Bob Seger’s secret sonic past
I had no idea Bob Seger was an early punk. He'd always been the definition of mainstream to me—a gravelly, guttural, overtly masculine voice that has pervaded radio stations since the mid-’70s. And he’s been as relentlessness as fellow testosterone-imbued acts Foreigner, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. He's the bearded, quadruple-platinum Heartland rocker who sold Chevy trucks to regular workin' folks by way of "Like a Rock." My parents kept him in their record collections. Bob Seger sucked.
Then I heard the stuff he made in the ’60s. "Heavy Music"—a 1967 single from Bob Seger and the Last Heard—was the introduction. The song begins with snapping fingers and a funky bass groove. Drums, maracas and keys creep in and a 22-year-old Seger proclaims that a good time is about to be had. This is Seger doing protopunk.
It actually makes perfect sense. Seger comes from the music mecca that was Detroit- and Ann Arbor-area Michigan. He began playing in 1961 and achieved regional success by the mid ’60s. It wasn’t until 1976, when his major-label albums Live Bullet and Night Moves were released to national acclaim, that he broke through as the gritty, long-haired, mustachioed balladeer we’ve come to know.
Back in ’67, Seger was a clean-shaven, Cuban heel-wearing hipster with a shaggy bowl cut. And "Heavy Music," released on Cameo Parkway, is a wild song (and should have been a national hit, but the label went defunct shortly after the single’s recording). It's executed with blue-eyed soul and all-out raunch, culminating in Seger vocally freaking out. "Don't you ever feel like goin' insane / When the drums begin to pound / Ain't there ever been a time in your life / You couldn't believe what the band is puttin' down." It might be one of the most dazzling and underrated pieces of rock and roll ever recorded. As it turns out, Bob Seger doesn’t suck at all.
Other psyched-out garage punk gems of the same era include "East Side Story," which features tragic lyrics, heavy distortion, and Seger on both guitar and organ. "Persecution Smith" is a rebellious shouter about “the man” and totes a cool call and response vocal technique. Both were released on Detroit label Hideout.
By 1969—when fellow Detroit protopunkers the MC5 and The Stooges released their first albums—Seger had formed Bob Seger System and was veering away from garage rock and toward bluesy rock and soul (foreshadowing his work with the legendary Alabama session musicians of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section). Still, rare tracks from that era like "Lucifer," "Down Home" and "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" are delectable with a noisy crunch and the buried-treasure-like glow of obscurity.
This music isn’t easy to find, as it’s never officially been reissued. Aside from 1972’s Smokin’ O.P.’s, which contains “Heavy Music” and eight other much less exciting tracks, the only hope for acquiring these singles is via bootleg, Internet vinyl or digging around record stores in Michigan.
Bob Seger, if you’re out there: Please do us a favor and share your mind-blowing, pre-private-jet artistic achievements with the world’s ravenous protopunk fans.