originally electric guitars were just a way to make the rhythm guitarist in a band sound loud enough to be heard over the other instruments, but as we experimented more by raising the volume higher we could get more tone and more distortion. It was a harmonic kind of distortion, a musical idea, and it dovetailed perfectly into what was happening with the free jazz thing.” Fred “Sonic” Smith, second guitarist for MC5.

Just like Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, this music was pushing the limits of popular sensibility. At first it didn’t seem right, but it sounded good and felt even better. When Phil Spector produced his first major hits, “He’s a rebel” and “Spanish Harlem,” Spector insisted tripling up the bass(three bass players!!!), doubling the guitars and pianos. His sound engineer Larry Levine protested because all the readers on the mixing board were “in the red”(overdriven). “No” Spector said, “THATS WHAT I WANT, its perfect!” Soon everybody was hearing Spectors new sound through their radios from coast to coast. And only few years later the MC5 and Stooges, among others, were doing the same thing, but instead of finely crafted pop songs, they played guitar driven rock. This wasn’t like Elvis Presley rock n roll, or even Phil Spector rock n roll, but some twisted evolution, or devolution… breaking the formula down to its basic parts and blowing them up. Too loud…it was Detroit’s rock n roll.