The rock high priest of Detroit

By Sergio Ariza

Fred 'Sonic' Smith was the high priest of the High Octane Rock Church of Detroit. Along with MC5 and Sonic's Rendezvous Band, he was ahead of the punk and distortion storms of alternative rock. His exchange of furious electricity discharge with Wayne Kramer were the punk equivalent to those of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. He never ‘succeeded’ but his sonic imprint is absolutely essential, serving as a guide for later bands like the Ramones and Sonic Youth.    

Frederick Dewey Smith
was born on September 13, 1949 in West Virginia but as a child his parents moved to a suburb of Detroit. It would be in the motor city where he would give free rein to his love of rock & roll. Along with other teenagers, and like his neighbour Wayne Kambes, he began to form several garage bands. Fred was the main guitarist of the Vibratones while Wayne was the same in the Bounty Hunters. Wayne had taught him a few chords but now they were rivals on the competitive Detroit scene. Smith bought a Fender Duo-Sonic and, although he did not like his sound, decided to keep the nickname. From that moment on he was Fred 'Sonic' Smith. Shortly after the two noisiest guitarists in the city joined forces. Smith was not the only one who changed his name, his friend / rival Wayne Kambes, was now called Wayne Kramer, and together they would form the perfect pair of hard rock / punk guitarists.

A short time later they were joined by another more sweaty rock and soul lover named Rob Derminer, although he called himself Rob Tyner in homage to Coltrane's pianist. Then in 1965, drummer Dennis 'Machine Gun' Thompson and bassist Michael Davis joined the band on stage. In a short time they made enough noise for John Sinclair, one of the city's best-known characters, to become their manager. Sinclair had created the White Panthers whose motto was "total assault on culture by any possible means, including rock and roll, drugs and fucking in the streets." The MC5, which was what they called themselves, fitted this philosophy like a glove. Smith grabbed a Gretsch Tennessean and began to establish himself as the key sound of the band. If Kramer was the lead soloist, Smith was the architect of their sound, as Thompson said "Fred was the most creative person in the band musically (...) Like Brian Jones of the Stones, he always came out with the coolest guitar parts, while Kramer was something like the icing on the cake."

The group continued to improve live and their love for James Brown and Chuck Berry was now joined by the sonic and spiritual attack of free jazz by Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. Their concerts ended with Black to Comm, an orgy of distortion and feedback that was very advanced for the time. Their concerts at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit were turning into events and, after the nascent Rolling Stone wrote an article saying how they had destroyed Cream after opening for them, they were signed by Elektra, whom they then also convinced to sign the Stooges of Iggy Pop and the Asheton brothers. By that time Smith had changed guitar again and was using a Mosrite USA 65-SB. In the period of Les Pauls and Stratocasters, Smith was looking for other sounds, and also acquired one of the few Epiphone Crestwood that were manufactured.

Their first record was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom and the guitars of Smith and Kramer sounded more out of control than anything heard to date. The only group that had seriously played with distortion and noise to that point was the Velvet Underground, but where the New Yorkers were pure intellectuals, those of Detroit were pure rock & roll. On the cover of the album Smith appears wielding his Mosrite, anticipating by a few years the moment when Johnny Ramone, with a similar guitar, invented punk. Here Smith plays mainly rhythmic guitar, carrying all the weight of the band and laying the foundations for the brilliance of Kramer's Strat. Even so there are moments for the showcasing of both as shown by the fantastic end of Rocket Reducer No 62 with two wild solos at the same time, in a kind of rock reinterpretation of free jazz. Kick Out The Jams was an authentic adrenaline rush that was well ahead of the energy and rawness of punk. Their future seemed guaranteed but the fact that they used the phrase "kick out the jams, motherfuckers" led to a veto by a major record store. The band then responded to the veto by insulting the record store and this caused the ‘issue’ to expand to Elektra. Shortly after their record company sacked them.

Soon afterwards however they got a contract with Atlantic. Smith kept showing that his choice of guitars was atypical and he got a Rickenbacker 450 to which he added a 'humbucker'. Their new company assigned them producer Jon Landau, someone with whom they shared a deep love for the rock & roll of the 50s. He decided to use it to return to the roots with short and direct songs. The album opened with a version of Little Richard, Tutti Frutti, and closed with Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA, which also served as a title to the album. The approach seemed clear; Sun Ra was removed from the equation and Chuck Berry prevailed. Smith continued to grow as a composer and contributed some of the best songs on the album such as Shakin 'Street, on which he also sang, and The American Ruse, where he responded to Tyner's shout "Rock' em back, Sonic!" with a fabulous solo on which he parodoxically quoted an old song from the American Civil War.      

The album did not have the same strength as the band did live but their approach towards the fundamentals would still be more influential on punk. Also, song by song, it was better, with classics such as those already mentioned, Looking At You, Tonight and Teenage Lust. But the moment seemed to have passed for them; 1968 and the promise of revolution seemed a thing of the past and the public seemed oblivious to their incendiary ravings. However, despite everything, the band was at its best, Smith was still gaining confidence and now it seemed clear that he was the leader, composing more and more and improving day by day on the guitar. In 1970 during a couple of concerts he wore a superhero space suit costume long before glam fashion became fashionable in the UK and the USA.

By the time the MC5 recorded High Time, the distinction between solo and rhythm guitar had been completely diluted, with both sharing the roles as can be seen in the incredible solos of Baby Won’t Ya and Future / Now. Kramer sweated ink to keep at bay the effervescence of Smith's six strings who, in addition, composed four of the eight songs on the record. Among them the magnificent start of Sister Anne and Baby Won’t Ya and the ultimate demolition with Over And Over and Skunk (Sonicly Speaking). For this album they decided to take charge of the production themselves and managed to perfectly combine the energy and ferocity of Kick Out The Jams with the songs of Back In The USA. It was wonderful but the world did not seem to care. After a bumpy tour of England the rest of the members abandoned the group until only the original two were left, Kramer and Smith. Back home, their career ended at the Grande Ballroom, on December 31, 1972, before only a few dozen people, when Kramer decided to leave the stage and resign.

At the time he had ‘exploded’ as a composer and musician Smith found that he had no band. About six months after the end of MC5, Smith met with Thompson and David to form Ascension, and a former colleague from the scene in Detroit came to see them and took Smith to the recording studio to record a single consisting of Take A Look and Soul Mover. The man in question was Scott Morgan, former singer of the Rationals. Smith was brilliant in the recording and the chemistry between the two was very good. They had planted the seeds of the second great band of his career, Sonic's Rendezvous Band.

Everything improved with the arrival of two other heavyweights of the rock scene in Detroit, bassist Gary Rasmussen, from The Up, and, above all, drummer Ron Asheton, of the Stooges. Morgan was in charge of the rhythm guitar, with a Telecaster or a Broadcaster, and Smith was the lead guitarist with his Rick 450. His Epiphone Crestwood passed into the hands of Deniz Tek, one of the band's biggest fans, who would put it to good use in Australia as the leader of Radio Birdman.

But back in Detroit the Sonic's Rendezvous Band began to make a name for itself on the city scene, Smith decided that they would not play songs by his famous ex-bands, so the material was rock, soul and r & b covers, as well as originals written by Smith and Morgan.    

At a time when the children of MC5 were creating punk in New York, Smith was leading a band that could rival all of them. When one of these new groups arrived in the city in 1976, the Patti Smith Group, their guitarist, Lenny Kaye, convinced them to open for them. Patti had not heard of Sonic Smith but Kaye told him he was the best, so the man climbed up on stage for their performance. That night sparks flew between the poet of punk and one of the godfathers of the genre. However the two Smiths began a relationship that would consolidate little by little.

Love would triumph but Fred's musical career would be truncated again. At the beginning of 78 they recorded City Slang, which was going to be the A side of their first single. It was one of the best songs that he had composed and encapsulated everything that made Detroit rock great. Everything seemed ready for its release but just at that moment they received a call from the Pope of city rock, Iggy Pop. The ex Stooges was embarking on a European tour and wanted to take the best possible band ... but there was no room for Morgan. So three quarters went with Iggy, leaving that incredible song without promotion. The tour went very well and Iggy tried to convince them to become his fixed band but Sonic refused. On the one hand he continued to believe in his band, on the other his relationship with Patti had taken hold of him, and he missed her. It was reciprocal, shortly afterwards the singer dedicated Because The Night, Frederick and Dancing Barefoot to him.

When they returned to Detroit they decided to put out City Slang but Morgan, spitefully, decided that he did not want his excellent Electrophonic Tonic to be used as side B, so they had to use a second studio version of City Slang. The band was broken almost before it started and Sonic focused on his relationship with Patti. In 1979 she went to live in Detroit and in 1980 the couple got married, retired from the world of entertainment and went to raise a family in the suburbs of Detroit.

They would not reappear until eight years later when Patti Smith released Dream of Life, produced and co-written with Fred, who also takes care of the guitars on the album. Despite containing the anthem People Have The Power, the album was not the success that Fred envisioned, something that still hurts Patti who affirms that the album was more Fred than her, "it was his music, his philosophy". His health worsened and he ended up dying on November 4, 1994 of a heart attack.

Although none of their bands achieved the success they deserved, no one can doubt the tremendous importance of Smith within the sacred pantheon of Detroit rock, with names like those of Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder or his 'brother' Wayne Kramer. His music and songs have provided inspiration for countless bands and his mark can be found in the energy of Radio Birdman, the fierce attack of the Hellacopters and the white noise of Sonic Youth (a group that was baptized in tribute to him). Rock & roll is still in debt to him.