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Beginning in 1969 with his major label debut Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, Detroit rocker Bob Seger cut an imposing and intriguing figure by combining elements of hard blues-based rock with Motown soul and delivering it with a one-of-a-kind voice that bears a greater resemblance to a Harley Davidson gunning it down the highway at 100 mph than any human instrument. The only problem for Seger was that for however great his music was, nobody seemed to care. Well, nobody outside of the Detroit city limits anyway. In the Motor City he was an undeniable star with the ability to sell out arena-sized spaces typically reserved for the biggest touring acts of the day. It took the arrival of his 1976 album Live Bullet to wake the rest of world up to what those in the 313 area code already knew and loved.
There are several explanations as to why it took Seger so long to break out. Some lay the blame at the feet of his record label that didn’t do enough to promote him. Some say it was Seger’s manager Ed “Punch” Andrews, who released a number of the rock ’n’ roller’s records on his own label, Palladium, rather than handing the tapes over to the majors. And some are of the mind that it was Seger who got in the way of his own success by not doing enough to break out of the cozy confines of the larger Midwest. Regardless, his cult following around the state of Michigan was unparalleled, and it’s easy to understand why once you push play on nearly any of his early records.
Seger’s first large foray into the music industry began with the release of the 1966 single “East Side Story,” backed by his group The Last Heard. The song was another run-of-the-mill garage rock rip-off of Van Morrison’s band Them’s classic track “Gloria,” but its Seger’s voice—raw, direct, and uncompromising—that sets it apart from other groups of their ilk. Though it received modest acclaim, the song just barely missed out on making an appearance in the Hot 100 on the charts. Years passed without much further traction in the larger commercial space. Eventually Seger’s record company, Cameo-Parkway, folded, so he worked out a new deal with Capitol Records, which quickly re-christened the singer and his band The Bob Seger System in 1969.
For the next two years, Seger wrote and recorded and some of the most thrilling records in rock, culminating with the release of Mongrel in 1970. As a pure distillation of what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to sound like, Mongrel is almost unparalleled. Kicking of with the raucous “Song For Rufus,” it’s a 10-track, 33:44 wrecking ball of fire-breathing vocal wails, ear-splitting cymbal crashes, and tight, incendiary guitar solos. Only Detroit cohorts The Stooges could hope to match this musical brutality, but again—except for some passing kind reviews in the underground press—hardly anybody noticed. It was a heavy blow.
After Mongrel, Seger struck out nominally as a solo artist, releasing a myriad of fantastic and tonally eclectic records on a variety of different labels, including the stripped-down Brand New Morning in 1971, the straight covers record Smokin’ O.P.’s in 1972, and the explosive Back In ’72, which he recorded with the famed group of soulful session players down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In 1974, Seger formed a new group he called the Silver Bullet Band to take out with him on his road gigs. The outfit featured Alto Reed on saxophone, Drew Abbott on guitar, Chris Campbell on bass, Charlie Martin on drums, and Rick Manasa on keyboards, though he was replaced by Robyn Robbins a year later. Though Seger continued to lean on session players while making music in the recording studio, the Silver Bullet Band was a superb live unit with a natural ability to conjure up moments of pure transcendence regardless of the size of the gig they had been booked to play. Typically around that time that meant modest concert halls in a variety of Midwest markets except for when he was slotted as the opening act for bands like KISS, where they performed in front of half-empty arenas full of painted black-and-white faces. Still, he had Detroit, a place that recognized the greatness of his songwriting and the enormity of charisma.
Seger didn’t actually want to cut a live record in 1976. As he told Rolling Stone later that year, “I was really opposed to a live album but frankly, I just couldn’t finish the new record. We were supposed to deliver a new product in January, but by April I still wasn’t ready. We just couldn’t wait any longer or we’d lose all the momentum from Beautiful Loser. We weren’t even getting gigs ’cause we were so cold.” With the clock ticking and the label hungry for another release, the decision was made to attempt to produce something like what KISS had done with Alive! or Peter Frampton had done with Frampton Comes Alive.
Ever the control freak, before he and his band could hit the road, Seger first tried to cut his “live” album in a studio. As Silver Bullet Band backing singer Charlie Martin recalled in the oral history Detroit Rock City, “Because we were so, I like to say spontaneous, but Bob and Punch might use the word erratic, Bob and especially Punch were concerned that we couldn’t deliver the goods live… We tried this experiment where we recorded the live set in the studio, and then they were going to put in canned applause, so it would be us pretending to play live. But it was dead in the water because we really needed that interplay.” Fortunately Seger and his manager recognized that this method wasn’t going to work and instead decided to record a number of shows from the upcoming tour, including two gigs at the 24,000 seat Cobo Hall in his hometown.
Though it’s a double record, Live Bullet doesn’t waste any time in kicking your teeth down your throat as it speeds ahead at an exciting clip. “Hey Detroit!” Seger whoops, before slipping into a cranked-to-10 cover of the semi-autobiographical Tina Turner single “Nutbush City Limits.” In the hands of The Silver Bullet Band, the already uptempo rock number is pushed deep into the red by the musicians onstage, while Seger himself sounds about ready to burst a vein as he belts out the song’s lyrics. Actually, that’s the pattern for most of the tracks on this record, from rollicking “Katmandu” to the swanky “Travelin’ Man,” and especially in the party-hardy album closer “Let It Rock,” which blasts off with a riff guaranteed to bring a smile to Chuck Berry’s face.
Outside of the intensity of the music itself, one of the great things about Live Bullet it actually feels live. Between the earnest and pandering introductions and asides from Seger onstage—“As I told everybody last night, I was reading in Rolling Stone where they said, ‘Detroit audiences are the greatest rock ’n’ roll audiences in the world,’” he said midway through “Nutbush City Limits.” “I thought to myself, ‘Shit! I’ve known that for 10 years!”—to the sheer vibrancy of the crowd noise, you can tell that this isn’t a record like Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same or KISS’ Alive! where you can sense the stitches from the post-show studio doctoring. Live Bullet is a warts-and-all presentation of what Seger and his band sounded like on that particular night. The transparency is as welcome as it is endearing. You can’t help but smile when he implores the crowd to sing along with him in a call-and-response format on “Heavy Music” or when he dedicates the Van Morrison song “I’ve Been Working” to “all the working people in the house tonight.”
The musical and emotional high point of Live Bullet comes about halfway through when Seger, completely out of breath and panting, announces, “This is from [Back In] ’72 also, about being on the road… it’s called ‘Turn The Page.’” Immediately Alto Reed’s saxophone wails into frame with all of the sadness and melancholy of the ages before ceding the limelight back to Seger, who sounds about 1,000 years old. The imagery of the song is astounding: “On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha / You can listen to the engines moaning out as one long song / You think about the woman, or the girl you knew the night before.” Even if you’ve never lived the nomadic lifestyle of a touring musician, the romance of the words sucks you in completely and suddenly you’re no longer yourself. Seger forces you into the roll of the narrator dealing with onlookers staring at his long hair wondering aloud if he’s a woman or a man.
About the time you “smoke the day’s last cigarette” with “amplifiers ringing in your head” the song explodes out in an atomic blast of energy. Where once Seger sounded at his wits’ end, he’s back onstage, the consummate rock ’n’ roll idol giving every ounce of his energy into the final chorus. “Here I am,” he bellows. “On the road again!” The words fade out; Reed’s saxophone steps back in, and the songs winds down to its natural conclusion. It’s easily one of the most thrilling and exhausting five minutes in recorded history. It’s the consummate road tale, laid out in a medium that has long romanticized the bard-like experience of moving from town to town to share your art with the common people. Maybe it should have closed the album, but who’s to say.
When it was finally released on April 12, 1976, Live Bullet worked a slow roll within the marketplace before finally building up a significant head of steam that led it to 5X platinum status in the U.S. alone. Suddenly, Cobo Hall wasn’t the only arena in the country that Seger could sell out, and when he did indeed go back to Detroit, he was forced to move out into the massive 70,000-plus seat Pontiac Silverdome instead. A huge number of multi-platinum hit records followed, including Night Moves, Stranger In Town, and Against The Wind. In fact, with the exception of It’s A Mystery in 1995 and his most recent record Ride Out in 2014, every single one of Seger’s subsequent records shifter more than a million units. Such was the power and renown of perhaps the greatest live rock ’n’ roll album ever recorded.