A reissue of singles from 1966/67 offer the shocking news that, before the Stooges, MC5 and Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger was the rawest and realist Motor City music maker
“Make your goal the first foxhole!” scream/snarls the singer as the band bashes out a garage rock variation of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.” “And hide your head beneath the bed!”
Wait, could this be the same guy who would conquer the airwaves a decade later with the AOR standards “Night Moves” and “Like A Rock”? Or is this some other guy named Bob Seger, who cut this frenetic portrait of “Persecution Smith” in some hole-in-the-wall studio in 1966, never to be heard from again?
To the shock of many listeners only familiar with his superstar output, it is indeed the same Bob Seger. (Or should that be, the “Still the Same” Bob Seger?) In 1966 and 1967, he unleashed a clutch of singles—most recorded at Detroit’s United Sound Systems—that at times were rawer than anything else in his lengthy discography.
“East Side Story” sounds much like a garage Bruce Springsteen, its tense tale of a working-class criminal’s death backed by a grinding fuzz riff and cinematic bongos. “Persecution Smith” itself qualifies as one of the best knockoffs of Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited.
“Vagrant Winter” almost corkscrews out of control in its circus-like swirl of organ, ominous backup vocals, and apocalyptic lyrics, sung by Seger with the urgency of a man who’ll miss his train if he doesn’t squeeze in every last word.
Yet these are mixed with quite different cuts that, while a testament to his versatility, are incongruous almost to the point of absurdity. “Florida Time” takes the surf/hot rod rock of Jan & Dean to spring break—a concept that was never as likely to catch on as “Surf City.” “Very Few” is an unexpectedly sentimental ballad—or perhaps expectedly, given Seger’s success with such material much later. “Sock It To Me Santa” is a seasonal James Brown tribute, and “Heavy Music” as much white soul as it is garage rock.
Although mostly unknown to listeners outside of Michigan, some of these 45s actually got a lot of action in Detroit. “East Side Story” went to #3 on regional charts and sold more than 50,000 copies locally. “Persecution Smith” went to #9 on those charts, and “Heavy Music” (actually spread over two parts of the same single) all the way to the top. Like the other singles, however, “Heavy Music” failed to gain a foothold nationally, peaking at #103—though even that bubble under the Top Hundred marked the only time these singles showed up on Billboard’s listings.
Seger moved on to Capitol after “Heavy Music,” in part because there wasn’t much of a future for his early label, Cameo Records.
“All of a sudden, we couldn’t get anybody at Cameo to answer the phone,” he remembered in the June 15, 1978 Rolling Stone. “So we got on a plane and went to New York, went up to the building where the company was and knocked and knocked on the door of their office. Finally, a janitor came out of the elevator and said, ‘Nobody’s there. They’re gone.’”
The five 1966-67 45s credited to Bob Seger & the Last Heard remain, for the most part, last heard in 1967. In large part it’s because they were never reissued on album after appearing on Cameo (though “East Side Story” and “Persecution Smith” were first put out on Detroit’s small Hideout label before getting picked up by Cameo for national distribution).
The Last Heard perform “East Side Story” on Swingin’ Time, Detroit’s answer to American Bandstand, hosted by Robin Seymour:
Fans not lucky enough to have been able to buy the original editions had to resort to hearing them on unofficial pirate/bootleg LPs and CDs. I first came across some of the tracks in the early 1980s when a few showed up on the unauthorized double-LP Michigan Brand Nuggets, a superb anthology of Michigan garage rarities spanning the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s.
The early Seger sides counted among the most historically important—and best—‘60s rock recordings that had never found their way back into print. Until now, that is, as ABKCO put all ten of his Cameo cuts on the new compilation Heavy Music: The Complete Cameo Recordings 1966-1967. The running time’s unavoidably short due to the absence of any material save those five singles. As compensation, however, the informed historical liner notes give the basic lowdown on this hitherto uncompiled corner of Seger’s career.
“The people that know the Silver Bullet Band, they know his ‘70s and his ‘80s work,” says ABKCO’s Teri Landi, producer of the reissue. “Even if they’re familiar with the early-‘70s stuff, they might be surprised by it. It’s pretty raucous. ‘Persecution Smith’ is just slamming. The musicianship is pretty fantastic. I can see how he was on his way to becoming a really great songwriter with [songs like] ‘East Side Story’—being able to tell stories, being able to create a narrative.”
The B-side of “East Side Story,” “East Side Sound,” is an instrumental version of the same song, but Landi doesn’t see it as filler. “I love the bongos on ‘East Side Story,’ and it really stands out when you listen to just ‘East Side Sound,’ because it’s a fantastic instrumental. You think ‘Okay, they just strip the vocals.’ But it’s pretty fantastic when you hear it. It’s one of the reasons why I had to close out the entire collection [with it]. I wanted to do something a little bit more creative in the sequencing, and not just have it to be presented as chronological singles. So I felt it was a good idea to bookend it with ‘Heavy Music’ and ‘East Side Sound.’
“I wanted to make sure this was done right, and make a nice-looking package,” she emphasizes. “We wanted to make sure that Bob and Punch [longtime Seger manager/producer Punch Andrews] were happy with the mastering work.”
Seger himself was not interviewed for the liner notes, and it remains mysterious why it took so long for these vital early efforts to get back into wide circulation. But even if Bob doesn’t reflect on these formative years these days, he did make some observations at the time that shed some light on where his head was at when he recorded these singles.
“East Side Story,” he told the Detroit Free Press in a September 1966 article, is “social protest about poverty and what poverty can do. I’m using death in the song [whose anti-hero dies in the course of committing a crime] because death is the ultimate. If someone dies, then people ask why. In the song, the guy died from poverty.”
As for “Persecution Smith,” “People always ridicule us for our hair. In the song, Smith is personifying persecution and the record talks about the silly things this guy wastes his time on. I call him Smith to show he’s the average person.”
It’s an average-guy working-class perspective that would inform Seger’s later, albeit much slicker, material. “I think problems should be brought out into the open,” he added. “You can use music as a vehicle to bring these things out.” Tantalizingly, writes Loraine Alterman in this story, “Bob sits up all night singing songs into a tape recorder. So far he’s written about 150 numbers”—which, even if an exaggeration, means it’s quite possible some interesting tunes were not recorded at the time, and never will be heard.
In addition, Seger and the Last Heard were musically quite akin to the gritty, heavily R&B-informed rock of the best Detroit garage, blue-eyed soul, and later hard rock of the mid-to-late ‘60s. You might not think to lump him in with the MC5 and the Rationals, two bands that personified hard-charging Detroit rock, though the MC5 achieved much more notoriety than the more pop-soul-inclined Rationals. But when Seger’s heard in such company on Michigan Brand Nuggets, he not only fits in seamlessly, but stands out as one of the most talented, inventive, and energetic of the early Motor City rabble-rousers.
The soul boy in Seger came out strongest in “Heavy Music,” one of the numerous anthems of the day that celebrated an actual style. “Heavy music is a combination of percussion and voice using every type of percussion instrument — tambourine, cow bell, hand-clapping, maracas, drums, bongos — and a very loud bass line that keeps pushing it,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 1967. “It’s a whole new thing — slightly angry, slightly hostile. You can dance to it, since it has the wildest dance beat… It’s the most exciting, but not the most beautiful, kind of music.”
The record’s failure to bust out nationally, by the way, might have had to do with something else besides Cameo going bust. “A lot of people really misconstrued it,” Seger told Creem in 1972. “That was a song about the music, but a lot of people thought it was a song about music and sex, the two together. There was nothing sexual in it, it was simply read in by a lot of program directors. The part about goin’ deeper… They said, ‘You know, you better go in and re-record that tail end, put something different on that ending, because no one’s ever gonna play it.’”
Seger also had the nerve to favorably compare himself, on the actual 45, to one of the heavyweight white soul-rock singers, Stevie Winwood. “Bob says he got his inspiration from the two Steve Winwood-Spencer Davis records,” wrote Loraine Alterman in the same story. “According to Bob, the Winwood records were almost heavy music, but not quite.” Again the paper hinted there were quite a few other unheard Seger compositions, adding, “But he still writes twenty message songs for every one heavy music number he creates.”
One of those message songs, issued as his first Capitol single, is as inspirationally rowdy as anything on Heavy Music—and, unfortunately, not included, as it’s not part of his Cameo catalog. “2 + 2 = ?” counts not just as Seger’s finest message song, but as one of the best anti-war songs by anyone.
Unlike some other protest rockers of the day, Bob doesn’t beat about the bush. He doesn’t just question whether he or we should be in a war (unnamed, but obviously Vietnam), but brings it all back home to the average grunt serving on the front lines. His Joe average high school buddy, he scream-weeps, is now buried in the mud overseas after parting with his girlfriend – all for freedom, and to save lies. That’s not a typo: to save “lies,” not lives. The pounding riffage and insistent backup vocal chants are a match for any of his previous singles, punctuated by a diving howl of distorted guitar before the final refrain.
The Capitol 45 version of “2 + 2 =?,” incidentally, is much better than the milder one on his first album, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man (credited to the Bob Seger System). The title track would reach the Top Twenty and became a premature breakthrough for Seger—premature because he wouldn’t enter the Top Twenty again until 1976’s “Night Moves.” As a young teenager, I even remember hearing a radio ad for Seger in the mid-‘70s that went something along the lines of, “Remember Bob Seger and ‘Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man’? He’s still around, check him out!”
Those mid-‘70s records, as well as the even bigger ones that followed, had a smoother and higher-fi sound than the relatively basic Cameo singles. Those 45s were probably meant to grab your attention on the car radio or transistor, not high-end home stereos. But their adrenaline-fueled production has a rush altogether different from the more sophisticated hits. It doesn’t just mark them as products of their time, but ensures they still sound exciting today.
“One thing is for certain,” stresses Teri Landi. “You want to keep the crunchy integrity of the recordings. You don’t want to change them. These recordings, you put a needle on the record, and they just jump right out at you. They were meant basically to do that, whether you were listening on a tiny speaker or a larger stereo system. You just don’t mess with them too much.
“When you listen to these recordings and really scrutinize them, you hear things in there. You hear noises, all sorts of kinds of clicks , and all sorts of, let’s just say, dirt in there. You have to really gauge whether you want to take things out of there.”
But fancier production might not have suited these rough’n’ready mini-opuses. “The better the studio, the worse the recording might come across,” Landi acknowledges. “This is not Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. You want that crunchiness. You don’t want too much separation in the instruments. You really don’t.”