Tone Quest article on The Hell Drivers

March 2010

The Hell Drivers

(This article appears in the March 2010 Tone Quest Report which is a magazine for guitar and amplifier connoisseurs the world over. In this issue, while discussing the various attributes of Gibson Les Paul guitars, Tone Quest interviewed Jim McCarty)

Having acquired the ‘68 Custom, it was perhaps providential that a player who has been playing them for years just happened to call — Detroit rocker Jim McCarty of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Cactus, The Rockets, Mystery Train, and his new band, the Hell Drivers. Jim sent us a copy of the band’s live CD — a ballsy tribute to classic Detroit rock & roll, and if you‘re at all familiar with McCarty and drummer Johnny ‘Bee ‘Badanjek, you know this band absolutely rocks in the style that made Detroit famous. As we remarked to Jim, the fact that veteran musicians can rock this hard with the energy of a teenage garage band is, to say the least, encouraging for the rest of us, if not humbling and instructive.

TQR: Where was the Hell Drivers’ CD recorded?

At a place called Callahan’s it’s the premier blues club in this area out in Auburn Hills, and Mike Moss is the guy who owns and runs the place. He appreciates the blues and brings rock & roll in as well from time to time, and he really loves me and Johnny Bee. You might be able to squeeze two hundred people in the club, and the night we played it was shoulder to shoulder inside. I think they turned away about a hundred people at the door — just one of those great, magical nights, and it was the first time we had played there. It was actually one of the first gigs the band had played. There was always talk about me and Bee getting back together and a friend of ours named Albert Freud told us that we should get together with this singer, Jimmy Edwards. I brought Marvin in, the bass player from my blues band Mystery Train, and there was an immediate chemistry there. Everything just clicked, and the job Jimmy does on vocals is just amazing. When we do the Rockets stuff he totally cops Dave Gilbert’s voice and the same with Mitch Ryder it’s uncanny. So I thought, if we’re gonna do this, why don’t we play all classic Detroit rock & roll songs? The CD is a little capsule history of Detroit rock & roll played by guys who were involved in that and can still get it up, and people just went bonkers over it.

TQR: And you went into that venue for the first time and just let it roll... Let’s run through the songs for those that may not be familiar with the rock & roll scene in Detroit.

We opened up with a couple of Rockets tunes — “Desire” and “Turn Up the Radio.” That’s the band John and I had from 1973 to to ‘83. It was a Detroit band and we pretty much toured all over the country for ten years, but never really had a big, breakthrough record. We kinda became the world’s greatest opening act... In Detroit we used to play Pine Knob every year, and here at least, the band was huge. “Money” of course is one of Barry Gordy’s hits, and Jimmy sings his ass off on that song. “Respect” is The Rationals version that was done before Aretha. They were from Ann Arbor and we play their arrangement that was originally done with a singer named Scott Morgan. The next tune is from an even more obscure Detroit band called The Torpedoes. Johnny Angelos was the singer and a great song writer, and “No Pills” is just a simple little thing but a great rock & roll song. The Torpedoes still have a cult following and every year they get together once a year for a reunion. The original band was big in the early ‘80s, but Johnny had some chemical problems and passed away a few years ago. His son sings with the band now, and our singer Jimmy used to be their roadie in the ‘80s. Then we’ve got Iggy’s tune, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” which is probably my favorite track on the CD. If somebody had told me years ago that I would be playing an Iggy Pop tune and having fun doing it, I would have laughed in their face. But I think our version of that song is pretty cool. We kinda just threw caution to the wind on that one and it worked. The speed-up at the end wasn’t planned... Jimmy was on his hands and knees lapping water from a bowl and spitting it out into the audience (laughing), and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Then we play the Lou Reed classic “Rock & Roll” that the band Detroit did, and Bee was the original drummer on that record. Actually, their recording was better than the version Lou Reed did, and he has said as much. “Taking It Back” was another big Rockets tune in Detroit.

TQR: And “Oh Well” (Fleetwood Mac) and “Jenny Take a Ride” require no explanation.

Yeah, you know, sometimes when people get these reunion bands together with older guys that played together twenty or thirty years ago it sounds like that — some old guys gettin’ together and havin’ some fun, but this CD doesn’t sound like a bunch of old men.

TQR: No, it doesn’t. I sent an MP3 of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to a friend with a note that said, ‘Well, this is encouraging.’

(Laughing) That would be a great one-line review. If you’re gonna do that particular song in Detroit... You’re treading on thin ice, because there are some diehard Iggy fans here, but I know that Jimmy (Iggy’s real name) would dig our version of that song a lot.

TQR: You mentioned in your hand-written note that came with the CD that you used the blackfaced/silverface Pro Reverb, Les Paul Custom, B.K. Butler vintage Tube Driver and Keeley-modded TS-9 Tubescreamer for the show that was recorded, but let’s dig into your history with guitars a little deeper. We recently acquired a Les Paul Custom, and it seems to produce its own very unique sound that is quite different from a Les Paul Standard.

There is a difference between the Standard and the Custom, and in my opinion it’s the ebony fingerboard. The Custom has a thicker sound than the rosewood fingerboard, and some guys don’t like that. For me, it doesn’t make a lot of difference — I can get what I need as long as the guitar I’m playing is working the way it should. Among the three black Les Pauls I own, if I had to pick one, it would be the Custom, but I’m just fine with the other two black Les Paul Standards, too. I swapped the original pickups out among the two Standards because one guitar was darker than the other and swapping the pickups seemed to help them both.

TQR: They are all different…

Yeah, they’re just like women. One of my first Les Pauls was a ‘50s goldtop with PAFs that I had when I was with Buddy Miles in 1969. I made a big mistake with that guitar by having it refinished. When I got it back it was beautiful and sounded like shit. While I was in Cactus at the end of ‘69 I bought a ‘59 sunburst in New York for $650. I had that and a ‘54 Stratocaster, and both of those guitars were stolen when I moved back to Detroit to form the Rockets — that was my welcome home. The ‘59 Les Paul is on all three Cactus albums played through hot-rodded 100 watt Marshalls. We had a lunatic madman amp guy at the time, and he would be changing tubes in the amps during the shows because they were running so hot. At one point we played the Fillmore in New York, which was basically a theater — not really a big place, and I had two stacks of 100 watt Marshalls and a beefed-up Twin Reverb. They could hear me (laughing). In the Rockets, I had three Marshall stacks on stage, but there was only one bottom cabinet next to the drum riser that was ever connected. I could never understand how guys could play with full stacks, because all you can hear is yourself on stage. That’s why Townshend can’t hear anymore. Anyway, when the ‘59 was stolen, I said ‘fuck it. .‘ That broke my heart, and I stopped dealing with old guitars. I’ve been playing black Les Pauls ever since. The Standards do sound a little softer than the Custom... The Custom hits a little harder where a Standard has a little more compression. When I play my newer Standard, I’ll use my Twin, which is more in your face, but with the Custom, the softer Pro Reverb sounds the best.

TQR: Are your guitars particularly light or heavy?

The Custom is a shade lighter than the two Standards, but I’d say both of them are a solid ten pounds. My ‘59 was not a heavy guitar, but I think the weight of the guitars I have now is a factor in the way they sound. There is also no substitute, in my opinion, for playing a guitar for twenty years. Of course, on the Hell Drivers’ CD you’re also hearing my old Butler Tube Driver with the single tone control... The Pro Reverb is only a 45 watt amp, but when the Tube Driver is working it, the sound is just ridiculous. I find that when I use more than two pedals, I lose too much signal, and between the TS9 and the Tube Driver, I have everything I need. What’s critical with the Tube Driver is how the 12AX7 acts as a second preamp. There isn’t a solid state circuit that can do what that tube does in terms of harmonics.

TQR: How loud are you running your amps?

I don’t turn either the Pro or the Twin up past ‘4.’ You really can’t in most of the joints we play up here, and when I turn the pedals off, I want a good clean tone.

TQR:        The combination of humbucking pickups and Fender-style amps has always seemed to produce a magical combination...

Yeah, that’s pretty much home for me, although I don’t have anything against Marshall amps... it’s more of a conceptual thing. I just heard from Carmine (Appice) and it looks as if we may be doing some Cactus dates. They have a date booked at B.B. King’s in New York on April 10, and they are luring me back to do them because Tim (Bogart — the original bass player) isn’t interested, and we’ve got one of my favorite bass players committed who has been on tour with Queen and Paul Rodgers for the past two years — Danny Miranda, who is just a monster musician. So I’m looking for ward to that, and I’ll use a Marshall 100 watt amp on those dates.

TQR: With the Hell Drivers CD, Cactus and interest in the Rockets, it seems as if you have a lot of good things going on...

This year looks like it could be really interesting. Things have been really nice for me compared to previous years, ever since the Cactus V reunion CD came out. And I’m really tickled about how the Hell Drivers recording turned out — that’s why I wanted you to hear the CD. It’s a classic piece of Detroit rock & roll, and like I said, you’ve got a bunch of guys that have been around, but these are guys that can still get it up. There are a lot of guys that have our history, but not that many of them that have our energy... And then there’s a lot of guys that have our energy, but they ain’t got our history.  TQ

The Hell Drivers “Live from Detroit” is available on iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Zune, etc.