Detroit is well known for its pivotal role in shaping soul music during the 1950s and 1960s. What’s lesser known is that in the 1970s, the city’s slew of small bars also played a major role in forming the punk scene. Detroit writer and radio journalist Rob St. Mary just finished producing a new 2-LP album called The End of the Night (1967 to 1983). He pulled the music from the Detroit Punk Archive, a website that he created and maintains, as well as some previously unpublished recordings and stories.
The album is a fast and furious introduction to the early punk scene of Detroit. St. Mary is well-versed in the history of that scene. He told us the origin of Detroit punk can be traced back to a gay bar called Bookie's Club 870. The bar manager Sam "Bookie" Stewart held some of the first drag shows in the city there in the 1950s. While most bars of the era wanted cover bands who could play the Top 40 hits, St. Mary said that Stewart was known for allowing more controversial acts to perform at his bars.
In February of 1978, young, alternative punk musicians who couldn’t get gigs at popular clubs asked Stewart if they could book a spot at his bar. Within six months, the punk musicians dominated Bookie’s schedule. The bar became a hub for local, national, and international acts. People like John Cale of The Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, Ultravox, and others came to Detroit to play at Bookies.
“It became a place where the freaks, the outsiders, the weirdos all came together,” St. Mary said. “You didn’t have to be a classically trained musician or something like that in order to go on stage and present ideas and songs that mattered to you.”
St. Mary emphasized that early punk scenes were reliant on their local environment, which allowed for unique sounds and styles to develop in each city. At the same time Detroit’s punk scene was taking off, the punk scenes in New York and Los Angeles were also booming. But St. Mary said there wasn’t really an infrastructure made for touring. This made it difficult to get out of the Midwest bubble and see how other bands were promoting and spreading their music.
“It really forced them to think creatively and to use that sort of Detroit work-ethic in a way,” St. Mary explained.
The men who booked gigs at Bookie's Club 870 went on to convert St. Andrew’s Hall from the Scottish Society of Detroit into the popular concert venue it is today. St. Mary said that the new concert hall gave bands with moderately-sized audiences a space to share their music.
“I think from a music history [perspective] here in Detroit, the legacy of venues is really important when we talk about this history. Because the fact that the guys who booked Bookie's went on to become the guys who took St. Andrew's Hall and turned it into a mid-level concert venue, that’s huge,” St. Mary said.
“I think these guys when they went into that club in early ‘78 had no idea that they were going to change the way venues and booking and all of that happens here in the city.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.
Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.