A worn bit of videotape shows a middle-aged man with thick glasses, a large shock of curly hair, and an Autoharp about to sing on a low-budget local television show. The man smiles and tears into a song about the past, the glory days of psychedelic music and young people celebrating their newfound freedom. While the man's Autoharp is the only accompaniment, the song sounds vibrant, forceful, and energetic, and both the song and the performance are powerfully evocative. "Grande days, grande days, I had some wild nights back in my grande days," he sings, carefully pronouncing the long "e" at the end of "grande."
The man in the video clip is Rob Tyner, performing on a Detroit television show just a few months before his death in the fall of 1991. Tyner was once the lead singer of MC5, one of the most electrifying American rock bands of the 1960s, and the "grande" was the Grande Ballroom, a venue in his hometown of Detroit that was the band's main base of operations in their halcyon days. This performance pops up near the end of the film Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story, a documentary about one of the Midwest's most fabled homes for rock & roll during the era of acid rock, when music and culture took a bold and daring leap into the unknown. Like Tyner's song, Louder Than Love is a historical essay of sorts, an attempt to remind us of a crucial moment when tides were turning, and at its best the movie is a potent look at a remarkable time and place, as well as a chronicle of the estimable music that was left behind.
In the mid-'60s, as rock & roll began to grow from the gloriously noisy sound of teenage rebellion into something more cerebral and challenging, the way the music was presented on stage began to change as well, and bands started moving from teen clubs and dance parties into venues more accommodating to this newer, exploratory style. Russ Gibb was a Detroit school teacher who had a lucrative sideline gig hosting record hops where teenagers danced to the latest hit tunes, but in 1966 he got a look at the future when he went to California on vacation and visited two of the pioneering psychedelic ballrooms that had popped up in San Francisco, the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. Gibb was convinced there was a market for the same sort of venue in Detroit, and he leased the Grande Ballroom, a theater and dance hall that had opened in 1928 but fell into disuse. With the MC5 as his house band, the Grande Ballroom reopened in the fall of 1966, and it soon became the hub of Detroit's psychedelic-rock scene, which produced some of the most explosive high-energy music of all time, playing host to the Stooges, the Frost, the Up, the Rationals, SRC, Savage Grace, Frijid Pink, the Amboy Dukes, and many more.
Gibb and his partners may have modeled the Grande on the Fillmore and other West Coast psychedelic ballrooms, but it didn't take long for the place to develop a distinct personality of its own. Located in a run-down neighborhood in the industrial Midwest, the Grande was not a haven for the laid-back or the mellow. Detroit was a town where folks played as hard as they worked, and with the MC5 as their model -- a band that fused furious hard rock, free-jazz exploration, radical politics, and the showmanship of a classic soul revue -- the local bands that played the Grande discovered this venue attracted an audience who would reward a group that delivered a good show or shower scorn on those who couldn't cut the mustard. The MC5's best-known song, "Kick Out the Jams," came from their frequent taunt to other acts -- "Kick out the jams or get off the stage, motherf--ker." -- and local musicians, American touring bands, and acts that made their way from England all discovered that if you worked the crowd right, the Grande audience would give you one of the best nights of your life.
In Louder Than Love, filmmaker Tony D'Annunzio focuses on the people who made the Grande Ballroom a memorable place, at least in part because there's very little footage of the Grande in its heyday still extant (and not many more audio recordings), though he presents a wealth of great still photos of everyone from the Who to Led Zeppelin on the Grande's stage. D'Annunzio has included a number of very entertaining interviews with the folks who ran the Grande (Gibb, stage manager Tom Wright), the Michigan bands who were regular guests there (members of the MC5, the Stooges, the Frost, the Rationals, the Amboy Dukes), major acts who played the Grande (Alice Cooper, Roger Daltrey), behind-the-scenes movers and shakers (from MC5 manager John Sinclair to the people who did the light show), and even fans and groupies who took their place on the dance floor week after week. Some of the stories they share could have come from any of the major rock venues of the day, but there's often a very Detroit slant to the tales that remind us this took place in a town where folks were willing to work hard to make interesting things happen, and if the story behind the Grande often sounds like a series of uphill battles, they also frequently ended in victory and made for some great music that still resonates decades later. The musical soundtrack is devoted exclusively to Michigan bands, and these sounds confirm there was something special and very powerful in the Detroit scene that was tougher, wilder, and more liberating than what was happening anywhere else. And while the Grande fizzled out in the early '70s, as the counterculture went fallow and the concert business became more professional, the movie doesn't dwell on the latter-day failings as much as the good times that were had.
Louder Than Love devotes a bit too much screen time to modern-day observers such as Henry Rollins, Slash, and Tom Morello, who have plenty to say about the music but precious little insight into the circumstances that brought it about, and D'Annunzio sometimes strains the powers of his editing strategy in order to make the most of the precious images available of the Grande. But the music and the community that came out of the Grande Ballroom is a phenomenon worth celebrating, and D'Annunzio makes that abundantly clear in Louder Than Love. Anyone with an interest in rock & roll that dares to look past the ordinary should see it.