Detroit Shines On as a Top Rock ‘n’ Roll Destination
Story by Ashley Zlatopolsky | Photos by Bob Seger courtesy of Ken Settle; MC5 courtesy of Third Man Records; Small's courtesy of Melody Baetens
The famous moniker “Detroit Rock City” isn’t just a nickname. Instrumental to the development of blues, jazz, garage rock, Motown and techno, Detroit paved the way for a variety of music genres to grow and travel across the world, laying the foundation for new scenes, sounds and artists that would influence pop culture for decades to come.
Detroit’s rock history is one of the city’s timeless, standout stories. From celebrated venues to bands that have impacted generations of fans, Detroit has been and continues to be one of America’s top rock ‘n’ roll destinations worth visiting, regularly adding new chapters to its ever-expanding history.
Then and now, here’s how 60 years of rock ‘n’ roll shaped Detroit sound.
Bob Seger performing circa 1973
The Early Days of Detroit Rock Music
The 1960s saw the growth of teen clubs around Detroit, Ann Arbor and Saginaw, where budding bands and musicians played shows for young crowds. They were some of the first places where Bob Seger stunned audiences with his raspy, powerful voice. The Eagles’ Glenn Frey’s early bands Four of Us and the Mushrooms also headlined teen clubs.
"I think we all kind of felt like Seger was our secret,” Ken Settle, longtime Detroit music photographer, says. He recalls watching Seger at his earlier shows, passing the mic to his audience to sing along with him. “It was almost like you were watching musical greatness doing a living room gig.”
As the 1970s drew near, names such as the Stooges, a fiery, four-piece outlet out of Ann Arbor led by wild frontman Iggy Pop; Alice Cooper, shock rocker extraordinaire; and Rare Earth, a soulful, psychedelic group began to circulate through the local Michigan rock scenes. They were loud, proud and unabashedly outrageous. It was this carefree, energetic attitude driven by a time of political unrest and social change that gave the music a sense of freedom, an outlet for people looking for something new and exciting.
The now-iconic CREEM Magazine, which billed itself as “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine,” also originated out of metro Detroit in 1969. With stories written by Lester Bangs, often hailed as one of the greatest rock music writers of all time, the monthly publication pushed out features on new artists who were leading Michigan’s underground rock scene. The local publicity soon became national, and Detroit rock music was on the rise.
Classic Detroit Venues that Shaped the Sound
In July 1970, at Wayne State University’s Tartar Field, MC5 (or Motor City 5) put on a thrashing, high-energy performance with cars on the nearby freeway whizzing by that would later be hailed as one of the single greatest nights in Detroit rock history. Early pioneers of the punk rock movement, MC5 were responsible for the timeless rock hit “Kick Out The Jams.”
Housing most of MC5’s performances was Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, the city’s home of rock ‘n’ roll and counterculture. Owned by radio deejay Russ Gibb, the now-defunct venue off of Grand River Avenue also saw the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and more, along with local stars Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. In its short six years of operation as a rock venue (1966-1972), the Grande Ballroom made music history.
With the 1980s rolling around a new sound dominated Detroit: garage rock. It was at The Gold Dollar in the city’s Cass Corridor, which recently burned down in a fire, where some of the biggest garage rock bands of all time launched their careers, including the White Stripes and the Gories. Through the 1990s, the small venue was packed with local bands and fans. For punk rock and metal, meanwhile, Blondies and Harpos were go-to spots.
Also key to shaping Detroit’s rock music history were its stadiums. Olympia Stadium, no longer in existence, hosted early concerts by The Beatles as Beatlemania swept America. Glam rock band KISS played their first 1996 reunion show at the former Tiger Stadium, their smash hit “Detroit Rock City” filling the streets. Opening the show was Sponge, a local alternative rock band ruling the airwaves with their 1994 debut album Rotting Piñata.
While many of the venues are now gone, their influence lives on.
MC5 performs at Third Man Records Cass Corridor
Today’s Top Detroit Rock Venues
A new group of rock venues in Detroit and Hamtramck carry on the tradition today. St. Andrew’s Hall, a main destination since the 1980s for rock music and beyond, has witnessed breakthrough performances by some of the biggest bands of all time, including Nirvana, Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s where many touring artists continue to play in Detroit.
For indie rock music, UFO Factory in the Corktown neighborhood is a key destination. With a variety of music and art shows, this low-key venue is a favorite amongst locals and visitors alike. A creation of Jack White’s, a Detroit native who has been instrumental in the growth of the city’s rock culture and industry, Third Man Records Cass Corridor also sees local and national artists taking the stage in the retail store’s performance space.
Connected to the retail store is Third Man Pressing, a vinyl record pressing plant that brings back new releases of classic Detroit records (and more) while also pressing records for today’s budding and established artists.
“Detroit has had a lot of pioneers and originators over the years,” Roe Peterhans, Head of Operations at Third Man Records Cass Corridor says. “A lot of genres can trace their roots back to Detroit.”
The influence travels to the nearby Hamtramck neighborhood, too, where the sounds of rock ‘n’ roll can be heard at several intimate music venues. The recently reopened dive bar Outer Limits Lounge features everything from glam punk bands to indie garage groups. Just a few blocks down, Ant Hall’s concert hall and performance space combines theater, music and art.
Small’s Bar is one of Hamtramck’s biggest destinations for rock music. The two-room bar features both local and national touring artists. A versatile venue that accommodates many musical tastes, including industrial, heavy metal and more, it’s also a gathering space for the city’s music industry.
“A lot of the musicians from Detroit's rock music history are still around here [at Small’s],” co-owner Melody Baetens says. “Mike Skill from the Romantics is a regular at Small's. Wayne Kramer [of MC5] did an event and sang karaoke last year.”
Small's Bar in Hamtramck
Setting the Stage for Rock ‘n’ Roll
The heart of the Midwest, Detroit’s unique industrial landscape set the stage for rock ‘n’ roll, among other genres, to thrive. “Detroit has always been a working class city, a large one,” Peterhans says. “There has always been plenty of affordable space for artists to develop their craft.”
According to Baetens, Detroit gave many artists a chance to rent affordable spaces and work at jobs that allowed the freedom and flexibility to travel on tour for a few weeks at a time. “It's the rustbelt, blue-collar work ethic,” she says, “and the opportunities that come with having nothing to lose.”
Today, because of those opportunities, Detroit’s influence reaches worldwide. “From where I sit I see that there's a lot of respect for Detroit and Michigan's rock history, especially when it comes to the MC5 and the Stooges,” Baetens continues. “You hear everyone from older punk bands to the kids from School of Rock and the like covering those bands as staples.”