October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

The Rockets

In 1966-67 when Mitch Ryder was rolling over the charts with the torrid Sock It to Me, Baby and Jenny Take a Ride, among the Detroit Wheels that transported him were a clever drummer, Johnny (Bee) Badanjek, and a fresh guitarist, Jim McCarty. After the Wheels drove off in different directions, Bee and McCarty roamed for nearly a decade with a variety of groups before they got together again to form this Motor-City-based sextet. On this, their fourth LP, they’re guided by producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, John Lennon-Yoko Ono). The raw rock ‘n’ roll sound evokes less outer space, however, than it does the chrome-and-roam Saturday nights on Woodward Highway in Detroit. Lift You Up (which plenty of locals do to the back of their cars) is the best song, but at least four others are hot enough to leave skid marks on the vinyl.


With artists as diverse as Marvin Gaye, David Byrne of Talking Heads and the jazz-oriented Art Ensemble of Chicago turning anew to Africa for inspiration, this disc provides a rare opportunity to eliminate the middleman and go right to the fascinating source. That’s what Kathleen Johnson, a young musicologist from Seattle, Wash, did in 1973. For two and a half years she traveled in the desert and savannah of Upper Volta, a West African country about the size of Colorado. Few of the musicians she recorded and photographed had seen a tape machine or camera before. “When we showed them the Polaroids,” Johnson recalls, “it really blew them out of their socks—and they don’t even wear socks.” The music is engrossing and vivid. The Mossi tribe’s funeral dances bring to mind a New Orleans funeral procession. Their instruments, made of goatskin, wood, bits of metal and hollowed gourds, produce a rhythmically rich effect. The wooden “bala,” or xylophone, stands out for its range and penetrating voice. The wild, driving bala wedding duets could cut it at any jazz festival. The LP’s sound is remarkably good, especially since it was taken from duplicate reels in the Library of Congress. Johnson’s originals were swept away, with her Toutle River house, in the mud slides following Mount St. Helens’ eruption in May 1980.

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