A city viewed through music: Detroit, Michigan, USA

Music has elevated some cities to the rank of legends. Some achieved it on the strength of its music scene, or the genre it gave birth to. Some others keep getting named dropped by songwriters, whether or not they originated there. One of these is Detroit in Michigan.

www.nhl30.comDetroit has had many nicknames over the years, depending on your field of interest. As the focal point of the US automobile industry, it is widely known as the Motor City. When in 1959 Berry Gordy Jr created his own record label devoted to black music, he contracted these two words into the single word Motown, which has since become the description for the soulful pop created by the legendary artists on its roster. The Red Wings hockey team (part of the NHL’s Original Six teams) popularized (and trademarked) the name Hockeytown for the city, a description that embodies the rich legacy of the city. (For more on Detroit hockey, check out my other blog at nhl30.com. An article on the city is coming soon). And for (some) rock fans, it is known as Detroit Rock City after the KISS song. No matter what you call it, Detroit has earned its place as a high profile city.

Of course, not everything is well in Detroit. A sharp decline in population since the early seventies, along with the troubles encountered by the American auto industry, have brought Detroit’s finances to the point of bankruptcy. (But that’s not stopping them from building a new arena for the Red Wings)

 On July 18, 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history. It was declared bankrupt by U.S. judge Stephen Rhodes on December 3, who cited its $18.5 billion debt and declared that negotiations with its thousands of creditors were unfeasible. (from Wikipedia)

While it’s hard to predict how the city can turn around its future, we can at least cherish its cultural legacy. Let’s look at some of the ways popular music remembers Detroit.

The Scene


Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy Jr quickly realized that most of the money wen to the label, so in 1959 he founded the Motown label. Controlling every aspect from songwriting on to recording and publishing, he established a brand that produced 110 Top Ten hits between 1961 and 1971! An integral part of the Motown sound was the “house band”, the Funk Brothers, who played on most of these recordings and were consumate musicians (The documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown puts the spotlight on this amazing group of musicians). Singers were groomed by the label to excel on stage and be ambassadors for the African-American community. Their pop-soul sound was popularized by an impressive list of amazing artists: The Miracles, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and many more. Just for Motown, Detroit would have been an important  part of American popular music. But that wasn’t all that Detroit had to offer.




70’s rock scene

While Detroit has had a strong and varied music scene dating back to the 30’s (see this article for more on this), their next turn in the popular spotlight came at the turnaround of the 60’s. Motown would move to Los Angeles in 1972, but rockers were already coming out of Detroit in large numbers. Iggy & The Stooges, MC5, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Grandfunk Railroad, Brownville Station, along with Glenn Frey (who would head out to California and found the Eagles with Don Henley) all called Detroit their home at the time, as well as later acts like Kid Rock, Eminem, Insane Clown Posse and the White Stripes.





The Music

Lots of songs name drop Detroit in their lyrics. One fairly obscure example is Alice Cooper’s Detroit City, from the Eyes of Alice Cooper album from 2003. From the start, Alice recalls the scene around the time he started out.

Me and Iggy were giggin’ with Ziggy and kickin’ with the MC5
Ted and Seger were burnin’ with fever
And let the Silver bullets fly
The Kid was in his crib, shady wore a bib
And the posse wasn`t even alive


And while looking for a video for Alice Cooper’s song, I found this song by Bobby Bare (also done by Tom Jones)


Alice Cooper has one more example in his catalog. Be My Lover, from 1971’s Killer, was written by guitarist Michael Bruce, and contains the following lyrics:

Told her that I came from Detroit City
And I played guitar in a long haired rock ‘n roll band
She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice
I said “listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand”


Another Detroit mention can be found in the hugely popular hit from Journey: Don’t Stop Believin’.

Just a city boy
Born and raised in South Detroit
He took the midnight train
Goin’ anywhere

But do you know there’s no such thing as “South Detroit”?

While the lyrics mention being “born and raised in south Detroit”, there is no place in the Detroit area actually called South Detroit; the location south of downtown Detroit is the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.Steve Perry has said, “I tried north Detroit, I tried east and west and it didn’t sing, but south Detroit sounded so beautiful. I loved the way it sounded, only to find out later it’s actually Canada.” (Source)

South Detroit

And if Journey isn’t cock rock enough for you:

KISS’s Detroit Rock City is another geographically challenged tribute to the Motor Town. Inspired by the story of a fan that was killed in a car accident on his way to a KISS concert, the song features the following lyrics:

Moving fast, doin’ 95
I hit top speed but I’m still moving much too slow
I feel so good, I’m so alive
I hear my song playing on the radio
It goes

Now, the way Paul Stanley sings it, it sounds like he says “Down 95”, which doesn’t make sense seeing that highway 95 doesn’t even run through Michigan. Was it a flub? Was it his thick New-York accent that makes it sound like “down”? On the 2013 re-issue/remix of Destroyer, producer Bob Ezrin used some studio trickery to change it to what it is supposed to be, and now Paul clearly sings “doin'”.


The edited part is at 3:25

And here are San Francisco natives Metallica ringing in the New Year with some Detroit Boys in 1999.

And one last one, from the Motor City Madman. I could go on and on, check out this list of songs about Detroit! Clearly the city has connected with musicians over the years.

The Forgotten

The musical history of Detroit is so rich and vast, that it even forgot and lost some performers. Check out the documentaries Searching for Sugarman (about Mexican American singer Rodriguez) and A Band Called Death about a proto punk band, well, called Death.





As one of the most high profile cities in the United States, it is sad to see how low Detroit has fallen. How of the misery, people have tried to find hope for a renewed future and a return to prosperity. Some have also tried to find beauty in the desolation and abandonment. Check out some of these sites for stunning photographs of urban decay: Abandoned Detroit, Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline and 42 Staggering Photos of Abandoned Detroit


Jean-Frederic Vachon
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