Ode to a Black Man: The Dirtbombs' Ultraglide in Black at 20

Rewind, Album Reviews
Martin Douglas

Maybe the world wasn't ready for the Gories.

During the Detroit rock 'n roll trio's initial run, their shows were famously low on attendance until the band was near their final breaking point. Though a brilliantly filthy garage band whose influence continues to be felt in the beer-soaked subgenre, the six years the Gories had performed between the late-'80s and early-'90s were nearly a dead zone for their style in terms of widespread popularity. (If this weren't the case, bands like the Trashwomen and the Mummies might have gotten a lot more exposure.) Same for the years frontman Mick Collins played in the heavier, darker Blacktop and much sloppier vehicle the Screws. In the midst of these projects, Collins had the concept for a "singles band" with a baritone guitarist, a bass guitarist, and two drummers; a different flavor from the low-end-free Gories. He named this group the Dirtbombs, brought out of mothballs from a Gories side-project he started in 1992.

The band actually only put out a handful of singles before Larry Hardy, founder of now-legendary garage-rock label In the Red Records, persuaded Collins to put out a Dirtbombs full-length in 1998. Collins stuck to his original vision for the group by approaching Horndog Fest like a twelve-inch single which just happened to play for half an hour. Co-produced by revered engineer (and Dirtbombs bassist at the time) Jim Diamond, the album grasped as successfully at the past — "I Can't Stop Thinkin' About It" is a Collins-penned classic eerily sounding like if the Gories had made it farther into the decade — as the future. "Vixens in Space" unwittingly presaged the aggressively blown-out garage-punk of Eat Skull while nodding to Memphis-based brethren the Oblivians. "Granny's Little Chicken" borrows liberally from Bob James' "Nautilus," sampled immortally for Ghostface Killah's 1996 single "Daytona 500" and a formative influence on instrumental groups like BadBadNotGood. Quite a few of the album's songs are reminiscent of the scuffed up, blaring R&B sound the band would later use as a calling card.

Around this time, a new old sound was brewing in Detroit. The many people who called this sound a "revival" must have forgotten about an entire generation's worth of garage bands who spent their whole careers playing to 30 drunks somewhere on 7 Mile. That's because by the time a little blues-punk band called the White Stripes began to command attention from music critics employed by glossy print magazines, Detroit's rock scene was in a moment of flourishment. Ranging in quality from the Detroit Cobras to the Von Bondies — who were propped up by the major label system and produced one popular single, only for their claim to fame to end up being their frontman getting the piss beaten out of him by Jack White. 

For the Dirtbombs, who released a split-single with the White Stripes a year prior (and whose drummer, Ben Blackwell, happens to be White's nephew), serendipitous timing led to their masterwork being introduced to a pretty wide audience dying to know more about the bands coming out of Detroit. For some rock music lovers, Ultraglide in Black stands among the best albums produced during this period – including the Stripes' excellent first four albums. For others, the Dirtbombs' second full-length was unquestionably the finest work to come out of Detroit's much talked about early-'00s garage-rock scene.

Growing up in the tall shadow of Motown Records, let's just say the Collins family record collection was pretty voluminous. Mick's sisters were voracious music fans just like him; his father was a mechanic who happened to service the car of Detroit's largest record distributor. Being as though the Dirtbombs are at their core a concept band, Ultraglide in Black transformed them into the world's greatest R&B covers band, turning in stripped-down, stirring, and surprisingly faithful renditions of a few of Collins' favorite songs from his upbringing as a young music obsessive.

If there has been a lot of soul music in your own upbringing, a few of the Dirtbombs' song choices here are instantly recognizable. Rousing adaptations of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' 1968 single "If You Can Want" and Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up" are among the album's highlights. The radio edit of Stevie Wonder's 1973 epic "Living for the City" was lyrically altered to highlight the struggle of our Brown brothers and sisters, finding Collins singing the entire fourth verse in Spanish. The band managed to sneak one original tune into the proceedings — the organ-assisted rave-up "Your Love Belongs Under a Rock" — but the fact that it could easily be confused as another cover plays up to the strengths of the full body of work. 

Collins and company's reimagining of the O'Jays' "Livin' for the Weekend" is the most musically ambitious song on the album, in that it includes a tempo change. The song breaks from a freewheeling romp (probably the closest punk rock has ever come to authentically resemble soul music) to a blues lounge call-and-response. The reinvention in these songs is only tilted a few degrees from their source material, but the shift is crucial to exemplifying the love Collins has for these songs. As a clearly defined love letter to the Black music of its frontman's youth, the Dirtbombs of Ultraglide in Black successfully expose the thin Black line between R&B and rock 'n roll music. That is when they're not mining the style outright as they do on their fist-pumping cover of Phil Lynott's "Ode to a Black Man," which shouts out the aforementioned Stevie Wonder, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, and Muhammad Ali, just to name a few.

Ultraglide in Black works so well because of its reverence, but also because Mick Collins was really just a soul singer to begin with. Him belting out B.B. King's "Early in the Morning" in 1990 had already solidified this theory. There is something that has always existed in his singing that can't be taught; a hunger, a desperation, a lifetime's worth of living, whatever comes to your mind when you think of "the blues" as an existential and spiritual condition. 

The Detroit garage-rock scene of 2001 — at least the scene most of us saw from magazines — was dominated by young white people wearing their hair long and jeans tight. Of course, that locale's enduring hero was a Black man well aware of the complexion of rock music's beginnings. A Black man recording a full-length tribute to Black music could have been seen as radical, and was most certainly deployed as such when In the Red's press materials for this album proclaiming Collins as "the last Black man in rock 'n roll." But for many Black kids obsessed with the art form, it was a monument to the music we grew up on, the music we watched our parents and grandparents dance to. The music which nourished us. The Dirtbombs would embark upon several other covers projects; including a tribute to Detroit techno (another genre that doesn't get enough credit for being Black-innovated) and a bubblegum pop record practically a decade in the making. But Ultraglide in Black captured a moment that couldn't be recreated as well by anyone except for the people in it. It was the Blackness Detroit's garage rockers had no idea they were missing.

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