Rock of the working class

By Sergio Ariza

Bob Seger (May 6, 1945) is not a genius, but a hard-working man, someone who’s built a remarkable career on blood, sweat and tears, having done thousands of gigs and hours on the road. A good guitarist and excellent singer who one day decided to become the voice of the working class, and instead of an acoustic guitar, he did it with all the energy of rock and roll. 

Seger got started early, earning a name as leader of Bob Seger & the Last Heard, with whom he recorded East Side Story, a small gem of garage rock that never saw much success other than locally, but made him the Godfather of the rock scene in Detroit, one of the most important in the world. Followed were songs like Persecution Smith, written with Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues in mind, Sock it to Me Santa, a clear homage to the man who started it all, Mitch Ryder, or Heavy Music, edited in 1967, which  could have become his first big hit on a national level had it not been because his record company closed down  the minute it was published. The song became an anthem for young people in the area, people like Wayne Kramer of MC5.  After signing with Capitol Records at the beginning of ‘68, he formed The Bob Seger System and with them delivered an anti-war hard rock song called 2+2 that many years later would inspire Seven Nation Army of another legendary band from the area, The White Stripes. A short while later Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man was released, which would land him on the national stage. It was a classic garage rock number built on a Hammond riff played by Seger himself, and on it his incredible soulful voice stands out.  If the scene in Detroit had any distinction, it was for its love of R&B, from Mitch Ryder to Rob Tyner. This can be seen on his first record Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, garage rock with a pinch of soul, showcasing his voice and his Gibson Firebird throwing sparks.

That same year he released one of the first milestones of his career when he played before 20,000 cheering fans at an improvised gig  inside a parking lot in Detroit. With a half dozen hits locally, Seger was something of a legend in the city. Among those at the gig  was a lad who had done some choral backup on Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, and who looked up to Seger as mentor.  It was Glenn Frey, and if he didn’t join the band it was because his mother caught him smoking a joint with the singer. No-one could have imagined that this young disciple would become the superstar leader of the Eagles much sooner than Seger would have another hit. 

In September 1969 Noah was released and failed commercially and artistically, where he plays a secondary role, leaving the vocals up to Tom Neme. And despite his name, Seger would lead democratically, paying himself the same as the rest, and his vote on decisions was also equal to theirs. Unsatisfied, he thought about leaving it all and taking up his studies again, but shortly after returned to the fold to record Mongrel, a much more interesting record on which we find the spectacular Lucifer, where his Firebird, painted red and blue, shines, getting back to melding hard rock and a soul texture with his raspy voice. 

Disappointed with the lack of response , he decided to go it alone, recording a solo record Brand New Morning, with the accompaniment of just piano or acoustic guitar. But in the summer of ‘71 he got his love back for rock and formed a band together with drummer Dave Teegarden and bassman Skip ‘Van Winkle’ Knape. They recorded an album of versions that went unnoticed,  that Seger admitted later was in part his fault: “ I was more  into playing and singing… and did not give composing enough time”. That all changed with Back in ‘72, released in 1973. Figuring it was time to become a great composer, Seger took a step back and left the lead guitar role on his records. There was a great session band with heavy names such as JJ Cale, and the first collaboration with the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section who had also participated on recordings of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Etta James. But apart from the musicality of the work, what shines is his enormous progress as a composer, with Rosalie, a number that mixes Stonesque riffs, female background vocals (southern rock style), and would become a Thin Lizzy version some years later, then So I Wrote You a Song, and mainly Turn the Page, songs he would build his sound on and that made him a star. 

Success kept turning its back on him, but he had found his voice and his way forward...but not his band. Seger reckoned it was time to look for a set band for live shows. He wanted local talent, not well known, to guarantee loyalty, something that made him reject an offer by Wayne Kramer to form a band together. His first choice was guitarist Drew Abbott, and then Chris Campbell on bass, keyboardist Robyn Robbins, Charlie Martin on drums, and Alto Reed saxophone. The Silver Bullet Band was born. Together they would record their second classic in a row, Seven. Seger took over writing all the material, his confidence had been growing, and for the first time, he began to show real leadership. His band, all from Detroit and thereabouts, grew to idolise him, and had blind trust in him. It’s a great album, with lots of garage  and hard rock but also the new Seger approach. It starts off with a marvellous ripoff/homage to Chuck Berry with Get Out of Denver and finishes with another to John Fogerty, All Your Love. Just like its author, Seven doesn’t uncover anything new, but it’s pure topnotch rock ; a great voice, a good choice of songs and a band committed to them and R&R. The album, apart from the Silver Bullet Band (Abbott shines in Cross of gold or UMC), has special guest Jim McCarty, the original guitarist of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels

Seger and his band took to the road to promote their record, reaching 250 gigs a year. They opened for groups like Bachman Turner Overdrive, Thin Lizzy, and Kiss. At that time they were a perfectly well-oiled machine. Paul Stanley recalls, “ They were an incredible rock & roll band, and ended doing encores! They were a backup band doing fucking encores!”. The most popular band at the moment flipped over them but almost no-one took notice outside Michigan. Seger was destined to having doubts and for  the next album, his material would reassure him. Beautiful Loser can be considered the first record that truly defines the Seger sound. He kept making rock, as in Nutbush City Limits, and Katmandu, another appropriation of Chuck Berry, but the half times gained ground with Jody Girl and Travelin’ Man.  

The only thing missing was popular recognition and it would arrive with Live Bullet. The singer and his band were a machine of timing that needn’t any added touches, and the album became one of the greatest live classics of the 70s. Seger took advantage of the moment and that same year, 1976,  released what is considered his best record, Night Moves.  Inspired by a record he had heard the year before, Born to Run, by Springsteen, he decided to take his time in the studio and take care of the slightest detail. The cherry on top was the opener, a nostalgic piece about days gone by, inspired by American Graffiti and which got him in the Top Ten for the first time. The rest of the album was full of classics like Rock and Roll Never Forgets, Mainstreet and Sunspot Baby, together with his favourite bands, the Silver Bullets and the boys from Muscle Shoals. Suddenly, Seger is put alongside Springsteen and Tom Petty, as one of the pillars of what became known as Heartland rock. An explosive mix of Creedence, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Dylan, the Stones, and Van Morrison. Simple, authentic, and all about the difficulties of the ordinary man. 

After this album he became truly a star, and all his records landed among the most sold. There still remained great works like Stranger in Town or to a lesser extent, Against the Wind, but little by little it started to sound like a formula, and depended more and more on the ballads, especially after The Distance, but it was still a winning formula, and the 80s were his time of commercial  brilliance, with some defining moments; the inclusion of Old Time Rock n Roll in the movie Risky Business in that unforgettable scene  where Tom Cruise dances in sock feet, and Like a Rock used in a TV commercial that played for 13 years in the U.S.. This workingman rocker became a multimillionaire and the stories  just don’t come out the same. Rumour has it he called his manager to ask how much money he had made in his career and he answered “You have 30 million dollars in the bank”. He hung up the phone and announced his retirement. Mitch Ryder, his hero in the early years, said, “ Bob had to choose between his fans or live on record sales, he chose the second, and was within his rights to do so, but his fans would have been much happier if he hadn’t”.     

Eventually he got back on the road but he had already given it his best, oftentimes on discontinued records which were hard to find and him not doing much to prevent it . Seger seems to have forgotten his earlier work yet that’s where one finds the best reasons to love this “ lovely loser”, a man who built a career on strength and dedication, a blue collar rocker that is much more than a guy who sings while Tom Cruise dances in socks. If success hadn’t knocked on his door, today he would be reclaiming it, setting his work up like it is, one of the pillars of Heartland rock, rock of the working classes.  

(Images: ©CordonPress)