Wild Garage and Desperate Rock & Roll: The Sound of Mad Mike

Hailing from Pittsburgh, Mad Mike was an ‘iconoclastic’ DJ who built his reputation on playing music from the underbelly of rock & roll. During the 60’s, he sought out the unknown in music and brought it to the mainstream through his Radio show on WZUM-AM, a small Carnegie radio station. Mad Mike developed a world-wide reputation amongst lovers of rock & roll by playing wild garage tunes from bands such as the Sonics on his show, often giving them exposure for the first time.

Mad Mike's Moldies

He was an original crate digger, making road trips across America going through record store bargain bins and distributors’ back rooms in search of the essential unknown fierce underground tracks that were being made and subsequently discarded all over the US at the time. From R&B to Garage and Rockabilly, he had a keen ear for underground music, introducing his listenership to the Sonics, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and Tommy James and the Shondells.

Mike took pleasure in finding the tunes that no one else had, and then in adding to the mystique by rarely announcing the names of his tunes on air and even scratching off the names of the bands from his 45’s so that others could not copy his sound. This helped him to build a loyal fan base, since nobody could hear his tunes except on his show or at his dances.  “Listen in – you may never hear this song again”, he’d shout out!

During the 50’s Mike served in the Navy, working in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. During this period, he heard for the first time the underground sound of Black Rhythm and Blues artists such as Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner. The Jump Blues sound clearly got under his skin and when he returned to his home town of Pittsburgh he began hosting ‘record hops’ around the city. He soon gained a reputation for his DJing and was able to tie down a show on a local radio station. This became a career and Mad Mike carried on with Radio right up until his death in 2000.

DJing at Pietro's Pizza Pub in 2000

DJing at Pietro's Pizza Pub in 2000

Mad Mike is often realistically credited with kick-starting the Garage scene in the US by switching many people on to the wild guitar sounds later compartmentalized in that style of music. What I personally admire him for is his unswerving vision of what music should be like. He was prepared to search long and hard, no doubt spending all his money on his quest for the unusual, the unmissable and the downright freaky sound of American rock & roll. Without compromise he sought the crazy sound that was ignored by the mainstream. The thing is that the mainstream followed him back into this nether world of underground music.  One  time Mad Mike was spinning tunes at Danceland in 1964, playing to a couple of thousand teens, while the live act next door drew 200 fans. That band was the Rolling Stones! In many respects people like Mad Mike set the scene for punk and the independent music movement of later decades and we owe him for it – big time!

Here’s a few quotes from friends and admirers:

“Mad Mike brought a lot of the underground sound to white culture, (He) represented blue collar and introduced us to music we would have never heard.” said Johnny Angel of Johnny Angel and the Halos. “Mad Mike was definitely unique”, He was “a man with a mission” in terms of collecting rare and popular recordings.

Fred Bohn attended his first Mad Mike dance during his early teens. He later started up Attic records.“I walked out a totally different person, it was like nothing I had ever heard in my life. He searched from East Coast to West Coast for records. He had an ear. He could play a pop record by Frank Sinatra and follow it with some punk garage thing, and it fit.”

“Music was always his life,” says Pete Shanley. “Things like money didn’t mean anything to him. He loved music and being on the radio. Those were the most important things to him.”

“I walk through stacks of records and I hear voices. The records are calling out to me, ‘Play me! Play me!’ These things haunt me and I have nightmares.” – Mad Mike

Posted in Music Blog, Rock 'n' Roll |

One Response to Wild Garage and Desperate Rock & Roll: The Sound of Mad Mike

  1. Pingback: Episode 30 – Mo’ Monkey Business | The Home Spun Show