The beat goes on, but the city of Detroit might not

Home to some of the most celebrated music of the past sixty years, Motor City has filed for bankruptcy

Ian Burrell
Friday 19 July 2013 14:30
November 2008: A person walks past the remains of the Packard Motor Car Company, which ceased production in the late 1950s in Detroit
November 2008: A person walks past the remains of the Packard Motor Car Company, which ceased production in the late 1950s in Detroit

I could weep for Detroit. How could an entire city go bust – especially one with such a cultural legacy, a town whose songs are still all around us and have never lost their capacity for filling us with joy and optimism?

The most famous soul record label of them all took its very name from the place that gave it life: Motown, the Motor City. But that was then, when The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey and Little Stevie Wonder captured the changing energies that came with the 1960s Civil Rights movement and convinced the world that everything was changing for the better.

Only this week I pulled on a Tamla Motown T-shirt (a trusty item bought from the classifieds of Black Echoes music paper back in the Eighties). I was only walking the dog but it gave me the chance to make a tiny statement of positivity. Everyone loves Motown right?

But now Detroit has filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States, the classic and instantly-recognisable compositions of Holland-Dozier-Holland will never sound quite so hopeful. For one of America’s great manufacturing cities it must be such a humbling time. 'Ain’t Too Proud to Beg', as the Temps once sang.

In truth, Detroit’s musical back catalogue goes way beyond the great Berry Gordy hit factory. It was a key town for the blues, and some of the most electrifying moments in rock and roll, from the emergence of MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges in the late Sixties through to the game-changing low-fi output of Meg and Jack White – White Stripes – at the end of the Nineties. Its techno sound – espoused by the likes of Derrick May and Juan Atkins - was hugely important in the growth of dance music in the Eighties.

The home town of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – the “big three” of the American car industry – has always had a serious tone to its soundtrack, no matter how strongly a song dragged you towards the dance floor. Think of Marvin Gaye’s 'What’s Going On?' for Motown in 1971, and you remember that social decay and inequality were never forgotten.

Rapper Eminem is another superstar child of Detroit, which thanks largely to the work of the revered late producer J Dilla retains a reputation as a centre for underground Hip Hop. Eminem’s film 8 Mile was a reminder of the tough trailer park living conditions on the edge of the city that he experienced as a child.

But, even though I’d read of the travails of the US motor industry in the face of foreign competition, I personally never registered quite how bad things were until three years ago when I watched Julien Temple’s mesmerizing Requiem for Detroit documentary, which captured a city that had been hollowed out. Huge, beautiful factory buildings had been gutted. The city centre didn’t seem to have any residential purpose any longer. In a place built in homage to the motor car, many of the main highways were deserted. It was a haunting film and I urge you to watch it.

For shocking though it was, it was also prescient – as the Chapter 9 petition by the crippled city demonstrates. Among all the bouncy love songs, the Motown repertoire already has the story covered. “It makes me wanna holler, and throw up my hands,” sang Marvin on 'Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)'.

We walk with our music collections these days, and so many of us carry a little bit of Detroit in our pockets - let’s hope it lives on in more than just its songs.

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