The willfully sloppy, R&B-marinated mess that the Gories made in the 1980s and early 90s (and again since their reunion in 2009) has proven an evergreen template for a certain kind of garage rock band. Sure, there was already a grip of 1960s rock revivalists by the time the Gories bubbled up from the murk, but it was a mannered style largely informed by cleaner, more jangly precursors. These scraggly Detroit mods—Mick Collins (later of rock & roll art project the Dirtbombs, among many others), Dan Kroha (Danny & The Darleans, Demolition Doll Rods) and Peggy O’Neill (’68 Comeback, Darkest Hours)—were having none of that, instead dipping their music in a fry vat of John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Fortune Records R&B singles, even plopping a side of No Wave noise on their plate for good measure.
In the process of trying to be the most offensively primitive band possible, the Gories—along with like-minded creeps like the Mummies, the Oblivians, Billy Childish, and a handful of others—ended up providing the guiding principles for a whole new generation of basement lunkheads, including some of the most popular and well-regarded bands of the last three decades. At the very least, one can rest assured that without the influence of the Gories, there would be no White Stripes (and I can’t imagine Jack and Meg White not endorsing that statement).
The Gories will be playing Riot Fest on Sunday, September 19. To mark the occasion, we got Collins, one of the Gories’ two frontpeople, on the phone to talk about the band’s origins, and why people are still up for more. The chat has been edited for length and clarity.
RIOT FEST: The Gories started in 1985 or ‘86, right? The internet has some conflicting information.
MICK COLLINS: Our first rehearsal was January 3, 1986. We had the idea in, I think, early in November ‘85, but we were just sitting around drinking and didn’t actually do anything about it! So, we’d sort of nominally formed a band before that, but it was more of an idea. Then, we went out and bought some gear and had the first rehearsal.
You were the only one who’d been in bands before that?
No, it was Danny [Kroha]. He was in a real band who did gigs called the Onset. I had been in a couple of bands, but nothing at the comparatively higher level that he’d been in. Those were garage bands that had never gotten any further than the garage, but Danny was playing actual gigs.
No demos of those early bands of yours are floating around in the ether?
There are rumors of some! I was in a band called The Floor Tasters early on, and I have the only recording of that band. It’s actually literally sitting next to me in a bin right now! It’s an album worth of stuff, but it’s the only surviving recording. I was also in a band for about two weeks called TSS, which we formed to do a talent show, but we never made it to the talent show.
Danny, though, was the one in a real band. He already had his own guitar and amp, a Vox Spitfire and a little 15 watt amp. When we started the Gories, he went out and bought a 30 watt amp!
Livin’ large! But honestly, for most things, that’s all you need.
It’s true, but we came from an era of giant rock shows, where everyone had ROWS of 100 watt amps. When punk rock rolled around, everyone had these little tiny amps, and it was liberating for that—but when we got onstage, we still felt like we didn’t have enough gear. We grew up watching Queen or whatever, with their GIANT backline.
Anyways… Danny and I went out to this very well-supplied music store; y’know, all sorts of gear for every financial level. We just bought some random stuff and said, “Okay, this is our kit.” We didn’t put much forethought into it beyond “We’ve got $250, let’s go buy some stuff.”
Right. The amount of forethought is, basically, “Let’s make sure we have enough left over for a 6-pack when we’re done here.”
Yep! We didn’t really know or care what it was… well, we kinda did. We looked up what our heroes played.
When we started out, we’d have songs where I’d play guitar and Danny would play bass, and on other songs we’d switch. It got to be such a giant pain to keep switching instruments, though—it didn’t occur us to do half the set one way, then half the set the other way! We found out that neither of us were very good guitar players, but we both had different strengths, so between the two of us we had one decent guitar player. So, that became our M.O.
What was it that made you think that Danny and Peggy were the drinking buddies you wanted to start a band with?
It was random. We were together listening to a record, and we thought it was so terrible that we thought, “We can play better than this, and we can’t even play!” We goaded each other into it from there, and just kept at it until we’d crossed the Rubicon at some point and couldn’t go back on our word. At a certain point, we just had to do it because we’d all talked such a good game. Except Peggy, who didn’t really wanna do it. She was just sitting there and got roped into it.
You were all kinda “mods” at the time, yeah?
Yep, we were mods, that’s how we all met.
Was there much of a mod scene in Detroit at the time?
Not in the city proper, but in the ring cities around Detroit there were quite a few, stretching out to Ann Arbor. We threw a mod party once, and all these Ann Arbor mods showed up. They looked at us like, “What a scruffy bunch of motherfuckers!”
Because even back then, Ann Arbor always had more money and, usually, less fun.
[Laughs] Danny and I had met before that, and he knew a bunch of other mods that I met through him. Since I grew up with a giant record collection in my family, I had all these amazing records that these guys hadn’t heard before, so I fell into DJing parties. They had read about these records, but I actually had them all!
Peggy showed up at one of the parties, and that’s how we met her. Danny was the only one brave enough to roll up and talk to her, so after a year or so they were a couple. That’s why she was there the night we formed the Gories.
In addition to being mods and liking the same records, a lot of the reason Danny and I started a band together is because we lived really close. He lived in the city, a short bike ride from my house, so we’d bring records and fanzines and stuff over to each other’s houses. We hung out constantly. Dan lived about a 10 minute car ride from Peggy, so we were all pretty close together. When Danny moved out of his parents’ house, we just moved all our gear into his place. Before that, we could only rehearse when his parents weren’t home!
You recorded a bunch of stuff in Dan’s parents’ house, right?
We did… we recorded half of what would have been the second album in that house. We’d gotten two offers to put out Gories albums at the same time, and we didn’t know we could say yes to both! So, we took the one that looked like a better deal. We could have easily split the second album into two albums, but it didn’t occur to us.
So, we did some tracks there, and only a few have come out: a version of “You Make It Move” came out somewhere, then a version of “Queenie” that’s on some comp of Michigan bands.
There weren’t a lot of “garage revival” bands in the 1980s that were incorporating much past British invasion stuff and suburban American stuff, like blues stuff, Bo Diddley…
That was part of our aesthetic, yeah. We’d read about these bands in fanzines that were described as being really “primitive” and stuff, but when we’d hear the records it’d just be jangly guitar pop, like the L.A. Paisley Underground. We just thought it was bullshit.
The last straw was this band that was called The Neanderthals or something like that. Danny had bought the 7”, and paid a lot of 1980s money—like, you know, $3, but back when singles were $1.75, plus shipping and handling—and he was just ENRAGED when he put this thing on. There was nothing primitive about it! They had Rickenbacker guitars, the whole nine yards.
So, our thing was that we were going to be the primitive band that all these dicks thought they were being! That was a conscious decision on our part, to be the most primitive-sounding garage band that could possibly be.
If you go back and listen to a lot of those 80s garage revival records, they definitely do sound pretty tame.
Yeah. There were a couple of good ones, but even back then, I wasn’t listening much to current music. Most of them, though, were really tame, and our goal was to fix that, to punch a hole in that whole scene! We wanted to be just ugly, primitive, and talentless.
We deliberately picked instruments we didn’t know how to play. Peggy wasn’t a drummer; I played drums in bands before that, so of course I had to play guitar. Danny had kinda played guitar, but not all that great… he was mostly a lead vocalist in his previous band, and the one song he played guitar on, he just played one chord! The way the song was arranged, they needed an extra guitarist for this one chord.
That was all the musicianship we had in the band. We rejected musicianship in favor of being the most butt-ugly sounding band you could be.
Speaking of unlistenable music: I remember reading in BB Gun—this was years ago now, so I’m definitely paraphrasing—that when the Gories would tour Europe, people there viewed you as this pure garage/blues experience, but back in Detroit, you were thought of as more of a noise guy. I believe you used the phrase “patch cord junkie.”
Yeah, I was in a performance art group in Detroit [Yeti Sanction] at the same time the Gories were starting out, a kind of home-brew synth outfit. They were running concurrently; in fact, one night I did shows for both bands at different venues! I did an opening set at one venue, ran home and changed clothes, then headlined a Gories show. The Gories had records out, though, and the other band did not.
Did they ever get records out?
There are recordings, but no records. Our aesthetic was as loose as the Gories, though: we only got together to record or perform. Dan was actually in one show for the other band—he came out and got mostly naked and danced on tables while we sawed away at our electric gizmos! It was pretty fun.
In and around Detroit, those dividing lines between “scenes” and genres aren’t really there in the same way they are in other places.
Nah, they’re not. It’s more like that now than it was before, but when we were there, it was never like that, because there was nothing to do. You had to make your own something to do! If you were only in one band there, you weren’t considered a serious musician, you weren’t in the thick of things.
I used to joke that, in Detroit at that time, you’d go see a punk rock band on Friday, a jazz or reggae band on Saturday, and a rockabilly band on Sunday, and it’d all just be the same four guys. Back then, I’d go see all the Detroit techno guys, and a week later, they’d be in the audience to see me.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that some people stopped going to see things outside their worldview like that. That’s the standard everywhere else, but Detroit was never that way.
It works best when nobody outside of the Metro Detroit area is paying any attention.
Yep. In the early 2000s, everyone wanted to get their face in the picture. We joked back then that everyone wanted to get in the hot tub with Jack White.
That hot tub is gonna get nasty with too many people in it.
It did. Really quickly!
Your band that started around then, The Dirtbombs, was a kind of art project band that allowed you to play with genres and make them your own. The Gories more or less stuck to their framework. Why do you think that is?
Well, because the Gories was a real band, and the Dirtbombs was NOT. The Dirtbombs were an experiment in phoniness. The idea was not that I was going to have a band, but that I was going to explore what a rock band is. How far can you go and still be a rock band? What are the limits to the makeup of a rock & roll band? That’s part of the reason there’s two drummers and two bass players: why do you have to only have one? Who set that in stone? The Dirtbombs are a deconstruction, five people who’ve never heard rock & roll but have read an awful lot about it.
The Gories, though, were and are an actual band, so we kinda stick to our party line. With the Dirtbombs, it’s more about figuring out what I can take apart today.
You and Danny had the honor of backing R&B legend Andre Williams on his finest—and gnarliest—latter-day record, Silky. How’d you hook up with him initially?
By that point, the Gories had broken up and Danny was playing in the Demolition Doll Rods. They’d play in Chicago a lot, and they found out that Andre was still alive and performing there. They went to see him play, and then after the show they just started talking to him.It snowballed from there—I don’t remember how In The Red ended up putting it out, I think Danny had sent Larry Hardy some recordings. It was suggested that we make an album with him, so of course we said yes.
Andre came to Detroit and we had a meeting. He had a 3” binder full of song lyrics, and we went through it with him. He definitely wanted to do “Let Me Put It In,” because that was part of his live set already, and he really liked “I Want To Be Your Favorite Pair of Pajamas.” There were a couple that he was willing to fight for, and then there were just some that Danny and I liked.
He was totally great, an absolute joy to work with. We’d get to the studio at 2 pm, and he’d be great. Then, around 4, he would take his first rum break, and things would deteriorate from there. By 6, we’d be rambling around and it’d be like a Fugs recording session or something, and by 8, we would have to call it. If Andre was really in the groove, he could roll drunk for awhile, but we’d always have to be done by 8, because he’d start to get cranky around 6. The only exception to this was ‘Pussy Stank’; we did that after 8, in one take.
Andre was totally open to anything I wanted to do, though. That’s how “Bring Me Back My Car Unstripped” happened: he’d never heard of Test Department or whatever, but he was absolutely open to the idea of everyone beating on car parts. “That sounds kinda funny, let’s try it”! As long as he knew there were a couple singles on the record, the rest of the album could be anything anybody wanted.
What do you think makes people still want to hear the Gories and see you live all these years later?
I think, in large part, the internet. On the internet, everything is new to somebody, so there are always people just now hearing us. Before that, those records would have ended up in the bargain bin and been washed down the drain of history; now, it’s on the internet, and if somebody mentions it, you can just go hear it.
Ever since we got back together in 2009, at least two people have come up to one of us at every single show and said “I just heard you guys for the first time last week”. Every single show! The bands I’ve been in have been in the lucky position of having had enough of a fanbase before the internet that there’s substantial documentation, and that is now on the internet. So people are constantly discovering us.
That’s a good thing. Us old-timers like to complain about how it was for us in the 1980s to find like-minded people. When Danny and I were young mods, there was NO PLACE TO GO to find other mods. You’d just roll around town to places where you’d think a mod would go and hope they’d show up!
And you’d dress like a mod so they would know you were one of ‘em.
Exactly. Then, maybe you’d hear about a book—like, there’s a book called Mods! by Richard Barnes—and it would become everyone’s Bible, because it was the only source you had of concentrated information. Everybody I knew bought that book, and it wasn’t easy because it was an import from England! Now, in two hours, you could go from zero to up to speed on pretty much anything.
I have my moments of sour grapes about that, but on the other hand, it’s worked to my advantage because it means people are going to be at my shows and I’ll get paid. I’m very happy about that!