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Bob Seger & The Last Heard - Heavy Music: The Complete Cameo Recordings 1966-1967 Music Album Reviews

This overdue anthology of Seger’s earliest recordings preserves a handful of singles by a young Detroit garage-rock band that blended rock’n’roll and R&B, party music and passion.

In the 1960s, the land was littered with bands like Detroit’s Bob Seger & the Last Heard: industrious combos that worked their local circuit with dreams of making it as big as the Beatles, or at least the Beau Brummels. History has tagged these groups “garage rock,” a label embraced by keepers of the flame like Little Steven Van Zandt, who has an entire SiriusXM station devoted to the stuff. But garage connotes the primitive, pounding, aggressive strain of rock’n’roll made by somebody who just picked up a guitar and still isn't sure how to fret a third chord.

Bob Seger & the Last Heard could hit hard, but they grew up in the shadow of Motown, so they could also swing—a rarity among garage rockers on the whole, but not those from Southeastern Michigan. Working in the same scene as MC5 and ? & the Mysterians, the Last Heard needed to play R&B as if it were rock’n’roll (or perhaps vice versa) because they needed to get the teens on their feet. Bands were expected to make the audience dance, especially at the Hideout, a series of clubs scattered throughout the metro Detroit area that garage rockers called home. The Hideout was Seger’s stomping ground long before the Last Heard, back when he was playing in Doug Brown & the Omens, one of the better groups on the Ann Arbor and Detroit circuit in the mid-’60s.

Almost nobody outside of Michigan knows much about Doug Brown & the Omens, but they’re central to Bob Seger's rise, providing him with his first released record and catalyzing his first meeting with Punch Andrews, the Hideout impresario who would become the singer’s manager. In addition to running the club with partner Dave Leone, Andrews was behind Hideout Records. He set up the winking subsidiary Are You Kidding Me? Records in 1966 to release “Ballad of the Yellow Beret,” a send-up of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” written by one “D. Dodger” and performed by the Omens under the pseudonym the Beach Bums, with Seger on lead vocals.

“Yellow Beret” didn’t make it onto Heavy Music: The Complete Cameo Recordings 1966-1967, an overdue anthology of Seger’s earliest recordings (though it can be found on the massive set ...Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008, not to mention YouTube. Its absence is due to a technicality—it never appeared on a Cameo 45—but it seems safe to assume no one was too broken up about omitting this mildly embarrassing novelty with questionable politics. The song’s silliness and snide attitude toward hippies were not out of character for the Last Heard. “Persecution Smith,” a raving rip of Bob Dylan’s thin, wild mercury sound, sneers at a Vietnam protester. This wasn’t standard for rockers in 1967, but the politics don’t feel considered as much as reactive, even mocking: They come from the same instincts that made the Last Heard spoof the Beach Boys with jokey spring-break anthem “Florida Time” and parody James Brown on the giddy holiday single “Sock It to Me Santa.”

Such irreverence, which also surfaces on the grooving “Chain Smokin’,” underscores why the Last Heard trafficked in singles, not LPs. They were a hard-working band that remained firmly planted within their own backyard, where the 45 was their best route to regional radio and larger clubs. It was music for a moment, but Seger also showed flashes of the insight and songwriting talent that would propel him to stardom in the late ’70s: He wrote “East Side Story,” the 1966 song that moved him from songwriter to performer, for the Underdogs, another act on Hideout, but the label thought he’d do a better version. While Underdogs’ recording has since been lost, Seger’s rendition is a wonder, a mini-melodrama of inner-city troubles set to a wailing organ.

The rare garage single that sounds multidimensional, “East Side Story” nearly finds an equal in “Vagrant Winter,” a ferocious, coiled two minutes of bargain-basement psychedelia. But Seger and his band weren’t interested in expanding the mind; they were aiming for the gut, which is precisely where “Heavy Music” lands. A high-octane R&B number that blends a Motown beat with a proto-punk attack as vicious as early MC5, it was the pivotal early Seger, the place where he blended passion with party music.

Primed to be a career-making single, “Heavy Music” rocketed to the top of the Detroit charts and was poised to enter the Billboard Top 100 when Cameo/Parkway went under. Seger would soon sign to Capitol Records, where he recorded Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man with his new outfit the Bob Seger System, then toiled away for seven years before finally breaking into the mainstream with the double-live album “Live” Bullet in 1976. Recorded at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, it found him playing “Heavy Music” to an appreciative hometown crowd. The song may have survived that long, but Seger never again looked back to the singles he made with the Last Heard. (He also consigned his first seven albums to the dustheap of history, leaving many terrific records out of print.)

He had no say in the release of Heavy Music, but this isn’t juvenilia that tarnishes his reputation. The Last Heard were a vibrant, funny, invigorating rock’n’roll band, and their ephemeral nature is key to their appeal. They weren’t playing with posterity in mind; they just knocked out single after single, riding and bucking trends in equal measure, all with the hope of winning just a few more fans.

This mentality means that Heavy Music doesn’t quite play as an album, even by the loose standards of compilations: The B-sides for “Heavy Music” and “East Side Story” were both extensions of their respective flips (the former reiterates its A side, adding some vocals, while the latter is a straight instrumental), and if you skip them, the total runtime is only about 20 minutes. That may not be a lot of music in terms of time, but in terms of impact, these tracks still pack a wallop, delivering more thrills than many ’60s LPs that were twice as long.

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