The rock music industry is a young person’s game, and when you get older you get relegated to revival tours because the audience you’ll draw wants to relive their youth through you. If you’re not a giant (Dylan, Neil, Springsteen) who can continue to command attention and create new music, you’re either getting by on reputation (Stones) or you’re off the radar. If you’re lucky, you’ve developed a strong core audience that can help sustain your career. But most of the time, fate isn’t that kind. Not all the greats get the accolades they deserve, and although they may continue to create magic, they do so in relative obscurity while far lesser talents get propped up as the cash cows of the moment.
That’s why I’m here today to remind you about Jim McCarty and John Badanjek, two bonafide living legends of rock’n’roll who have been knocking me out for forty years. And I am absolutely geeked that they are playing together once again, lighting Detroit on fire as The Hell Drivers, and hopefully cutting an album. Yes, I know that every generation swears by the music they grew up with, usually at the expense of most of what came before and after. I’m no exception to my own Wonder Years, although I probably have a wider bandwidth of tolerance than most people I know, and I still voraciously seek out new music every day. I’ve learned to go backwards and appreciate the geniuses who predated my birth, and many of the bands kicking my ass today are young pups with their best days ahead of them.
But I did grow up in a dynamic time, when Britpop and Motown and psychedlia and garage and folk and rock’n’roll all burst out of the speakers and raced up the charts together. The greatest musicians and pop songwriting geniuses of the later twentieth century all seemed to be peaking at once and the result was a few years of the most amazing creativity in music history. If you wanted to stand out during the late 60s, you really had to bring it. And for me, the best rock and roll song from that era is “Devil With A Blue Dress” by Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. That song doesn’t just rock, it explodes – the drums and guitar solo bursting from the speakers to stand toe-to-toe with Ryder’s supercharged vocal. Forty years later the track still sends chills up my spine and makes me drop whatever I’m doing to split time between air guitar and drumming madly on whatever is within arm’s reach.
The Detroit Wheels were composed of the best Detroit musicians at the time, including drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek and a guitar whiz named Jim McCarty. Even more amazing, both were teenagers when the band topped the charts! It would be the first of several professional collaborations over the years, and their friendship remains intact to this day.
Jim McCarty is one of the most underrated guitar players in rock’n’roll history and has the lineage to back that up. At the beginning of his career he was good enough to hang out at Electric Ladyland in NYC trading licks with Jimi Hendrix. He smoked the strings with Buddy Miles, ripped it up with Bob Seger on his Seven album, but really busted out with Cactus. McCarty made the guitar wail, weep and blister for three albums, but when Rusty Day was booted Jim left also, surfacing a few years later in The Rockets along with Johnny Bee. After their nice run, very little was heard from Jim; he started playing in blues bands like Mystery Train in clubs around Detroit. Then, amazingly, Cactus reformed for some gigs and a new album in 2005, and he proved that thirty-plus years later, that brilliant signature tone hadn’t lost a thing.
Johnny Bee moved along with Ryder to form Detroit – talk about your legendary killer rock albums – then later saddled up with The Rockets, where his songwriting skills also got a chance to shine; the band had several hits across five albums. But Bee’s calendar has always been jampacked; the legendary drummer has also played with Alice Cooper, Edgar Winter, Nils Lofgren, Ronnie Montrose and many others. He reuinted with Mitch on a few of the latter’s more recent solo albums and lately has been working most often with The Howling Diablos. He still plays drums like his pants are on fire and propels any band he plays with to greater heights.
Now it looks like Jimmy Mac and Johnny Bee are joining forces once again in The Hell Drivers, covering their own past hits from Mitch Ryder, The Rockets and Cactus along with other Detroit legends like Scott Morgan, The Rationals, Iggy and the Stooges, The Romantics. With Marvin Conrad on bass and Jim Edwards on vocals, it’s true Detroit rock royalty.
The Hell Drivers with the Detroit arrangement of Lou’s “Rock’N’Roll“.
The Hell Drivers breathing new life into “Desire” by The Rockets.
The Hell Drivers tackle The Torpedoes “No Pills” – take that, Sex Pistols!
And Mitch Ryder? He’s been making great records in Germany for the last thirty years. He can still rock it and he can still sing sweet soul music. I cannot wait to hear The Promise – the record he’s making with Don Was – but ‘ll be writing a full piece on the man and his career another day.
Live cut of Mitch performing “Devil With A Blue Dress” from a while back featuring that classic Johnny Bee drum break.