Can’t Forget the Motor City

Image of acid blob.

Image by Pawel Czerwinski.

I have to be honest. I have never considered Detroit to be a major center of US musical culture. An outpost perhaps, but not a center like New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. However, after reading DJ Joe Molloy’s recently released book Acid Detroit: A Psychedelic Story of Motor City Music, I stand happily corrected. Besides being a fun read, this book is packed with history—of popular music and the city of Detroit—and draws connections between the various musical trends begun and enhanced there.

Like many individuals who are pretty familiar with the history of popular music since the 1950s, I know most if not all of the groups associated with Berry Gordy’s Motown records. The Supremes, the Temptations, Jackson Five, Edwin Starr, The Parliaments, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; the list is long and grows even longer when one adds the solo careers launched in the wake of the worldwide popularity of these Motown acts. Likewise, as a rock music aficionado, I know the music of the MC5, The Stooges, Bob Seger and, yes, Ted Nugent. Indeed, I’ve actually seen most of those artists in their 1970s incarnations. However, Molloy’s text doesn’t stop at the year 1980. In fact, it is in his explorations of artists whose names became known after that year where some of his best work exists.

By laying the foundation in those acts that began in the 1960s and 1970s and connecting their works to the city of Detroit and the artists he discusses later, Molloy mixes the demise of Detroit’s auto manufacturing economy, the musical legacy of that economy’s banner years and the emotional disconnect caused by its end into a mashup featuring hard rock, hiphop, industrial, hardcore and other musical forms of late stage capitalism. Artists he explores include the White Stripes, the Laughing Hyenas, J. Dilla, Danny Brown, Negative Approach and a number of others. The reader is introduced to a discussion of Detroit techno, hip-hop and early rap. There is even a discussion of Detroit jazz, specifically Donald Byrd. Lurking behind and integral to this discussion are bands like Parliament-Funkadelic and the Mothership, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and even Bob Seger—all of whom continued to create and perform during the decades discussed in Acid Detroit.

It is George Clinton and his Mothership of artists that provides Molloy with the means to segue from the artists of the 1960s and 1970s to those of the Eighties and after. It is also where the term “acid” from the book’s title comes most obviously into play. Clinton is quoted about his acid use, essentially saying that he began to use LSD to refocus his anger at the world and its bullshit (racism, war, etc.) so he wouldn’t “go into some alley and kill some muthafucka.” He credits his creation of the artistic vision he’s been expanding on ever since to his use of that mind-expanding miracle. Many readers can probably relate. I’m certain most of his listeners do. Molloy reminds the reader that preceding Clinton’s psychedelic funk was the Temptations turn toward funk in 1969 and its celebration of psychedelia in the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong song “Psychedelic Shack.” He continues his discussion of the Mothership and its meaning to what was evolving into Afrofuturism.

Then there’s the politics. After all, this is a book about music from modern US capitalism’s prototypical metropolis. Henry Ford and the automation of tasks designed to further mass production, the expenditure on advertising built into the enchanted and entranced consumer’s cost, the monopolization of the industry by the Big Three, years of fighting for better wages and conditions by organized workers and their unions, and the eventual financialization of the industry undertaken by the corporate heads at the expense of its workers and the communities they lived and worked in. Beyond the obvious politics of the White Panther agenda of the MC5 and the strident antiwar cry of the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong tune “War,” sung first by the Temptations but turned into an international hit a year later by Edwin Starr, there are the equally powerful stories of racism and economic depression like Whitfield and Strong’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (released first by the Undisputed Truth and then again by the Temptations.) Then, there’s Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking album What’s Going On?; a disc which remains one of the best records ever released. The songs What’s Going On? and “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna’ Holler” are just two of the songs on a record that doesn’t have a bad song on it. Perhaps topping the entire album is the prescient Gaye composition “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology” about the environmental destruction caused by human endeavors. The fact that this song was from an artist identified with the city synonymous with automobile manufacturing has its own irony.

Molloy continues his discussion of the politics implicit and obvious in Detroit’s music throughout the book. From the White Stripes tune “Seven Nation Army” to frontman John Brannon sporting a White Panther Party t-shirt when performing in the various bands he was in over the years, the author ties the various strains of Detroit angry and mostly left-anarchist counterculture together. Woven into this tapestry are discussions of various films of the times and reports on concurrent local, national and international political movements and events.

This book is a love song to Detroit. It is also a wonderful and astutely contextualized discussion of Detroit music since the 1950s. The politics veer left in a manner found most often in western anti-capitalist formations developed since the end of the Soviet Union. I have to be honest, I needed a soundtrack to accompany my reading of this book. I just wasn’t familiar with some of the artists discussed. Fortunately, one advantage of today’s internet world is the ability to easily access almost any song ever recorded. To make this task even easier, at least in regards to this text, there is a playlist at the end of the book. I heartily recommend turning it on.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com