IN CHURCH WITH THE DETROIT COBRAS
For me, it happened like this. In April 2003 I was getting a lift back from a session gig courtesy of Ben out of Cornershop, who also does press for Rough Trade records. Ben is a true believer in the power of new music. He has never lost his enthusiasm for the excitement of hearing new things. Total opposite to me. Unless I’m forced, I will only ever listen to things I KNOW I like. But I’m getting a lift, so I must be gracious and, besides, it’s invigorating sometimes to be with someone who is so interested in new music – whatever it may be. And he wants to play me something. Thinks I’ll like it. He bungs it on the car stereo. Bass intro, punky guitar, drums – well at least it’s rock’n’roll – but I’m already worrying that it’ll just be some kids who have learned to play a few licks off a bunch of Ramones and Cramps records. But no. There’s a stop cue and then the vocal comes in – “Come on, baby”…
How many rock’n’roll records start with “Come on, baby”? I mean, please… But this woman (already I don’t want to call her a girl singer) is singing it like it’s something really special. And I don’t mean that in some corny condescending way like, she makes it sound brand new. On the contrary, she sounds like she’s sung it a million times and it’s as natural to her as breathing – in other words, she sings with the ease and assurance of a real blues singer. But this woman is young! Or at least I think she’s young. And white! Or at least I think she’s white. She’s from Detroit. She fronts this band. What’s her name?
I ask Ben. Rachel. Rachel Nagy. Nagy? Nagy. OK. Apparently she’s a real character. Never sung in a band before. She was a friend, she was a butcher by trade, she was a stripper, she was a drunk, she was a handful. How it happened was one day this Detroit garage band had decided they needed a female singer, and someone suggested Rachel, the blonde who people kept tripping over when she was sleeping off a hangover. Turns out she could sing pretty good.
Damn right. I’m taking all this information in while I’m noticing that the tracks on the cd are really short and to the point, and that they sound strangely familiar – like I’ve heard them in a different form somewhere else. They only do covers, Ben tells me, by way of explanation. They like to cover really obscure soul and r’n’b tunes from the late 50s/ early 60s – stuff that hardly anybody’s heard, obscure ‘B’ sides, long forgotten album tracks etc. The way they tell it, there are too many songs in the world already, and some of the good ones never got heard by enough people so they’re just gonna play the ones they like and that they feel they can do justice to.
Impressive? That’s fantastic! Such humility! So commendable in a rock’n’roll band! Archivists, librarians, true devotees, righteous rockers. Oh God! This band is for me.
Rock’n’roll has many strains. Those of us here in its church pay many different obeisances. Some prize a good tune, others a wicked groove, a bitchin’ solo. You know... Some of us like girl group pop from the 60s – The Shangri La’s, The Ronettes, The Crystals etc. If we like them then the chances are good we like soul and r’n’b from the golden days when Motown was young and merely the biggest of hundreds of little independent labels all across the USA. But then we might also like The Ramones, and if we do, we probably have more than a little time for the great Detroit bands: The Stooges, MC5, Mitch Ryder etc. But it can be a lonely faith. Sifting for scratched up singles on the internet, bidding the housekeeping money on an original copy of Barbara George’s “I Know” on the AFO label, wondering if we can also afford that Sugar Pie DeSanto on Chess - and is the condition really vg? Or is it really tf (totally fucked)? And it can be dispiriting to continually have to face the non-comprehension of friends and contemporaries - “Why don’t you just buy the cd compilation?” – whose faith is willing but essentially weak. Thus it is that for a true believer the emergence of a band like The Detroit Cobras is almost too good to be true. Like a fantasy reward we had long given up on ever receiving.
So Ben was right. I do like them. Ben grins, and promises to send me a promo. He mentions that they are playing in New York next week. At the Bowery Ballroom. Astonishing! I’m going to be in New York next week! And I KNOW The Bowery Ballroom. I played there once.
Thus it is that the next week I catch up with my buddy in New York (who just happens to be a beautiful and glamorous blonde lady) and we go down to the Bowery Ballroom and check our names off the guest list and SASHAY inside. New York is like being in a movie anyway, but this is an especially cool episode. The Fleshtones are on first and put on such a polished show that I’m thinking that The Cobras had better be good. (Already they have become “The Cobras” since I’ve played the “Mink, Rabbit or Rat” album into the ground for the last few days.) The city of New York has just banned smoking in public places but there’s Rachel onstage with a cigarette claiming, “it’s a prop”. She’s superb. She’s perfect. The sound is lousy and the performance a bit sloppy but The Cobras have so much rock’n’roll righteousness going for them that they can actually afford to be a bit sloppy. But… This is a dangerous game. It’s dangerous to allow nonchalance to become sloppiness because it can lead to contempt for the audience, which is contempt for oneself. And that’s unacceptable. Also, in the market place nowadays, it’s clear that there is no room for sloppiness of any kind. In that sense, The Cobras were nowhere near slick enough. But fuck that. The Cobras aren’t slick; they’re a real rock’n’roll band just like the old days. I’m 43 and they made me feel 19. Somehow, and I cannot understand how, they are not an anachronism, they are not IRONIC, they’re not being deliberately RETRO… Thank God. Something real, and tough, and true, and hip, and funny, and stylish, that ROCKS!
Yes, it was more than wonderful to see The Detroit Cobras in New York in April of 2003. It was love. For the first time in many years, I was in love with a band that was still actually functioning.
I downloaded as many tracks as I could find on the Internet and was overjoyed when Rough Trade here in London got a few vinyl import copies of their two albums. Ben had sent me the new 7 track ep out on Rough Trade, “Seven Easy Pieces”, that began with Rachel saying “very nice!” in the sexiest and most sardonic manner imaginable – before launching into an epic rock’n’roll stomp called “Ya Ya Ya (Looking For My Baby)” with Rachel plaintively singing how she’s “looking for my baby but my baby ain’t nowhere around”. Still, when she finds him she’s going to “take him by the balls and drag him all the way back to town”, so it’s probably wise not to feel too sorry for her. Yes, like so many guys, I love a ball-breaker. Rachel’s the best, and toughest sounding rock’n’roll singer in the world right now. There’s no-one in her league.
So how can The Detroit Cobras exist? How can they get every detail so right and STILL be contemporary? How can their records sound so good and STILL be modern? How do they KNOW? They’ve been criticized (by fools!) for not doing any original songs. Any idiot can write songs. All you need is a guitar and three chords. What The Detroit Cobras do is so much more interesting: The trick for them is to unearth a forgotten gem – a song that only a true devotee would know. They’ll take, say, an early 60s ‘B’ side by Irma Thomas (that’s NEVER been anthologized on cd!) and boil the brass and piano parts down to two sprightly guitars, maybe simplify the bass line and bring it forward a little bit, possibly up the tempo just a tad, you know, as a nod towards the punk aesthetic, and they keep the song short, specific and to the point, absolutely no padding with indulgent solos. And then, out in front, Rachel makes every song her own.
Unless you’ve heard them, I can’t convince you. You’ll just think I’m bigging up a band I like and in a way that’s true. How could I not love The Detroit Cobras? They validate everything I believe about good rock’n’roll: short sexy songs, tightly played, with ingeniously unfussy arrangements. In interviews, The Cobras reveal themselves to be such high-minded purists that they would probably hate the comparison, but the nuts and bolts of what they do is virtually identical to what The Beatles once did to things like Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me”, Barrett Strong’s “Money”, or The Shirelles “Baby It’s You”. It amounts to taking what may be quite exotic and polished arrangements by trained professional musicians and re-casting them for souped-up electric guitars and drums. If that sounds easy, you should try it sometime. Besides, when The Beatles were doing it in the early 60s, they had an unplundered sackful of classic songs to choose from that were virtually unknown to their audience. Fast-forward forty years and all of those hit songs are in the public sub-conscious, memorized from any number of compilations, played by a million bar bands across the years. The Cobras could be the greatest bar band in the world if they wanted to be; it’s their attitude and choice of material that marks them out. It has to be impeccable, and it is. Only true believers could find and lovingly tease such obscure tucked-away ‘B’ side gems into such vibrant, breathing life. They record for a label called Sympathy For The Record Industry and their albums are 13 or 14 tracks long and still clock in at less than 32 minutes. Rip-off, you say. You’re wrong. 13 or 14 songs in 32 minutes mean no padding, no waffling, no bullshit. All the songs have memorable tunes and good lyrics and strong grooves. They don’t sound alike in the way that The Ramones (bless them) sounded alike. There are fast songs and slow songs; in amongst the soul and r’n’b there are blues and country songs, surf, pop, even the occasional waltz! The cd’s are also pressed in vinyl editions with no barcode on the covers. Think about that for a moment. No bar code. Think about the implications of that in the modern retail industry. Their graphics are mildly pornographic: featuring Rachel with an expression like “Oh yeah?” on her face.
It’s hard to get concrete information. The first album “Mink, Rat Or Rabbit” came out in 1998. The second one, “Love, Life and Leaving” came out in 2001. The 7 track ep, “Seven Easy Pieces”, came out in 2003. They’ve recorded some tracks for compilation albums in Detroit; they’ve put out the odd limited pressing single. Who’s in, who’s out of the band, seems to fluctuate, there’s quite a floating line-up. The only real constants are Rachel and Maribel Restrepo on guitar. I’ve been putting off writing this piece for too long because of a lack of biographical information, but the hell with it, it’s a gush and a labour of love. I’m sorry. But it’s personal. When “Cha Cha Twist” (the first track on the first album - the one that starts with “Come On Baby”) got used in a Coke-Cola advert on TV my first reaction was outrage: How DARE they? The Detroit Cobras are MINE! These yuppie fucks don’t get the importance of the Cobras; they’re just USING them to sell a product. Then I realized I was being, uh, irrational. It was GOOD that they were making some money, that they were getting some exposure. Wasn’t it? I worried about the band, and Rachel in particular. Some months ago, Rough Trade had put out a sampler of a bunch of their acts covering each other’s songs. The Cobras had done The Strokes “Last Nite”. Of course, this was not the kind of song they would normally cover and where the original was a foursquare rip-off of Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”, the Cobras version lent it a rock’n’roll mambo feel. But Rachel’s vocal, pitched low, gave the song pathos that Julian Casablancas could only dream about. The trouble was it sounded so beaten, so world weary, so sad. Really, just so sad. It would break your heart. I was hoping this was method acting but worried that it wasn’t. I’d heard dark rumours of bad things happening on the road. Oh God that would be just too painfully fitting: Isn’t that exactly what happened to Detroit’s last great rock’n’roll singer, the aforementioned Mr. Pop? When The Stooges were far and away the greatest rock’n’roll band on the planet, what did they do? Got hooked on junk and threw it all away.
Anyway, enough of this maudlin speculation. It’s 4:10am and the last I heard was The Detroit Cobras were in LA working with Jackie DeShannon, who wrote at least one of the tunes on their albums. Next up they’re gigging around the West Coast and if any of you lucky Americans get to read this in time, I suggest you go and see them. I hope they achieve great success, and that they can handle it when it comes, and that they go on to make many more magnificent records; but even if they split this very day, the records they’ve made will last as long as good rock’n’roll is listened to.
And Rachel, if you’re reading: Thank you for singing like that.
Adam Blake, London, 17.6.04