Sour Soul: Stuart Cosgrove on Detroit ’67

Stuart Cosgrove on his stunning new book Detroit '67, documenting the most significant 365 days in soul's history, which saw racism and riots rage, and commodified musicians come to tragic ends. Angry parallels to our current times become easily apparent

Feature by Gary Kaill | 01 May 2015

"The usual failure is, weirdly, the biographical one; where the writer steadfastly follows the main story of the artist's life. But then they couple it with an obvious over-reliance on the musical detail and lose the historical context behind those elements, and it becomes a very shallow exercise. The context in this book can be summed up with: really? That happened?" We're talking music biographies and Stuart Cosgrove, the author of the recently published Detroit '67: The Year That Changed Soul, is clear on where, in an age of both X Factor-driven instant fame and our over-reliance on re-mythologising the past, this increasingly saleable commodity falls flat. The Scottish writer, producer and broadcaster swerves both failings in his 600-page account of twelve months that re-drew the Motor City's musical and socio-political map. A gripping examination of not just the meltdown of Motown Records, but also a political powder keg ready to explode, it expertly fashions key events into the spine of a remarkable story.   

"Well it was the music I loved, of course," says Cosgrove, as we speak ahead of planned promotion for the book (and initial preparation for its Memphis '68 follow-up).  "I have a deep love for it. But the trigger was this: I was watching the movie Dreamgirls and there's a scene where Effie, the central character, is sacked by the owner of the record company and she walks out into the street and there's rioting going on and there are burning buildings all around. And I said to my partner, 'I'm not sure that happened...' And so, very much with Florence Ballard [the Supremes singer whose tragic life is a critical component in Cosgrove's story] in mind, I wondered whether it would be possible to actually begin to work out where these people were at the time. So I started with the riots in July and I worked it from there, and started to research where all the major Motown acts were in 1967. But as I got more and more into it, I started to look into the whole year as things began to crop up." 

There are a series of seismic shifts within Motown during that year, but none more so than the simmering tensions within The Supremes, the label's flagship group. As Diana Ross's influence grows, Ballard's various instabilities lead to her eventual ousting from the trio. She's almost classically tragic. "Yes, indeed," agrees Cosgrove. "She, I think, helps hold the whole thing together. Her decline is obviously over several years, but I can only focus on the events of 1967. But as you focus on the horrible things that happen to her, and the awful mistakes she makes and the tragedies that are visited upon her, she gives you this central character. There are a number of characters who dip in and out – Marvin Gaye, Berry Gordy. But she's the one character who holds the whole thing together as you follow her sad decline." 

Depression and alcoholism contributed to Ballard's eventual death at just 32. As soon as she starts to falter due to the pressure of touring and the commercial expectations of the label, Gordy doesn’t hesitate, replacing her in an instant. "Florence was heavily influenced by her boyfriend and her family," says Cosgrove. "But they weren't particularly well informed about the music industry, her value, or her capacity to develop a solo career. So, as is often the case today, you take advice from the people who are closest to you, but they're not always the best people to take advice from. As Florence's story so painfully confirms." 

“You focus on the big moves – deaths, tragic events, political chaos” – Stuart Cosgrove

Detroit '67 took Cosgrove five years to piece together. Holding down the day job (Director of Nations and Regions at Channel 4), as well as presenting the popular football show Off The Ball for BBC Radio Scotland, he was left with little time to focus on his huge undertaking: "Well, yes, it was very difficult. I looked at the original newspapers and I went to the libraries in Detroit. I was working full time throughout. I was holding down this demanding job with Channel 4, doing radio at the weekend, and so I'd have to snatch at it during the holidays and grab elements from the web." 

Its size and its density are no obstacle to its grip: Detroit '67 reads like a sharply-conceived thriller. As the months pass, and the tension within the city rises, flashpoints surface in increasing numbers. For a writer, the momentum of those 365 days are a gift, impossible to ignore. "In many ways, when you’re looking at the dramatic spine to a book, you're simply looking for events that are worth writing about," says Cosgrove. "Immediately, you focus on the big moves – deaths, tragic events, political chaos." It's those explosive happenings that give fire to the core of Detroit 67, but Cosgrove never loses sight of the foundation, the dark underbelly of his story. The political rumblings are there throughout – until, in July, a series of riots sweep the city. "There are so many events to pick from," continues Cosgrove. "The riots are key, of course, but I mean, Muhammed Ali arrives at one point! This is at the absolute height of his notoriety. The key element there, of course, was that he had resisted the draft against this backdrop of young Detriot-ers in large numbers being killed in Vietnam. As soon as I knew that, that there was this immediate and powerful juxtaposition, I knew that I could build Vietnam into the fabric of the story." 

Talk turns back to Motown. In the current climate, where pop music continues to surprise with its ever-increasing disposability, it's easy to forget Gordy too oversaw a production line. One supported by a unique and unparalleled artistry, but a production line nevertheless. Cosgrove is quick to agree: "Yes, I think one of the really fascinating things about Motown is that it had such a distinct, house format. My friend Jim Lambie (the Glasgow-based, Turner Prize-nominated conceptual artist) is a massive Motown fan and we've talked at length over time on this. And I've often said to him that you tell the story of Motown via either The Four Tops' Greatest Hits or Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?"

In that they're the absolute polar opposites of the label's output?

"Exactly! You have these two and a half minute pop songs and this deeply political concept album. In the end, the label became a beautiful combination of both of those things."  

Unavoidably, we touch on the current state of UK politics, how musicians tend to swerve the issue these days ("I was involved with the original Red Wedge steering group, and we set up with a very clear purpose and that was to get Labour elected and to get Thatcher out") and the state of political flux that Scotland finds itself in with Labour's majority, post-referendum, set to be wiped out on 7 May. The Tories still have a special place in Cosgrove's heart: "When I see that Bullingdon Club photo of them all, I just want to shoot the fuckers. It's that level of visceral hatred." 

Of course, the most blinding contemporary parallel the book draws is one that Cosgrove could hardly have foreseen when he began writing it. In July of 1967, the police shot and killed three young, unarmed black men – a series of murders that eventually became known as The Algiers Motel Incident. Cosgrove has watched with increasing distaste as similar killings have taken place across America recently. "The curious thing about it is that it could be now," he says. "This is the assassination of three young, black American boys. They were killed by a rogue unit of the Detroit police who never ever faced justice, and the boys' families died without ever seeing them convicted for murder. It's quite extraordinary, and resonates wildly with the Walter Scott killing, Ferguson and all of these terrible events that have been taking place in the US in the last year and a half. The parallels are shocking. Here were three young black men who were using drugs, from the soul scene, fraternising with white girls and the authorities' response to that – to not liking that – was to just fucking kill them."

Detroit '67: The Year That Changed Soul is out now