Sunday, March 31, 2013

Overlooked Detroit Records...

(originally written for and published in the Detroit Metro Times in November 2010 for a list highlighting records in the city's history that hadn't received the praise they deserved)

R.U.R. "Go Baby" Nebula Records (1979)

            The inherent flaw in punk rock from Detroit in the late '70s /early '80s is the looming specter of the Stooges. When a band like that exists in your hometown a decade earlier, the shock factor of dog collars, blood and the middle-finger attitude (as employed by the the Germs, Sex Pistols) is already passé. It seems that local punk acts were overly aware of this and while a fair number of the prominent players imploded before committing anything to wax (Ramrods, the Denizens) the best known act from the "scene" will always be the Romantics.
            But R.U.R. and their stinging "Go Baby" are prime examples of what potential things had. Not overtly punk and with more reverence paid towards Townsend-like guitar riff godliness, "Go Baby" crests with accusatory lyrics and understated drumming. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more-memorable rock record from this town at that time and it's proof positive that punk is equal parts execution and attitude.

Paris "Rock Down (Schoolboy Rap) Parts 1 & 2" Blue Rose Records (1981)

            Darryl Nicholson placed an order for 500 copies of this record at Archer Record Pressing on April 2nd, 1981. That much we know. What we don’t know is why there are so few early rap records from Detroit. For perspective, Sugarhill Gang released "Rapper's Delight" in 1979 and that was a worldwide hit. Until someone provides proof otherwise it took Detroit until 1981 to respond and it did so with this 21-year-old McDonald's employee releasing "Rock Down."
            Behind a truncated bastardization of the “Delight” bassline and an assortment of wheezing keyboard runs, Paris (aka Nicholson) drops verse after verse of formidable rhyme. He shoots dice, gets kicked out of school, is whipped by his parents and engages in general tomfoolery. “Rock Down” is classified as disco rap…devoid of samples, primarily with instruments performed live and just about as old-school as it gets. To find an earlier rap record from Detroit would be difficult…but to find a better one is damn-near impossible.

The Keggs “To Find Out” Orbit Records (1967)
              In July of 1967 four young men from Garden City walked in to B.A. Starr studio at 13305 Dexter and recorded the songs “To Find Out” and “Girl.” Yolanda Owens offered up her imprint, Orbit Records, for the release. She told them to come back in two weeks for their records.
            The band returned later only to find rubble…the studio was completely decimated by the ’67 riots. Owens managed to press 100 copies of the single. She gave the band 75 and sent the rest to local DJ’s and star-makers. The record was effectively dead-in-the-water.
Fifteen years later the rascally Tim Warren discovered a copy of said single in Los Angeles. He made his way to Detroit and reportedly camped outside a band member’s house for three days in order to scrounge up more copies. He included both sides on his Back from the Grave series of compilations.
            To date there are approximately 10 copies known in collections. A completely wrecked, cracked copy sold last year for $373. I bought a copy in 2005 for $2561 with no regrets.
            So seldom does a record live up to its initial expectations. As there seemed to have been absolutely NO expectations for the Keggs, it makes their status all the more exciting. The girl-done-me-wrong lyrics of “To Find Out” are coupled with absolute howling all over the place while the inept and outta-tune guitar squeals for its life. “Girl” continues on the theme of love gone bad but in a more somber, ballad-y way…as much as a ballad can exist with guitars intoxicatingly out of tune. The whole thing is utterly captivating.
            Without the Keggs there would be no Gories, no Blues Explosion, no Black Lips. The fact there is no bass on the record (legend has it the bassist traded his ax for a pair of beetle boots the day before the session) also lends particular importance to the likes of the Gories who would make “no bass” their raison d’etre. The Keggs’ legend, output and overall aura has everything one could ever ask for. You need look no further…the Keggs are the quintessential 60’s garage band.

A Number of Names "Sharevari" b/w "Skitso" Quality Records (1982)
            We know that "Sharevari" was originally released on Capriccio in '81. But it really needs to be examined in the context of the only other song A Number of Names ever released, "Skitso."
            As the story goes, Electrifyin' Mojo heard an early version of "Sharevari" and invited them on his already-influential radio program. In the process he'd christened the group A Number of Names and when the band tried to sell him on their other track "Skitso" he replied "'Sharevari' is the song I'm going to play"
            Which is understandable as "Sharevari" is undeniable. With a name taken from local party crew Charivari (who'd taken their name from a chain of hip fashion stores in NYC) the lyrics lazily tout the finer things in life in a quasi-braggadocio tone…Porsche 928s, L'uomo Vogue, fine white wine…all married to a future disco heretofore unheard of from Detroiters and heavily indebted to Giorgio Moroder and the Italo disco scene.
            The whole thing germinated from the burgeoning local high school party scene (including the club Gables and DJ crews Direct Drive and Deep Space) and achieved reasonable local success with features on after school dance show "The Scene" (definitely worth checking out on YouTube) and selling a couple thousand copies locally.
            That was enough to draw attention to Quality Records, a Canadian imprint specializing in dancy, electro music. It wouldn't be until 1982 that they released their 12" of "Sharevari" with "Skitso" as the flip side.
            "Skitso" is equally weird and genius, like some sort of amalgam of the B-52's campy new wave with the noir funk of Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" and seemingly about a pet rat in the style of Michael Jackson's "Ben." The song really has no contemporaries and probably suffered for it, although it seems almost too obvious that it could've been MASSIVE if it had the push of Mojo behind it. Either way, A Number of Names released only two songs in their short career and both are insanely breathtaking in their own way.

Cybotron "Alleys of Your Mind" Deep Space Records (1981)
            Recent high school grad Juan Atkins and shell-shocked 'nam vet Richard Davis met at Washtenaw Community College and formed Cybotron in 1980. With more than a little inspiration from Ultravox's "Mr. X" (let's face it, they pretty much stole the song) they release "Alleys" on their own Deep Space imprint and the world hasn't been the same since.
            The thick, syncopated synthesizer punch and the bleak, paranoid lyrics set the tone for the rest of Atkins recorded output but seem perpetually overshadowed by his work as Model 500. To start your career with the words "Who'll cry for modern man?" is impressive. To have it be the touchstone for the entire techno genre is epic. It sold 10k copies between here and Chicago and still sounds as fresh today as it must've back then.
            But what's the first Detroit techno record? Based on its QCA mastering number, "Alleys…" was mastered in July of 1981 while "Sharevari" by A Number of Names doesn't turn up in Archer Record Pressing's invoices until early October. Case closed.