At the forefront of the scandal rock & roll caused in the early 50s and as the birthplace of Motown playing a radical role in the racial integration of pop music with ‘crossover appeal’, Detroit was always a hotbed of political and social tensions. Riots in Detroit during July 1967 lasted 5 days with 43 casualties; Dancing in the Street was written to quench these riots instead of fighting. Motown’s sound altered after this time to become more socially conscious culminating in Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On which Berry Gordy tried to bury. The Motown label left for LA in the late 60s as Gordy planned a film career with Diana Ross, a transition it completed in ‘72.
The MC5 & their manager/guru Jon Sinclair lived inside the riot zone whilst Detroit Police acted increasingly oppressive & Gestapo-like as civil disobedience sparked by the treatment of black communities & inner city living conditions worsened. As a result The White Panther Party was formed by the young white rebel movement including MC5 with a 3 point program: Rock & Roll, Dope & Fucking in the Streets! (Perhaps an alternate take on the Martha Reeves/Vandellas hit)
Kick out the Jams, the MC5’s debut live album later banned by their label Elektra over use of the word ‘motherfu*ker’, was quite simply the acid-drenched sonic embodiment of revolutionary uprising. Jon Sinclair was arrested for offering an undercover policewoman disguised as a hippy chick 2 joints. The Police were determined to make his charges stick since this rebel movement would effectively lose its figurehead as well as casting the MC5’s career ascendency from local recognition at Le Grand Ballroom to further national exposure into doubt. However 2 years into Sinclair’s life sentence John Lennon & Yoko caught wind of his plight & sang a plea to have him released which became the case 3 days later.
The Ann Arbor suburb of Detroit served as a major US military & religious base. A lot of early Stooges gigs were performed in a Presbyterian church within this same area that the MC5 had originated some years earlier.
Detroit by the mid 70s had become a ghost town with a decimated industry & declining population due to white flight syndrome down from 2 million to under half that where it still languishes at just over 500,000 today. With an 80% black urban population & a third of its inhabitants living below the poverty line some see modern day Detroit as one giant African American ghetto.
Vincent Furnier aka Alice Cooper was also born in Detroit, the son of a lay preacher who was active in his church until his teens. Although initially the name of his band, Alice (Vincent) honed his shock rock stage routine to be more calculated & prop driven than that of Iggy Pop (James Osterberg) although both used these alternative personas to great effect in establishing a dedicated live cult following.
From the earliest southern settlers like bluesman John Lee Hooker to present day White Stripes & Eminem, Detroit musicians have continued the city’s tradition of reinterpreting and blending black & white influences & audiences along 8 mile in an ongoing legacy of a long & rich rock & roll history.
*Editor’s footnote. Large sections of this article were lifted wholesale from a BBC4 documentary to be expanded upon at a later date. However the editor fully acknowledges that this piece also entirely overlooks other significant subcultures & genres which the city helped spawn & colonise such as early R&B, lo-fi garage blues, hardcore/ska punk & techno.