Concrete Situation I

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Sounds Title: 
Concrete Situation I

Digging in the Detroitus pt. 1

Stooges “T.V. Eye” (USA, 1970)
Fun Things “Where the Birdmen Fly” (Australia, 1980)
Flirt “Degenerator” (USA, 1978)
Radio Birdman “New Race” (Australia, 1977)
Eddie Criss Group “Schoolgirlz” (USA, 1980)
New Christs “Waiting World” (Australia, 1981)
Cult Heroes “Berlin Wall” (USA, 1979)
New Race “Gotta Keep Movin’” (Australia, 1983)
Sonic’s Rendezvous Band “City Slang” (USA, 1978)
The Dogs “Tough Enough” (USA, 1978)
GG Allin and the Jabbers “Occupation” (USA, 1980)
Cinecyde “Radiation Sickness” (USA, 1979)
The Projections “I Can Hardly Remember” (USA, 1982)
Matt Gimmick “Ya Don’t Know My Name” (USA, 1979)
Henchmen “Rock & Roll Attack” (New Zealand, 1982)
New Order “Of Another World” (USA, 1976)

I have been working on this Detroitus series for over a year, as a part of a new mixtape series called Concrete Situation. I had planned to post this one soon, but then Wayne Kramer passed away, so I decided to post the first installment immediately as a tribute. RIP to a legend.

“You want me, and I want you. It’s summer, and I’m 22.” Not exactly a mondegreen, but nevertheless an exquisite rendering of Detroitus, of what the one guy calls “the same ground” on which the MC5 and the Stooges, and soon dozens of other bands, many featured here, would tread. Recorded in the backseat of a taxi nearly getting lost on the way to a Manhattan Stooges gig in August 1970, two women and the guy discuss whether the knife- and meat-based self-harm they expected to soon witness was actually entertaining. One of the skeptical women also notes that the new album, “Funhouse,” which had been released about six weeks prior and would comprise the bulk of the set during the week-long Stooges residency at Ungano’s on the Upper West Side in Manhattan (discussed by Richard Meltzer in Screw magazine), was about 4,500 times better than their previous, self-titled offering. Let’s find out just how good it was.

“T.V. Eye” may most perfectly encapsulate the key feature of the Detroit sound: Ron Asheton plays riffs for days that will stay with you for years. Oozing sexual tension, the song may raise an eyebrow (if you know what the T.V. in the title stands for), but it’s actually way less puerile than many other subsequent Detroitus classics. Anyway, I’m not sure what I can say about this song. It exhibits the sublime beyond words.

Speaking of words, the mondegreen is a key feature of Detroitus—otherwise you wouldn’t get the reference in “Where the Birdmen Fly” by Fun Things. From Brisbane, Australia’s most repressive city (home of the anti-punk police task force immortalized by Razar), not only is their 4-song EP one of the best punk records ever, it pains me to say that it is one of the rarest and most expensive from the land where birdmen flew. The singer/guitarist Brad Shepherd later recounted that he learned about the Stooges and MC5 from an interview with Radio Birdman’s Rob Younger in an Australian music magazine. Shepherd recalled that living in Brisbane, “a suburban nothing,” compelled him to engage in a “puerile attempt just [to] do something.” The band was “Just kicking against a middle class upbringing.” “We just wanted to have fun and impress the girls.” Many did the same thing, no one else did it as brilliantly. It helped that he was listening to the first Birdman LP “every other day” when writing the songs (nb, he now regrets the misogynistic lyrics).

The picture sleeve of Flirt’s single is legendary for depicting the rocker singer, Rockee Re Marx, with baby bump. In “Degenerator,” she critiques the prevailing sexism of the scene: the way women tended to be treated like surf boards. The lyrics are incisive and the guitars are just as sharp. And Rockee rides the word degenerator in the chorus like it’s the surf board on an endless swell. In the worldly realm of accounting, I got ripped off when I traded something truly rare for this not-so-rare record, but metaphysically—which is to say on the plane of the riff—I’m rolling in it.

Speaking of mondegreens, here’s Radio Birdman, who—yeah, hup—are really gonna punch you out with the 1977 Australian version of their classic song “New Race.” With their cryptic logo and a song title like this, apparently some at the time believed the band had fash sympathies. But they always denied it, and I believe them. Reading this song’s lyrics tells you they’re just talking about rocknroll. Deniz Tek, the guitarist of Radio Birdman, was originally from Detroit, where he witnessed the heyday of the Stooges and MC5 before he moved to Sydney. He managed to earn a medical degree there while also nearly single-handedly shaping the Detroitus that pervaded the country. Without Tek, none of this would be possible. The Detroit sound might have remained confined to Michigan, until he proved that it could be elaborated and punkified.

Featuring Wayne Kramer in his itinerant phase, Eddie Criss Group were a bunch of sensitive dirtbags as could be found only on the Lower East Side, led by the handsome Eddie Criss. This record appeared on Orange Records, home to various David Peel projects. Peel, who released an album on Elektra in 1970, like the Stooges, was a pre-punk impresario, radical, and drug aficionado. I doubt I’ll get sued if I suggest Orange Records probably was more dedicated to laundering money than putting out records. Nevertheless, Peel had an ear for the weird and connections galore. After languishing in forgotten obscurity for three decades, the Eddie Criss Group LP got reissued recently (just after I finally tracked down an original). It’s a time capsule of an extremely fleeting moment of the Detroit diaspora that gave us the Detroitus “same ground.”

After Radio Birdman folded, following a disastrous trip to England (hey, I love English punk, but they didn’t really understand Detroit’s gift to the world), singer Rob Younger founded the darker and more brooding New Christs. This version of “Waiting World” is from their first single, released in 1981. It prefigured the dark, goth-adjacent turn a number of Detroitus bands would take as they evolved. The sound here still unmistakably relies on the guitar-driven propulsion, but it’s clear that the Detroitus vibe has arisen autonomously, flown now like a birdman, I suppose.

Hiawatha Bailey was a Black-Native member of the White Panther Party who landed in federal prison with Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis of the MC5 in the mid-1970s and then after his release founded the punk band Cult Heroes and roadied for Ron Asheton’s ‘80s band Destroy All Monsters, all while espousing, in his own phrase, a “Marxist-Leninist Dialectical Materialist” philosophy. I shit you not. He may have also invented the notion of “Positive Mental Attitude,” publishing his ideas in a prison newspaper. So, yes, it was a Black punk who came up with PMA, but it wasn’t a member of Bad Brains. Anyway, Cult Heroes released two singles of politically charged Detroitus. The slow-burning “Berlin Wall” really exhibits the Detroitus sound in the last part, when it speeds up. It’s worth the wait.

Blazing fast from the get-go, New Race’s “Gotta Keep Movin’” is about as ripping as it gets. And the band was the ultimate Detroitus act, featuring Tek, Younger, Birdman bassist Warwick Gilbert, MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson, and Ron Asheton, existing only for a brief tour of Australia and properly documented only through live recordings, where you can smell the sweat, feel the heat, and choke on the cigarette smoke. (Note also Thompson’s incredible drumming.) Perhaps there is no better way to hear the Detroitus sound than in this unmediated fashion, but the ephemerality highlights the problem that afflicted nearly all of Asheton’s post-Stooges work. It’s all genius, but it never got the studio attention needed and thus lives on in urgent but necessarily incomplete form. There are a million reasons why, and no blame need be placed. In retrospect, the rawness now is just part of the vibe. For some of us (me), this is a boon not a drawback.

I have an idea: form a band including stone-cold Detroit geniuses; play dozens of shows over many years; establish a reputation as incomparable, to the point that photos circulate of Iggy himself singing along at gigs; release one 45 with only one song on it; make sure that one song is the best song ever committed to vinyl in the history of the world; and then call it a day. I stole this idea from Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, featuring Stooge Scott Asheton and Fred “Sonic” Smith of the ‘5. Here’s the mono version of “City Slang.” If you died tonight, I think you’d feel satisfied. The only thing preventing you saying you lived life to fullest right now after listening to this is that you wouldn’t be able to listen to it over and over again. If ever the word single were a misnomer, it is with “City Slang,” as no one plays the 45 just once.

Begun in Michigan but relocated to Los Angeles, The Dogs took the Detroit sound to a thuggier and punkier level. “Tough Enough” is, as singer Loren indicates, hard to the core. The Dogs featured a relatively uncommon woman bassist, Mary Caldwell. The band is still going to this day, unstoppable. Check this incredibly blown-out and shit-fi video of them playing a Texas parking lot with Wayne Kramer added to the line-up, recorded about 15 years ago. Kramer had previously joined the band for a live set around 1972. This track was recorded live at the Mab in San Francisco in 1978.

Surprisingly poppy but with Kramer’s inimitable guitar licks, here’s a snotty but uncommonly well-behaved GG Allin with one iteration of the Jabbers, playing “Occupation” or “Occupational Hazard.” This song was supposed to appear on the Orange Records (again!) “Gimme Some Head” single, but GG nixed it. He also lied and said that Dennis Thompson played drums on the recording (hence, the MC2 designation seen in some places). But Thompson was not in the studio. Kramer also did not know that Thompson was slated to be involved. And Kramer did not play guitar on “Gimme Some Head” or “Dead or Alive,” the tracks actually released, though he did sing a tiny bit of back-up vocals on the former. (All of these details are from the high-quality 2019 Blood Orange Rec. reissue of the “Dead or Alive” single, featuring this version of “Occupation,” which had previously been bootlegged on an eponymous lower-quality single.)

Cinecyde had long been a name I’ve noticed on lists of bands and records, but I had always ignored it. Then I listened more closely to this track “Radiation Sickness” from their third EP, which I had sitting in my collection for about 23 years on the fairly random one-off KBD-derivative compilation “Brainkiller.” Bringing to the Detroit sound a bit of a UK snottiness and Ohio-via-New York bravado-as-sleaze, the quick punky track also surprises for its straight-forward and topical approach. This band’s records remain remarkably obtainable and cheap.

The thing about the Detroitus seam I’m mining here is that simply being a Detroit band or claiming a Detroit influence does not suffice. The Projections released one single in 1982 and neither of its tracks qualify. They’re fine, but it is actually this track “I Can Hardly Remember” from their 1982 demo that exhibits the ineffable sound. It’s mostly in the guitars, but it’s also attitude and atmosphere. Cue the analysis of the decline of the Fordist capitalist compact for explanation. I’ve done it before, so I’ll leave it aside today. For now, just breathe it in.

“You Don’t Want My Name” was one of the sex-crazed, drug-fueled post-Funhouse Ron Asheton/Williamson dual guitar–era Stooges tracks that never made it to vinyl at the time but appeared in live sets. Detroit locals recorded the sets on their own handhelds and memorized the tracks, but they were largely lost and unknown. Then, those locals started their own bands, including The Punks, a Stooges-soundalike mid-‘70s act, about whom more another day. This version of “You Don’t Want My Name” was recorded by The Punks after they changed the band name to Matt Gimmick. The song is an homage and also a re-inauguration of the sound, the same ground, of Detroitus. It was to be the Detroit Renaissance ’79.

From Auckland, New Zealand, Henchmen are the only band here besides Fun Things without a six-degrees-of Detroit connection. But they are simply too perfect a specimen to ignore. They eventually moved to the land where birdmen flew anyway. True hoodlums with a menacing appearance and a violent sound to match, their interpretation of the Detroitus vibe perfected it. “Rock & Roll Attack” was recorded in 1981, sorta late for the trend but also already more intense than nearly any new hardcore punk that was filtering onto the airwaves by then. It’s as good as it gets.

After the Stooges proper, Ron Asheton played in few bands. That’s one of the reasons we’re here. New Order was the first among them. (New Race came later, as did New Christs, which both featured Younger. The New Christs did not, could not, feature the chosen one, the old christ, the guitar messiah—Ron.) Along with Jimmy Recca of the post-Funhouse, pre-Raw Power Stooges on bass and Dennis Thompson on the kit, the line-up was unstable. And no recording made it to the finished stage. But the B-side of the eventual album that came out on a French label mostly dedicated to Stooges bootlegs should be the stuff of rocknroll legend. Instead, to the extent most people really remember the band, it’s because Lester Bangs mentioned them in his critical account of the race politics of punk. Whether they were actually Nazi sympathizers, particularly on the three songs from ‘76 on the B-side of the French LP “Declaration of War,” with the otherwise largely forgotten drug-addicted Dave Gilbert on vocals, is difficult to discern. Much the same could be said of the far more famous and British New Order. Flirtations, perhaps. Mostly, they seemed too zooed out to care about anything other than initiating a new order of rocknroll (they didn’t, but punk did, but that’s another story, a story about race fundamentally, but what isn’t in the US anyway?).
One of these three tracks, “Rocknroll Soldiers,” contains these indelible lyrics
‘Cause we are the rock and roll soldiers

Rock and roll will keep you alive

We’d never give in

It would be a sin

In the war against the jive

In the war against thе jive

In the war against the jive.
The right-wing-ish but knowledgeable and occasionally insightful fanzine and blog Black to Comm, named after an MC5 track, might say that what I’m calling Detroitus here is really just a campaign in the ever-ongoing war against the jive. But all of this is prelude to “Of Another World,” perhaps the most psychedelic and, um, otherworldly track Ron Asheton ever recorded. It does the maelstrom. Heartbreakingly beautiful lyrics about love, riffs, noise modulations, riffs, solo squeals, heartbreaks, beauty, lyrics, riffs. What more does one need? I think I have listened to this song more than any other song since I picked up this record in 2016. Here, on mp3, the originally unmastered track leaves a lot to be desired in fidelity, but let that only be a spur to you obtaining the vinyl. Revel in the Detroitus. I can’t quit ya.