Growing up a small area of Michigan, it’s easy to feel like you’re cut off from culture. Personally, I lived in the Upper Peninsula for 11 years, rarely seeing concerts and feeling isolated from music and art.
Once my interest in music got to the point where I began researching heavily, I began to discover Michigan’s importance in musical history. Obviously, there’s Motown, but also Funkadelic, early punk acts MC5 and The Stooges, and major modern artists like Eminem and The White Stripes. And beyond the obvious stuff, Michigan also gave us smaller local hits like Gino Washington’s “Gino is a Coward,” one of the best and most underrated songs of the 1960s.
Bob Seger is a difficult artist to define, at least if you know the full story, but he falls somewhere in between all of those artists: a local success in Detroit who slowly built a national audience over the course a decade before blowing up, and who ultimately became defined by his weakest hits. Seger’s early work was a critical success, largely due to the Detroit-based Creem Magazine. To this day, critics continue to hold Seger’s early work in high regard. On his 2010 Pazz & Jop ballot, music critic Chuck Eddy named the fan-made compilation Never Mind the Bullets, Here’s Early Bob Seger as his favorite album of the year.
Indeed, Seger’s early work is essential, and if you haven’t heard songs like the top 20 hit “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and the anti-war masterpiece “2 + 2 = ?” (the latter an influence on Seger fan Jack White’s “Seven Nation Army” riff), you should get on that. But today is the 40th anniversary of Seger’s 1976 release Night Moves, an album that was somehow both his best album and the beginning of his artistic downfall.
Night Moves came two years before Stranger in Town, which featured Seger’s signature song “Old Time Rock and Roll.” For years, I avoided acknowledging Seger as a great artist because of that song, along with the Chevrolet-ad favorite “Like a Rock.” “Old Time Rock and Roll” is a smug, conservative love letter to an earlier time that manages to weave anti-disco sentiments and “American Pie”-esque hypocrisy into the mix.
Even worse, the song is irrelevant, since Night Moves opened with “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” a song that essentially has the same message, but delivered in a better, less self-important tone. It shifts the perspective to third-person, seemingly bringing The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” a few decades into the future. The same girl whose life was saved by rock and roll is now “a little bit older, a lot less bolder than you used to be.” But, as the title says, the music never forgets.
The rest of Night Moves follows suit. It’s no less traditional than the records Seger would release later, but it handles its subjects well. “The Fire Down Below” initially seems like a same-old take on prostitution, but by giving the women names while keeping the men nameless, he manages to craft a song about exploitation and abuse that’s unique in its empathy.
The album is consistent, but it’s also overshadowed by two masterpieces, the title cut and “Mainstreet.” Both songs made it to the top 40, with “Night Moves” making it all the way to #4. Since “Night Moves” was written at an A&W in Ypsilanti, where I’ve lived for the past four years, and “Mainstreet” details Ann Street in Ann Arbor, I’ve grown even more connected to these songs in recent years than I was previously. The beauty in “Mainstreet,” driven by its guitar hook, is still a perfect summation of a night in Ann Arbor, while “Night Moves” evokes Michigan without ever tying itself to it specifically.
“Night Moves” remains the best song Seger has ever written, demonstrating tremendous self-awareness about the same nostalgia that made “Old Time Rock and Roll” so unbearable. It details Seger’s fling with a girl in his teenage years. “I used her, she used me/But neither one cared/We were getting our share,” he sings, making the relationship sound painful. Then comes a bridge that, despite being ridiculously cut from the radio edit, gives the song its meaning. The singer wakes up in the middle of the night, hums a song from 1962, and thinks about his past, ending on “Ain’t it funny how you remember?” Indeed, it’s funny, not to mention tragic, to hold onto the memory of desperate teenage fucking as a high point in your life.
The nearly flawless first side closes with “Sunburst,” a minor classic, before getting into a more flawed second half. “Sunspot Baby” and “Ship of Fools” are solid filler, while the album hits its weak point with “Come to Poppa,” a song that’s somehow grosser than the title suggests (the word “satisfier” is rhymed with “pacifier,” making the “poppa” concept too literal for comfort). The song nevertheless survives due to its chugging riff.
“Mary Lou” closes Night Moves on an underwhelming note. A widely covered ‘50s tune, the song’s lyrics are typical enough in their gender politics and rhyme schemes to make covering it pointless without a unique musical take, which Seger unfortunately doesn’t have.
Despite these two weak cuts, Night Moves remains the best studio LP of Seger’s career, a tribute to the music of his youth that is musically diverse and thoughtful about his sentimentalizing. Forty years later, it’s still a strong example of how to pay tribute to the music you love without the air of superiority.