Musical World Tour: Detroit


Last week it was Chicago, and this week we’re staying in the vicinity of Great Lakes and heading a couple of hundred miles east to Detroit. The Motor City, of course, has a long and proud musical history. Amongst other things, it was the HQ of Motown Records, the birthplace of Detroit techno, and home to a load of fantastic bands — everyone from the Stooges to the White Stripes (who were, lest we forget, fairly awesome for at least their first three records). This all means that there’s about a gazillion songs about the city — as ever, though, we’re just picking five of our favorites, which await you after the jump. What’d be on your list?

Eminem — “8 Mile”

Basically, no one outside of Detroit had heard of 8 Mile Road before Eminem’s “semi”-autobiographical film project hit cinemas in 2002, when all of a sudden it became a metaphor for every shitty neighborhood, dead-end job and bad relationship that you might want to escape. These days, it’s no doubt overrun by bleached-blond Caesar do’d sightseers. (Disclaimer: we have never been to 8 Mile Road and cannot actually attest to the presence of such sightseers.)

Martha and the Vandellas — “Dancing in the Street”

It’s a shame that this Motown classic is now probably better remembered for Mick Jagger and David Bowie’s hilariously homoerotic cover version than for its original incarnation. The song takes a classic image — people dancing around an opened fire hydrant in the summer — and builds it into a narrative that became a de facto anthem for the civil rights movement. And still, for all that its lyrics reference a number of cities, and that it took on a life of its own across the nation, it remains quintessentially Detroit, steeped in Motown tradition and sound.

Gil Scott-Heron — “We Almost Lost Detroit”

A brooding lyric based around the partial meltdown at the Enrico Fermi nuclear power station near Lake Erie, and one of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s finest moments. The song takes its name from John G. Fuller’s book of the same name about the incident, and is also shot through with the themes of social justice that permeates much of Scott-Heron’s work — there’s an implication that as ever, it’s the poor who end up carrying the can when disasters like the meltdown happen. As he observes sharply before the last chorus, “When it comes to people’s safety/ Money wins out every time.”

John Lee Hooker — “Motor City Is Burning”

There are two great versions of this song about perhaps the most infamous moment in Detroit’s modern history — the notorious 12th Street riot in 1967, which left 43 people dead and 467 more injured. The MC5’s rabble-rousing version saw the band, as ever, engaging their mouths first and their brains later, with Rob Tyner praising snipers and expressing a desire to “strike a match for freedom myself/ I may be a white boy, but I can be bad too.” John Lee Hooker’s version was less incendiary and more considered, capturing the terror that must have permeated the city (“Fire bombs bustin’ all round me/ And soldiers standing everywhere/ I could hear the people screaming/ Sirens in the air”) and also presaging the exodus from the city that would follow (“What the trouble is this morning/ I can’t stay round to find out/ Taking my wife and family/ And little Johnny Lee is clearing out”).

The Dirtbombs — “Strings of Life”

Detroit garage rockers cover all-time Detroit techno classic for Detroit album? This is possibly the most Detroit thing EVER.