Q. What do you get when you combine some of the best local Detroit bands and the best college radio station on the planet?
A. A killer album of that perfectly captures the energy and originality of the Detroit music scene today.
I ran across “Motor City Gems” the other day at a non-profit Detroit improv theater, Planet Ant. Even though I had no intent of buying another album when the group of us set out that night, when I saw WHFR set up in the bar of the theater, selling the album, picking up a copy was a no brainer. It couldn’t have been a better decision.
WHFR is a non-profit volunteer run college radio station on the campus of Henry Ford College. There is not a cooler radio station in existence. Granted, I’m probably a bit biased in that opinion, as my wife and I are both alumni from many years ago, back when it was still Henry Ford Community College.
“Motor City Gems” is an incredible collection of some of the best music coming out of Detroit today. My personal favorites are the blues infused rocker “Lightning Strikes” by The Muggs (which kicks off the album), Carolyn Striho’s ethereal and moody “Oceans”, and “Jam Sandwich”, a jazz fusion inspired instrumental by The Kenny Hill group. But in all honesty this whole album is great – and I assure you, that is an unbiased opinion.
Back when I attended the college, WHFR was a very local, low powered radio station that was on the air only 12 hours a day. Today, they broadcast 24/7 and can be listened to nearly anywhere in the world through the Internet (just tell Alexa or Google “play radio station WHFR”). In addition to local music, WHFR’s radio programs play what is probably the most diverse range of music you will hear anywhere on the planet.
There once was a time when local rock radio stations were just that – local. Not part of a homogenous sounding subsidiary of a communication conglomorate. It was a time when local radio stations strongly promoted local bands – adding their music into the daily playlists along with the national acts, having special weekend radio programs that played local acts exclusively, and even coming out with compilation albums promoting those bands. In the 1970s, WWWW – or as it was more affectionately known to anyone who lived near Detroit, W4 – was one such rock radio station.
W4 Homegrown was a compilation album of bands from in and around Detroit that had appeared on the W4 Homegrown radio program which aired every Monday night on the station. This album is a reminder of the wide variety of rock music that existed in the Motor City in the 1970s.
For a couple of the bands, the song they have on here is the only recording they would ever release. Others would release at least one album and become only local favorites before breaking up. Some, like Toby Redd, The Buzztones, Northwind, and Lady Grace, seemed to get just the slightest glimpse of the national spotlight but never really broke out of regional notoriety. The Rockets would go on to record six solid major label albums, including one live album and had three songs that broke Billboard’s top 200. They also had a national television appearance on the late night cocert program, “The Midnight Special.” But perhaps the best remembered band on this album is The Romantics. They went on to record 4 songs that broke into the Billboard charts, including “What I Like About You,” one of the most popular rock anthems of all time.
One morning, in 1980, to the shock of the station’s listeners, and even the disk jockeys that worked there, W4 changed its format from rock to country music, abruptly ending an era for a legendary Detroit radio station. One of the stations disk jockeys who was blindsided by the change was a very young upstart named Howard Stern.