Imported from Detroit
Mick Collins tackles techno with the Dirtbombs’ double bass and drums bombast
Published: March 2, 2011
Some bread and cheese and fine white wine
Designer chic is a matter of time
Could this be the real thing?
Or is this just another fling?
In 1980, a group of young black men from Detroit recorded a dance tune. Rather than the waning American disco scene or their fathers’ ’70s funk, they drew their inspiration from then-rising Euro disco, synthesized dance-floor minimalism with a cool, even chilly, modernist sheen. One of them affected a ridiculous fake Continental accent to intone aspirational lyrics about some random stylishly dressed proto-player “cruising with his hot playmate/ In his Porsche 928” and nibbling “bread and cheese and fine white wine.” They cribbed an insidious chanted chorus for the throbbing, ominous track from the name of a local club, Sharevari, which itself was an homage to the New York boutique Charivari. Released under the name A Number of Names, “Sharevari” spread beyond Detroit to become an underground club hit and one of the early cornerstones of what would become techno, which would go on to catalyze a revolution in dance music, and music in general, first in Europe, then around the world.
Which brings us to the new Dirtbombs album, Party Store (In the Red). The second track opens with the familiar 4/4 stomp-clap, this time created by actual bass drum and actual hand claps, followed by the bottom-end ostinato thumped out on an electric bass, then a four-note synth hook twanged out on a reverb-laden guitar. Before you know it, singer/guitarist Mick Collins, who was also a young black man in Detroit in 1980 before going on to devote the next 30-odd years of his life to gutbucket rock and other like-minded pursuits, is putting on a ridiculous fake Continental accent to intone “cruising with his hot playmate/ In his Porsche 928.” The title is spelled “Sharivari” on the track listing, but otherwise it is a remarkably faithful likeness.
So what we have here is black teenagers from Detroit imitating white Europeans to create electronic music that would go on to inspire electronic music that would be patronized most enthusiastically by white Europeans, and that is now, decades later, being reclaimed by a garage-rock band led by a middle-aging former black teenager from Detroit. Somehow it never seemed that the inevitable techno revival would look like this.
Even if few distanced observers could have predicted that Collins would come out with an album of classic Detroit techno covers, it seems exactly like something he would do. Though he’s become known outside Detroit for banging out feral rock music for three decades now—initially with the Gories, with which he pioneered the guitar-drums-no-bass attack that fellow Detroiters the White Stripes rode to glory—he’s no plodding revivalist. Indeed, he’s steered a restless course, tackling straight punk and straight funk with various side projects. Even within the Dirtbombs’ discography, which encompasses 2001’s Ultraglide in Black with its fuzzy R&B and soul covers and 2008’s pop-textured (but still fuzzy) We Have You Surrounded, pegging Collins as a garage-rock dude misses the larger picture. As he told Detroit’s CP sister paper Metro Times in 2008, “The Gories was something to tide me over until I finally got a house 12-inch out. And the Gories record came out, I said, ‘OK, I guess I’m doing this for a while.’ But I never quit making electronic music.”
Well, now he’s back to house music, or its coevolutionary roots, not as an electronic project but with the double-bass, double-drums Dirtbombs. Collins and company open by turning the slippery synth hook of Cybotron’s 1982 “Cosmic Car” into the kind of lumbering, low-down garage riff on which the Sonics built a legend—exactly what you might expect a project like this to sound like. Indeed, the techno tracks that are mostly built on simple riffs and beats fit the band surprisingly well, from their version of Inner City’s “Good Life” with Collins’ soulful vocals subbing for Paris Gray’s originals to a take on Cybotron’s electro-flavored 1981 “Alleys of Your Mind” that would have blended into any of the past few Dirtbombs albums easily. And the straight-ahead, insanely catchy “Sharivari” cover confirms the loving nature of the project as well as the fact that this music is as much a part of Collins’ birthright as Motown or Detroit rock ‘n’ roll.
But the Dirtbombs fall apart here when they tackle the sleeker mature techno classics. The silvery electronic spine shiver that is Derrick May’s 1987 classic “Strings of Life” loses its delicacy and bright uplift, its soufflé-like cells of barely formed, barely repressed joy, under the Bombs’ relatively heavy hand, and thus loses its point. And Carl Craig’s fleet 1992 landmark “Bug in the Bassbin” (released under the name Innerzone Orchestra), originally built around a slick, quick-shuffling drum fill from an Enoch Light easy-listening platter, stumbles along gracelessly under the massed sticks of Pat Patano and Ben Blackwell. The track runs for more than 20 minutes, and the frantically soloing Collins seems to be shooting for the expansive, epic feel that Craig’s original (and its many remixes) so effortlessly achieved. But even with Craig himself sitting in on synths, it doesn’t fly.
Collins aims high, and misses big, but that’s not to say Party Store’s not worth dropping by. The album closes with a cover of a more recent and less august Detroit legend: DJ Assault. “Tear the Club Up” consists of less than two minutes of thumping drums, a gnarled guitar solo, and the Dirtbombs chanting “Tear the club up/ Tear the fucking club up.” And for all the massed significance writers and fans have laid on a group of black teenagers from Detroit and the music they made, it bears remembering that they were making dance music. While Party Store’s likely to clear most actual dancefloors, the best bits would tear the fucking rock club up—or maybe just the living room—and that’s enough.
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