He laughed at accidental sirens
That broke the evening gloom
The police had warned of repercussions
They followed none too soon
James Osterberg Jr. is better known as Iggy Pop. He grew up in a trailer park in Michigan and got to know the ups and downs of life in the 1960s. He had a lot to do with the early days of punk music and played in many bands over many years. Iggy knew a bit about revolution and was an impolite critic of the status quo. He also had first-hand knowledge of the 1967 street riots in Detroit, Michigan, his home state.
A soldier during the Detroit Riots of 1967
It would have been difficult to not hear about the riots. They began in the wee hours of July 23, 1967, a Sunday, with police conducting a raid on a "blind pig," otherwise known as an unlicensed after-hours bar, arresting all 82 patrons. Being a summery weekend, uniformed police numbers were thin on the ground, and the local residents reacted to the raid by looting a few stores. The sparse number of police surrounded the area with an aim to simply contain the 'minor' mayhem. Things did not remain at the minor level.
The song "Panic in Detroit" is well named, although just who was in panic is difficult to say; terrified residents, the looters or the police perhaps. The resultant riot was one of the worst in American history. Over 2,000 buildings were destroyed, more than 7,000 arrests made, some 500 people were injured, and 43 people died - as in 'were killed.'
Iggy Pop was a friend of David Bowie and Bowie's song is said to be based on revolutionaries in general and the Detroit riots in particular. It was certainly a subject to write and sing about. But Bowie gave the song an unusual treatment, because in 1973 it featured a Latin salsa beat and made strong use of conga drums and female backing singers. "Panic in Detroit" was a regular item at David Bowie concerts for more than 20 years.
Detroit in flames
Some claim that Bowie's talent in this song is his use of instrumentation and musical genre, which contrasts with the themes of the song, such as rioting, looting, fires and destruction, plus people literally dying in the streets. It could well have been a far more heavy or raucous type of sound to match the subject.
The song is on Bowie's album Aladdin Sane
in which other cities are featured in song. Some point to this fact as another sign of the "smarts" of the songwriter.
Detroit, though, has some happier moments in its history. The city is the home of Motown or motor town music, so-called because of its once booming car manufacturing industry. Motown is said to have advanced culture and music in giant strides when soul music was merged or presented in a way which appealed to lovers of pop music. The Motown Museum was erected in 1985 as historic testament to the changes in popular music and is certainly worth a look for anyone journeying to or through Detroit.
~ Cenarth Fox
August 18, 2009