Mike Skill Of The Romantics Captures The Sound And The Fury Of The 60s On New Singles

In the late 1960s, the turmoil of the times and the cathartic release of the music always seemed to feed off each other. Mike Skill of The Romantics manages to capture that interplay on his latest solo single “’67 Riot,” which mixes on-the-spot reportage of the racial unrest that gripped Detroit in 1967 with the blistering garage rock that inspired the music he has made throughout his career.

In a recent interview with American Songwriter, Skill spoke about the memories of that period that have stayed with him all this time. “There was a lot of racial tension at that time and it just blew up,” Skill remembers. “And I was living on the far east side of Detroit, with helicopters overhead and the National Guard in Jeeps on the corner of our street. It scared a lot of people. The fear level rose. People thought the riots were going to come into our neighborhoods.”

What also stuck with Skill was how, even after the riots were eventually quieted, nothing seemed to be resolved. “No one ever came together,” he says. “The city leaders didn’t come together. Black and white didn’t come together, try to hash through it, deal with it and repair the hurt and the wounds. People just moved on and trampled over people.”

“It was a real momentous era, and then all of the sudden this eruption and uproar. Detroit wasn’t quite Mayberry, but there was a sedate kind of thing, and people were blind to stuff. Others felt like they needed to rise up, and that’s what happened. And it stuck with me.”

Much of the lyrical content of “’67 Riot,” in addition to evoking the sights and sounds of the riots, also inspires emotion that seems very relevant to what’s going in the world today. “So much lost, nothing gained/Detroit city filled with pain,” Skill sings. Right before each refrain is a couplet that implies that people should look deeper into the cause and effect when trying to make sense of such incidents: “Broken city, broken dreams/Things aren’t always what they seem.”

Ironically, Skill actually wrote the song at a time when everybody seemed numb to the tension under the surface of society. “Come the 2000s, I started to think that everybody was kind of complacent,” he explains. “It was kind of calm. People weren’t in the street or anything like that. I thought that people needed to hear about the ‘67 riots. I got the title, got a guitar groove and lick, and lyrics started coming out. I finished it up in the studio. It tells the tale of what happened.”

When he began putting the song together, Skill knew that only the thrilling garage rock of his youth could possibly serve as the proper musical setting for the story, specifically as he remembered it from Detroit’s own MC5. “You had the Beatles invasion, that was the first thing,” Skill explains. “And then you had the next wave, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and the Who, come through. The Grande Ballroom in Detroit opened up and the MC5 were one of the top bands. All these bands were putting out their own records. The Five were like this raucous, wild band that could go into wild jams of avant-garde jazz. It could go off into different areas, and it was straight, raw, controversial politics too.”

“I was 14, I had my first garage band and the MC5’s first single, ‘Looking At You,’ came out. It was like The Who, Yardbirds and Detroit on steroids. It was just raw, in-your-face, kick-ass music. They really stood out. Their stage show was like a James Brown review mixed with the Who and the Yardbirds. I wore that record out.”

In order to really capture that vibe, there was only one man that could do justice to the lead guitar parts on the song: Wayne Kramer of the MC5 himself. “I really looked up to him and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith guitar-wise,” Skill says. “They were like the Allman Brothers of their genre. The way they orchestrated their guitars and wrote their parts was really influential. So it was like pulling something from down on the mountain and saying, ‘Hey would you like to play on this?’”

“My Bad Pretty,” the B-side of “’67 Riot,” also luxuriates in garage rock swagger, and Skill is proud to carry that torch. “The early Kinks, ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘Until The End Of The Day’, was what really kicked it in for me,” he says. “And then ‘Louie Louie,’ that whole vibe. I think that’s where it comes from, that frat-rock looseness. The Romantics were like the next generation of that. My writing in the Romantics came directly from that. It came natural. It’s just my roots that I had on guitar.”

For those who know him only from The Romantics and as co-writer of massive hits “What I Like About You” and “Talking In Your Sleep,” Mike Skill’s topical material might be surprising. But he claims that “’67 Riot” was inevitable for him as a composer. “I mean, I love pop songs,” he says. “I’ve written them before. This was just something that had to come out, subject matter about things that were going on in society. You can’t write it unless you feel like it’s there. So it was the right time for it to come out.”

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