Unavailable for 40 years, the legendary catalog of Michigan's A-Square Records has finally been reissued -- and lives up to its exalted reputation.
Between the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the generational struggles between teens who wanted to rock and parents who’d had enough excitement with World War II, the societal upheaval of 1960s America produced a garage band explosion that almost literally shook the nation. From Mansfield, Ohio, to Ft. Worth, Texas, from San Francisco to Seattle, from Minneapolis to Plattsburgh, New York, it seemed that every city had a scene -- with thousands of aspiring combos committing their songs to tape and vinyl. But perhaps no groundswell was as exciting culturally and artistically as the one rumbling in Michigan, mostly in Detroit.
The Motor City obviously had Motown and established jazz and blues scenes, but its late ’60s white rock ’n’ roll was every bit as impressive. Bob Seger, Question Mark and the Mysterians, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and the Amboy Dukes scaled the national charts, while the MC5 and the Stooges laid down a enduring legacy manifested in punk rock rebels for generations to come. And even when one peels away the layers of the notables, Michigan’s obscurities reveal a further embarrassment of riches still being uncovered by collectors today.
A-Square (Of Course) documents the legacy of one of the scene’s catalysts, Jeep Holland, who recruited bands throughout the state before producing, promoting, and above all releasing many of the best acts on his A-Square label. Holland (who died in 1998) was right there at the beginning with the MC5, Iggy Pop, the Rationals, cult faves the Scott Richard Case (SRC), Dick Wagner, and various forgotten bands who could have also found fame under the right circumstances.
Despite numerous overtures, Holland’s tape archives were virtually impassable for years -- as the original records shot up to ridiculous values and the imagination ran wild about what else was stashed away. While producer Alec Palao’s liner notes reveal that tapes of pivotal combos (the Children, the Gang, and Jagged Edge) are sadly lost, the liberation of the A-Square vaults is every bit the momentous occasion one would expect.
Forever linked to the MC5 thanks to the A-Square 45 pairing of the red-on-the-meter original versions of “Looking at You” and “Borderline”, which reappear here, Holland was actually just as inclined toward melodic and/or R&B-driven combos (and in fact didn’t get along with legendary MC5 manager John Sinclair at all). The A-Square catalog represents the breadth of ’60s rock ’n’ roll as viewed through a Michigan prism, including the blue-eyed soul of the Rationals (soon to get their own their own Big Beat comp), the proto-psychedelia of the Scott Richard Case, and the pop sensibilities of the Thyme.
The Case’s best moments with Holland were undoubtedly on their singles, including a sneering remake of the Pretty Things’ “Get the Picture” and an original called “Who Is That Girl” (dig the sneaky organ riff), but youthful covers of the Who (“Cobwebs and Strange”) and another Pretties tune (“Midnight to Six Man”) are worthy vault finds for garage enthusiasts. Similarly, the Thyme covered Neil Diamond so brilliantly on 1967’s “Love to Love” that Holland landed it on a major (Bang Records), had a local hit with an interesting rearrangement of “Time of the Season” before the Zombies’ original belatedly climbed the charts, and did a nice minor-key original titled “Someday”. However, the vaults underscore their forgotten legacy with another original called “Window Song” -- plus a very cool garage cover of an obscure (and great) Gene Clark solo track, “I Found You”.
Though none of their six singles were on A-Square, the Bossmen -- Dick Wagner’s first band -- are also represented by three previously unreleased cuts, most notably an early version of “I Cannot Stop You” -- which Wagner cohorts the Cherry Slush revamped into a killer pop-punk groover in 1967. Equally impressive is an unreleased 1968 demo of Dick Wagner and the Frost’s “Mystery Man”, which is surprising -- to this author, anyway -- given how lackluster the Frost’s three Vanguard albums are. (In fairness to Wagner, however, there’s much to like on his later work with Ursa Major, Lou Reed, and Alice Cooper.)
Wagner got heavy with those three, and so so does Half-Life on the best vault find of all, “Get Down” -- an explosion of power chords and dirty fuzz that fits nicely beside inclusions by the MC5, the Up, the Apostles (a punky, pre-New York Dolls cover of “Stranded in the Jungle”), and the legacy of Iggy. While it certainly isn’t the Stooges or even anything more than ordinary musically, the Prime Movers’ previously unreleased 1966 cover of “I’m a Man” (Yardbirds arrangement done at Bo Diddley tempo) is undeniably historic: James Osterberg (a.k.a., Iggy Pop) drums and gets perhaps his first recorded vocal. (Iggy didn’t sing with his first band, the Iguanas.)
History is what A-Square (Of Course) mainly represents. But there’s also a lot of fine music.