Every so often I Google just to see if he’s still out there, rockin’.
He was in the 60s.
He was in the 70s.
He was in the 80s.
He was in the 90s.
He was in the 00’s.
And he was just in Germany doing it again.
Still alive and well.
I must start off with the disclaimer that I am a huge fan of Mitch Ryder‘s music. I’ve written enough pieces here and elsewhere touting the underappreciated master of gritty, soulful, Dee-troit rock’n’roll, mostly complaining that the general public is largely unaware that he didn’t hang ’em up after a few blazing years with the Detroit Wheels. Ask most people about Mitch Ryder today and they’ll shrug their shoulders; most will only remember the 60’s, and a few might remember the comeback album John Mellencamp produced…in 1983. Only the most devout of fans is even aware that there’s been a steady output of albums in Germany where he has been a superstar since establishing residency a generation ago. He remains an important, vital artist.
I held off on publishing this review for months because I was hoping to release it when it would have done the most good; coinciding with whatever concerted effort was in play to promote the first American album in over a quarter-century from a bonafide legend. But it’s now months later, and…nothing. Apparently I’m too close to the flame and in the vast minority , but either this album was criminally underpromoted, or no one gives a shit about Mitch Ryder anymore. I sure hope it’s the former.
Here’s my review from the current Bucketfull of Brains:
Subtitled The Promise, Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet is the first American studio album for Mitch Ryder in over twenty-five years. It’s really, really good, and I sure hope you have the chance to hear it because like the tree that fell in that forest, when it fell there was no one around…and whatever sound it made wasn’t heard. This album has been out for months, and were I not a Mitch Ryder lifer, I wouldn’t have known about it.
With old Detroit buddy Don Was on hand to twirl knobs, Ryder’s newest finds him bringing the funk as well as singing the blues and rocking out. The greasy, kinetic and keyboard-churning “Junkie Love” not only channels vintage James Brown, but is among the finest tracks Mitch has ever recorded. “Everybody Looses” (sic) scores with the Eric Burdon blueprint, and like Burdon, Ryder has found a new depth to his soulful voice in his post-golden years. Listen to his pipes on “Get Real” as he bends and plies notes with as much power and rasp as he did in his youth. Most of his contemporaries are scaling down arrangements to hide their limitations while Ryder seems to be expanding his to new horizons.
“My Heart Belongs to Me” might steal a riff from “I’ll Take You There” (the Staple Singers classic) but is the perfect vehicle for Ryder’s gruff soul; lyrically witty and timeless in its appeal. Ditto “If My Baby Don’t Stop Cryin'”, a funky urban ramble that could have easily been a roadhouse jukebox hit in his prime. And a live cover of the Jimmy Ruffin classic “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” (oddly placed within the studio tracks) trumps anything Rod Stewart has attempted to do in his last five albums of interpretations. Less appealing are “Lets Keep Dancing” and the Dylan-esque “The Way We Were”, but two clunkers out of twelve is a batting average I’ll take any day.
Oddly enough, for an artist who wants the American audience to realize that he is creating new and vital music, the packaging of the album signals apathy in that regard. The cover is a cut-and-paste of a photo of a twenty-ish Mitch, not the sixty-plus visage of his current self. The liner notes, preceded by a quick note of “Hello England” (?) are merely a reprint of an old bio from 2003 focusing upon Mitch’s early days and how a great career got derailed. At the tail end of the essay there’s a quick note about the Mellencamp project happening after a couple of European solo albums. And lastly – ironically – a statement that “it would be a mistake to consign Mitch Ryder to the past“.
Fair enough, Mitch. But if that’s the case, why is there no mention of all those albums you’ve made since 1983? How about the events that led to this new stab at an American career? Most of America has no idea that you’ve made any music at all since Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, so why would you issue an album of new music in packaging that screams repackaged oldies? Fire your publicist/manager – or hire one – but don’t blame your audience for ignoring your new music if you can’t even muster the energy to acknowledge it yourself. I’m not certain if this excellent album would fly or fail in such fickle times, but to have it die in the womb because of poor marketing is inexcusable.
I grew up in New York City, and when I first heard Mitch Ryder – and most of the magical music of the 60’s – it was on a transistor radio whose dial constantly spun back and forth between WMCA and WABC. Long before the power of Al Gore’s Internet and the availability of magazines from Creem to Mojo, AM radio was it, unless you had the stones to buy a magazine aimed at teenage girls (“Win a date with Paul McCartney!”) to get your rock and roll fix. (I did – Gloria Stavers‘ trailblazing 16 Magazine was my guilty pleasure and my salvation). When I was growing up, those DJ’s were stars, and one of those legendary voices leading the charge was silenced by a heart attack today. Ron Lundy, you took that musical journey with me…R.I.P., my friend. Seventy-seven, W-A-B-C!
And R.I.P. Peter Graves, who would have been eighty-four this Thursday. Mission Impossible was cool as hell, but like Leslie Nielsen, you knew not to take yourself that seriously and are legend thanks to Airplane. Now you’re really under, Ouver!
Has it really been thirty years since Airplane??
Sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind, gas up the puppy and haul yourself elsewhere to get that great rock and roll fix. Consider caution thrown; this weekend is an absolute-must road trip. (And speaking of throwing caution to the wind, it dawned on me that I not only drove a Honda into Detroit but also had an Astros cap on my rear deck window, which probably didn’t make anyone happy that day, either.)
It’s always a bit depressing to hit a city like Detroit and see a smorgasbord of great gigs happening daily. When you live in a smaller city that doesn’t attract a myriad of artists, you learn to keep your eyes and ears open elsewhere. And when I saw this show coming up, I knew I had to go see the legends in their natural habitat.
I’ve already waxed poetic about Jim McCarty and Johnny “Bee” Badanjek, so no need to rehash what you can read here. But sitting ten feet away, watching living legends play with the fire of a garage band getting their first break, was a life-affirming experience. The show was littered with rock classics with Detroit lineage – most of it from first-hand experience (an announcer stated that “if you’re gonna call them a cover band, remember that they’re covering their own material!“). One of the best examples of rock magic ever recorded is Detroit’s cover of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll”…so when The Hell Drivers opened the show with that bomb blast, I knew it was time to strap myself in for the balance.
Callahan’s Music Hall is a great place to see a show – tremendous sound, great sight lines and good people. I shared a table with an area guitarist and two lovely ladies (who shall remain nameless in case their alibi for the evening has them elsewhere). The house was packed and the band was electric, despite already playing a hot set at a festival earlier in the day. The set list was a veritable primer for why Detroit is the epicenter of rock’n’roll – The Rationals, Iggy, Seger, The Romantics, and of course The Rockets. They even slipped in Alice Cooper‘s “I’m Eighteen” as a tribute to Jim Edwards’ wife’s birthday. (Note to authorities – she’s young, but not that young.) The dance floor was filled with several Detroit ladies led by the Motor City Rah Rahs (and at the risk of sounding misogynistic, I absolutely did not mind having my view obscured on occasion.)
I flew to New York City a couple of years ago to watch Jim McCarty play with Cactus at their reunion show, and he was stellar. But onstage with this band, McCarty looks re-energized, ripping solos like a man half his age and looking like he’s having a blast in the process. And maybe that’s the key ingredient here – four musicians who appear to really like and respect each other, playing their asses off for the love of the music.
Jim Edwards is an excellent front man (a lost art), whether wielding the air guitar mike stand or hanging himself with a cord during “No Pills”. He’s got a great voice and belts out vocals truly worthy of the classic material. Marvin Conrad is deceptively quiet, but much like Bill Wyman and John Entwistle he saves his energy for what matters, laying down a rock solid bottom with subtle flashes of brilliance. And I don’t know even where to start with “Bee“, who gets more mileage out of a small standard drum kit than most arena rockers with their Starship Enterprise configurations. McCartyjust wailed all night, the highlight might have been the all-out assault on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, complete with string pulling antics and using the mike stand for a slide – it was absolutely Stooge-esque. His intro to “Oh Well” is a Detroit crowd favorite, and my jaw wasn’t the only one on the floor when he put on that clinic.
I could go on and on – the Rationals arrangement of “Respect”, the blistering version of “Takin’ It Back” – twenty-one songs and not a clunker in the bunch. What the future will hold in store for the band remains to be seen, but they mentioned an upcoming live release as well as a show with Alice Cooper for starters. Hopefully someone will wake up and smell the rock’n’roll and get these guys onto stages around the country like they deserve. Until then, I heartily recommend that you follow their activities here, and if you need to jump in your car to go see them…then dammit, you need to do it.
Assuming you have the Desire, of course.
It’s only appropriate that the band plays the theme from The Godfather before Mitch Ryder takes the stage. After all, Mitch is the Godfather of Detroit Rock’n’Roll. On this new live album, Ryder and the current version of the Detroit Wheels prove that Ryder is still a vital force forty years after smashing through transistor radio speakers with hits like “Sock It To Me”, “Jenny Take a Ride”, Little Latin Lupe Lu” and “Devil With a Blue Dress On”.
The Mitch Ryder experience that America gets these days is a lot different from what the Eurpoean audiences enjoy. Across the pond Ryder is still viewed as a creative force and he’s released several albums. He usually tours with a different band (most recently Engerling) and plays a more diverse setlist that features newer music. Here in America, thanks to clueless radio programming, there’s no room to enjoy these treasures, so the set is mostly recognizable hits. To his credit, Ryder does not shortchange the fans just because the media doesn’t respect him. He always has a great band, plays a lengthy set, and will slip in a couple of great non-hits inbetween the ringers.
This set was recorded in Las Vegas in 2008 and the sound is phenomenal; editing mixes the audience down and trims the between song pauses to a minimum. The 2008 version of The Detroit Wheels are mostly younger Michigan guys – some played with Uncle Kracker – but the band is airtight and Ryder is in great voice. In addition to the aforementioned major Wheels hits, highlights include the Prince cover “When You Were Mine”, an extended version of “Gimme Shelter” (featuring a tasty Stones medley intro on piano by Patrick Harwood), and a swinging version of “C’est La Vie”. And, of course, his version of Lou Reed‘s Rock And Roll has been the definitive arrangement since he cut it with the band Detroit in 1970.
Ryder not only has another live album coming out in Germany (Air Harmonie, on the BuschFunk label) but also has recently completed The Promise with producer Don Was, which will hopefully be his first American release since 1983’s Never Kick A Sleeping Dog. Ryder just turned 64 years old but sounds like a man half that age; he’s still one of the very best vocalists in the history of rock’n’roll.
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.