Over the last week or so, I’ve been listening again to the Detroit Cobras and thinking about some of our first conversations on Punk Archaeology. The Cobras specialize in what they have called “revved up soul”. They make this wonderful noise by covering (mostly) lost classics of the MoTown era over the driving rhythms of punk and the fuzzy, distorted lo-fi sound of the punk blues movement. Rachel Nagy’s voice succeeds at being both smooth and abrasive at the same time. Some critics have called their sound “Garage Soul”.
Their first album, Mink, Rat or Rabbit covered songs by 1950s and early 1960s bands like The Marvelettes, The Shirelles, Irma Thomas, The “5” Royales, and The Shangri-Las. Later albums continue this tradition. (They’re first two albums – Mink, Rat or Rabbit and Life, Love and Learning – are, to my ear, their best. (Notice the absence of the “Oxford comma” in both titles.)
The point of mentioning this somewhat obscure band is to consider the relationship between punk and spolia. Spolia is a technical archaeological term for the re-use older fragments of architecture in new construction. It is typically associated with Late Antiquity and was initially regarded by critics steeped in the Classical Tradition as indicative of the lose of technical skills and economic impoverished conditions at the end of Antiquity. Other saw the use of spolia as a conscious decision on the part of Late Antique builders and, at worst, reflective of a taste for a discordant, disorganized, and, ultimately, decadent aesthetic.
Of course hip-hop music withstood similar criticisms as they cut up and sampled R&B classics to form rhythmic backdrop for their poetry. Such reuse of earlier material was unoriginal and indicative of a kind of creative bankruptcy among “today’s generation”. Punk took their lead from pop music which they sped up and made more up-tempo, raucous and chaotic. The Cobras occupy a third space recently developed by bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys where punk, R&B, and blues infused with the DIY, lo-fy sound of the garage (which represents a more austere and suburban version of the venerable lo-fy Juke Joint).
The epicenter of this music has been Detroit (or the Rust Belt more broadly) where the punk of the MC Five and the blues Son House and John L. Hooker intersect. The music here has tremendous symbolic significance, as Detroit has become emblematic of the decline of “traditional America” and images of the ruinous conditions of the factories have become images of the decline of America’s fortunes as a manufacturing power. The photographs are archaeological in their attention to detail and the need to accommodate history.
The music of the Detroit Cobras provide a counterpoint to the haunting, archaeological photographs of abandoned Detroit. Fragments of the city’s earlier days come through in their music, but rather than critique the declining fortunes of America’s industrial heartland, the music calls forth the continued vitality of those days in much the same way that spolia maintained a conscious connection with earlier architecture.
The archaeological impulse in of punk rock of the Detroit Cobras reveals a kind of native archaeology of the American city which draws backwards on its unique history to produce critical memory. Such work is the work of archaeologists both of the past and the present who sought to communicate something meaningful from the fragments of the past that remained visible in their present. The spolia preserved in the music of the Detroit Cobras presents a musical museum in much the same way that the fragments of the past in produce meaning in the context of a physical museum today or in the context of monumental architecture in Late Antiquity.