Sure, it's a Thursday night, but you'd still expect more people to be here, especially for a free, all-ages show. Tonight's the grand reopening of the Royal Oak Music Theatre, and the local music onstage throughout the evening has slowly evolved from dreadful to inspired, the latter courtesy of the Singles, a rocking trio fronted by two guys who, from a distance, both resemble young Peter from Peter & Gordon and sound like Buddy Holly filtered through the last four decades of power-pop magic.
So, at least musically, the mood is pretty good by the time headliners the Go hit the stage. They sound and look terrific, despite the acoustics the theater can sound cavernous when it's less than one-third full. The Go recently released, by far, one of 2007's best rock albums; Howl on the Haunted Beat You Ride is full of great songs that at once sound like those you've never heard and ones you have heard (and loved) countless times it's the whole archetypal thing and always a benchmark of classic rock 'n' roll.
Perhaps melodic psychedelic pop-rock played and sung well is passé these days. Who knows? Certainly not me. But if it's not, why isn't this band huge ... or at least big ... or at least more famous? And why isn't the Royal Oak Music Theatre even close to packed tonight? After all, these guys are certain that they've created a "hit record" this time out.
It's not like the Go doesn't have its core group of fanatics and believers. Matthew Smith, local rock 'n' roll renaissance man and leader of Outrageous Cherry, among other local bands, was there nearly from the beginning, offering career and political advice and producing numerous tracks for the fledgling band. He remains a true believer.
"From the first 10 seconds of the first time I saw them, standing on a Polish banquet hall stage in Hamtramck, looking like dazed juvenile delinquents who just stepped out of a time machine, I knew instantly that they were the best rock 'n' roll band I'd ever heard," he says. "They looked like all the cultural and musical events of the last 20 years had gone unnoticed by them, like they'd never even heard of Nirvana, but were still excited about the Guess Who, War, Traffic, Soft Machine, Lou Reed, the Fugs, Kim Fowley and Frank Zappa. And they were determined to produce music that would meet the standards of their musical heroes." If one adds the Kinks, Small Faces, T. Rex and Bowie to that mix, you begin to get even closer to the hodgepodge of influences that make up the latest album.
The pseudonymous Jasper, who runs the irreverent, smartass and timely Detroit rock blog webvomit.com, recently posted on the site: "I love the Go. The Go and the Hentchmen are responsible for me discovering local music. They're the fucking best."
For me, the revelation came in L.A. when someone (don't know who) sent me the Go's eponymous, second "officially released" LP (frequently referred to as "The Red Album"), which was basically only promoted in Europe. Didn't know anything about them at that point, aside from reading in several places that they'd once had Jack White in the band. But from the very first time I heard the very first track, the charmingly infectious "Capricorn," I knew ... well, I knew that it was an incredibly terrific rock 'n' roll song. It grabbed me more immediately than anything by, say, the White Stripes had to date.
"The Go are completely overlooked, get little respect, and it makes me nuts," says Ivan Suvanjieff (aka Mark Norton), the former Detroit rock scenester, Ramrods leader and CREEM editor, who's become something of a "spiritual adviser" to the band. "I really feel that people have been force-fed so much crap now for decades that they are most likely to miss what's truly worth the trouble, truly worth the money."
"I dunno," Jasper responds regarding the band's lack of recognition. "If I knew the answer to that, I'd fix it. I think they did have a window of opportunity there to be the next Strokes. But they are brilliant songwriters. That's it. The end."
"I think their second album not coming out on Sub Pop threw their career into a state of chaos," Smith concludes. "But I think with Howl..., they're now ready to have a hit record."
"I don't think we've ever drawn a thousand people in Detroit," admits Bobby Harlow, the Go's 32-year-old lead singer and co-songwriter. "That's just never happened. It's approximately 300 people every time we play."
It's several weeks after the Royal Oak show, the band's first performance following a West Coast tour that found them packing clubs in Portland, Oakland and San Francisco, but experiencing that same inexplicable but uncomfortably weird "showbiz" vibe they've encountered on previous trips to Hollywood.
"We play to garage rock/indie hipsters throughout the country," he explains. "Because those are the people who'll figure out who's doing what or whatever and do the research. It's all about visibility. And the Go don't have a high profile. I don't even know what Fall Out Boy sound like. But I know what they look like and I know their name. If you have McDonald's on every corner, people are going to know McDonald's."
Bobby's joined on this sunny Friday afternoon in a downtown coffee shop by his longtime pal and collaborator, 30-year-old John Krautner, the band's bassist and other songwriter. It was these two, along with drummer Mark Fellis, who began the framework of the Go in the mid-'90s, recording tapes and jamming in Fellis' family's basement in Sterling Heights. None of them had ever been in a band before. It'd be two years before they played out, making their "official" major Detroit premiere at the Magic Stick in January of '98. By this time, White (who had the White Stripes going simultaneously) and guitarist-bassist Dave Buick were part of the band.
"Before the Magic Stick, though, we played a lot of shows at the Gold Dollar in front of, like, [Detroit Cobras co-founder] Steve Shaw," Bobby laughs. "There'd be Steve, holding a beer, standing at the bar. And Amy Abbott bartending. And nobody else. We did a lot of those kind of shows."
John is laughing hard at Bobby's memories. In fact, John laughs a lot a good, friendly, hearty laugh at Bobby's and his own comments. What's most striking about these two is how down-to-earth they are for "modern rock 'n' roll dudes" who look like classic, young rock 'n' roll stars. Genuinely nice people, they display what might be described as a naiveté and innocence in their attitude that's refreshing if disarming. The Detroit music community has sometimes been described as insular and, in some ways, the Go could be poster children for that claim.
"We didn't have anything to compare it to, so we were having a good time, regardless," John says of those early gigs. "We were so young and just absorbing everything. I have nothing but good, if somewhat blurry, memories of those days."
"The sound on a stage, with monitors, was just so impressive to us, so we really enjoyed that," Bobby recalls. "And we'd just discovered beer, which helped. The other guys had just turned 21. I'm a little older, but when I was 21, I never partied or went to bars or even had much of a social life. I just played music for myself in my room or whatever. So the Gold Dollar was like ... well, broadening our horizons is an understatement. It was more like tearing down the foundations!"
It was at the Gold Dollar that they finally claim to have found their groove, while playing at one of the club's semiregular "Prom" nights, when the crowd was "just drunk enough and just happy enough," Bobby says, "and we went on with this sorta Flamin' Groovies boogie-rock kinda vibe, and it just kinda struck a chord with everyone. After that, we were regarded as a band to watch."
Less than a year after the Magic Stick debut, the band signed to major indie label Sub Pop after the label's A&R rep Dan Trager home in Detroit for Thanksgiving to visit his family caught a set. Matt Smith just happened to have a demo tape in his car of songs the Go recorded for producer-raconteur Kim Fowley, who was soliciting songs for the Detroit Rock City KISS movie soundtrack. Even if, as Smith claims, this was a band that sounded like they'd never heard Nirvana before, they were soon releasing an album on the very label that had helped Kurt Cobain rise to fame.
Some consider 1999's Whatcha Doin' produced by Smith to be a lo-fi classic. But Bobby and John insist that was at least partially the result of Sub Pop's demand that they include three tracks from "that crummy, hissy, raw demo" "Meet Me at the Movies," "You Can Get High" and "Get You Off" on the album instead of the new versions of the songs the band had produced in the studio. The album was also unfortunately ahead of its time "Even Sub Pop thought rock 'n' roll didn't stand a fat chance in hell of becoming successful or selling a lot of records again," Bobby says, "and they didn't want to hear about any of our friends in Detroit" preceding and foreshadowing the garage rock explosion by a few years.
Following a horrible tour ("with bands we'd never touch with a 10-foot pole"), the band immediately went into Jim Diamond's Detroit studio and recorded a second LP, without really getting Sub Pop's approval. The label was far from amused when receiving the $9,000 tab.
People who've heard Free Electricity claim it's also really ahead of its time, a masterpiece of sorts. But when Sub Pop refused to release it "The [new] A&R man told us, 'It sounds like shit,'" Bobby says, "and we said, 'No, you sound like shit" band and label were suddenly at war with each other.
"From the bottom of our hearts, we wanted them to like the album," John says earnestly. "We were very proud of it."
Dave Buick left when the battles with the label became more than he could bear, later replaced by current guitarist Jimmy McConnell (with Krautner turning permanently to bass onstage). White had already left the band at this point.
"There's no friction between the Go and Jack," says Bobby when questioned about White's recent claims in the press that his Detroit friends have turned their backs on the Stripes. "Which is funny because if there should be any friction in Detroit rock, it should be between the Go and Jack. But there isn't."
Nevertheless, the label fiasco resulted in a loss of momentum for the band. "After being dropped by Sub Pop, there was a period of waiting and wondering what to do," Smith says. "Meanwhile, the Strokes and White Stripes went out and sold a lot of records."
It probably didn't help that their next album 2003's The Go was financed by a British company and released on the UK Lizard King label, which pretty much solely marketed the CD in Europe. ("Most of the UK journalists of the time didn't know anything before Oasis," recalls Smith, "so how were they supposed to explain the Go to their readers?")
Still, the album led to some fun opening slots with the Libertines and their old pal Jack White's band in England ... and even sold an impressive 5,000 copies in the United States with zero American promotion. In retrospect, though, the pair seems more elated that when they were recording the tracks in England, living on one of those studio estates at the time, the leader of Mungo Jerry (yes, that Mungo Jerry, of "In the Summertime" fame) popped his head in the studio one afternoon, excitedly proclaiming: "Now, that's real rock 'n' roll, man!"
As pop culture and rock history aficionados, that's exactly the kind of thing that would excite these guys. During a two-and-a-half hour conversation, their own history is often set aside for tangents on, among other subjects, Mick Farren and the Deviants, Donovan vs. Dylan, Hawkwind, George Harrison, bubblegum (which John simply adores, both as a concept and a musical form and which definitely shows up in his own compositions) Ozzy Osbourne, Gino Washington and Amy Winehouse ("If I was [Detroit Cobras' singer] Rachel Nagy, I'd be a little pissed-off because Amy kinda stepped into that rich R&B voice thing that was Rachel's domain," Bobby argues). And they're big enough pop geeks to admit to copping a vocal and instrumental lick from the Four Seasons at the beginning of "Mary Ann," which some critics thought was copped from the similarly minded Tremelos.
"No! It's the Four Seasons, man!" Bobby mock-protests.
"I really think the Four Seasons evoke that whole weird teenage vibe," says John, the tune's composer. "And that's what I wanted 'Mary Ann' to evoke."
"We also thought it would be funny if people picked up on that," Bobby says. "'The only thing that the Go ripped off on this record is the Four Seasons.'" John is still laughing hard. "'Hey! These guys are a bunch of Four Seasons rip-offs!' Our manager thought it was very cool but also wondered if there could be a lawsuit there. What if Frankie Valli sues us?"
They'd probably find it cool to be associated with such a hip young rock 'n' roll band, the interviewer suggests.
"We'd actually just like to meet the guy," John adds.
Well, when Jersey Boys finally opens in Detroit, he'll probably come to the premiere, as he has in other towns.
"That's a play the Four Seasons wrote the music for?" John asks.
It's their music but unlike other "jukebox musicals," it's also the story of the band. What's really interesting about that play is that if they hadn't become the Four Seasons, they could have become real-life versions of The Sopranos. The Mafia was all around them.
Suddenly, Bobby and John look nervous. "Oh, wait ... !" John says.
"Oh, oh, maybe they won't sue us ... " Bobby adds.
I wouldn't worry about that, the interviewer laughs.
"God, I hope not!" Bobby says.
So maybe they did knick that riff from the Tremelos after all ...
Seriously, though, it's this vast knowledge and mutual love of various cultural touchstones that led to the wonderful songs and sounds on the latest release. The Go appears to be a band of friends as much as musicians and one of the truly unique things about their songwriting is that it's often difficult to distinguish between a "John song" and a "Bobby song." That's how in tune the two's sensibilities are with one another.
"When I first met Bobby, I wanted to know how to write a song," John recalls, "and I asked him in a very general way."
"But you were already writing songs before that time," Bobby counters.
"But not actually writing them out on paper and structuring them like a recipe," John says.
"He's so humble!" Bobby rolls his eyes.
"So he gave me a book of the Beatles chords," John continues. "He said, 'Oh, just learn these and you'll be able to write songs.'" He laughs. "So I was in college [at Eastern], learning those songs. And I ended up recording a T. Rex cover, 'Hot Love,' for a project with some friends. I suddenly realized that those Beatles chords were the same ones that Marc Bolan used to write that song! It was also the first time I actually learned how to play a song from beginning to end. It was a moment of pride because I realized how easy it was. And I thought, 'Well, if it's that easy, it can't be that hard to write something like that or at least half as good as 'Hot Love.' Or a quarter as good as 'Hot Love.' I really like 'Hot Love,'" he deadpans. "And after that, it was a slow process, actually. But sometimes I don't think I've evolved at all as a songwriter." He laughs.
For his part, Bobby remembers being "trapped" and bored in a summer vacation cabin in Caseville and picking up his mother's guitar, which he had yet to master.
"I thought it would be a good project. Could I write a song? I don't even know what my point of reference was back then. I was a teenager so I was listening to modern music the Police, Metallica, Ice T. all came into play. I'd loved all my mom's Beatles records when I was a kid but they'd been put aside for newer stuff. But then, shortly after that, through some hazy experience very late one night, I revisited Abbey Road. And it struck such a chord with me. I heard it in such a way that I made a strange distinction.
"I may have taken something," he laughs. "But the lights were red, and the room was smoky, and I put on Abbey Road and just decided, 'This is better than everything I've ever listened to!' It may seem strange but I completely abandoned all modern music after that. For a whole year, I listened to nothing but the Beatles. Literally. For a year. I wouldn't even let people play me anything else; I was so touchy about it. People would be like, 'Oh, if you love the Beatles, man, you've gotta hear this Donovan track.' And I'd be like, 'No! I'm not ready.' Sure, people thought it was strange. But I'd suddenly realized that the heavy music of Metallica or Ministry or whoever I'd been listening to wasn't really heavy at all. The Beatles were heavy. These guys were conceptually heavy, which was infinitely more heavy than a heavy song. And it literally changed my life."
In many ways, the Fabs have been a major influence on the Go ever since. "I think back to an interview that McCartney gave in which he said, 'Looking back at the Beatles' career, I'm proud that most of the songs are about love and that they're positive,'" Bobby says. "And as an artist, I think that's important. All those other stupid rock clichés just play dumb these days. It's like, c'mon, are you an artist or not? Have you got talent? Because we're in desperate need of that right now. Let's worry about and concentrate on the music. It's even like Eminem. He can say he's not responsible for some guy killing his girlfriend after hearing his song. He's had nothing to do with it. But it's also like, well, yeah, maybe. But you are putting a lot of negativity out there. You've got talent, for sure. But can't you focus it in a positive way? An artist does have to accept a certain amount of responsibility."
That Beatles approach even applies to the studio; Bobby thinks engineer Geoff Emerick and producer George Martin were as much geniuses as the Fab Four were themselves. The new album is the first that Bobby engineered and produced himself, and he describes the process as "the Go putting on our lab coats and becoming like technicians piecing everything together."
"No songs are safe from being totally changed from beginning to end," John says. In fact, they say that "You Go Bangin' On," the poppy track that opens the album (and the only tune the two co-wrote), evolved from "something that sounded like it should be on a Captain Beefheart album," Bobby says, "into something I'm much prouder of ..."
"I believe that most modern recording engineers would never let us get away with some of the things we did on this record," he claims. "If we were on a major label, they'd try to make us sound like Jet."
Not that either of them would be adverse to a major or major-indie label picking up the new album for distribution. (Howl ... is currently available via Ben Blackwell's local Cass label.) Somebody needs to get the word out there. In fact, what the Go needs more than anything is an in-your-face publicist who believes in the band and can convince others that its music is worth investing in. They should not have an e-mail about their most recent gig on a Friday night yet going out to their mailing list at 6 p.m. on the night of the gig. Nevertheless, things appear to be on the upswing. The album just received a four-star review in the highly influential MOJO magazine, one of their only glowing ones thus far on British soil (even if it was inked by local MT contributor Mike Hurtt). Famed local Grammy-winning (for his work with Eminem) producer Steve King is remixing the killer track "Caroline" for a new video. This follows a just-released animated clip for "You Go Bangin' On."
And if the album doesn't succeed in exposing the Go to a wider public, the guys plan to do what it is they've always done from the time they began playing outside the basement. They've got more than enough songs for a new album, which they plan to begin recording soon. In fact, they'd like nothing better than releasing two albums a year in the grand tradition of the classic, mid-'60s era Beatles/Beach Boys/Stones.
"It's hard to discourage us," Bobby says. "Because we believe in the music we're making and we believe in what we do. So you can't discourage us. And a record label can never discourage us. You can frustrate us, though. Pretty easily, actually." John laughs hard.
"We're just trying to make a hit record," Bobby concludes. "That's what Haunt... is. That's our version of a hit record. So we're just trying to make another hit. It's hilarious because we know it's the antithesis of a hit record. In some weird bizarro world, it might be a hit record. But who knows? Maybe 40, 45 years ago, it could've been a hit record. I don't know. In today's world, it's not. But in our minds, this is a hit record."
The Go headline Jam for Sudan, a benefit for Darfur relief, with the Hentchmen, the Muldoons, the Beggars, the Sisters Lucas and Zoos of Berlin, at the Majestic Theatre, 4140 Woodward Ave., on Saturday, Oct. 20.Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]