Detroit is known for many things: Motown, automobiles, decline and rebirth. This is the story of Detroit’s punk and hardcore music scenes, which thrived in the suffering city center between the late-1970s and mid-80s. Told by the players themselves, it’s adapted from Steve Miller’s lively, larger oral history Detroit Rock City, which covers everyone from Iggy and the Stooges to the Gories to the White Stripes. Our thanks to Miller and DaCapo for sharing this with the Longreads community.
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Don Was (Was (Not Was) bassist, vocalist; Traitors, vocalist, producer; Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop): So in the seventies I used to read the Village Voice, and I started seeing the ads for CBGB and these bands with the crazy names…and I told Jack [Tann, friend and local music producer] about it: “There must be some way to create something like that here. There must be bands like this here.” I formed a band called the Traitors, and Jack became a punk rock promoter, which wasn’t the way to approach music like that. It was supposed to look cooler than to go in like P. T. Barnum.
Mark Norton (Ramrods, 27 vocalist, journalist, Creem magazine): We were trying to figure out what was next. I called CBGB in ’75 or early ’76; there was a girl who tended bar there named Susan Palermo, she worked there for ages. And she would tell Hilly Kristal: “Hey, there’s this crazy guy from Detroit—he’s calling again.” I’d say, “Could you just put the phone down so I could listen to the groups?” I heard part of a set by the Talking Heads like that. It sounded like it was through a phone, but I was getting all excited, you know—this sounds like what I like. My phone bill was incredible, $200 bucks. In the summer of 1976 I went to New York City. I saw the second Dead Boys show at CBGB. I saw the Dictators. Handsome Dick and his girlfriend at the time, Jodi at the time, said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m from Detroit.” They said, “Have you ever seen the Stooges?” “Yeah man, I saw them millions of times, the best shows, the ones in Detroit.” I was thinking, “none of these people have seen shit.’
Chris Panackia , aka Cool Chris (sound man at every locale in Detroit): The only people that could stand punk rock music were the gays, and Bookie’s was a drag bar, so they accepted them as “look at them. They’re different.” “They’re expressing themselves.” Bookie’s became the place that you could play. Bookie’s had its clique, and there were a lot of bands that weren’t in that clique. Such as Cinecyde. The Mutants really weren’t. Bookie’s bands were the 27, which is what the Ramrods became. Coldcock, the Sillies, the Algebra Mothers, RUR. Vince Bannon and Scott Campbell had…Bookie’s because it was handed to them basically. You know, “Okay, let’s do this punk rock music. We got a place.” To get a straight bar to allow these bands that drew flies to play at a Friday and Saturday night was nearly impossible. What bar owner is going to say, “Oh yeah, you guys can play your originals, wreck the place, and have no people”? Perfect for a bar owner. Loves that, right? There really wasn’t another venue.