The Traitors were a short-lived, and often maligned, band. But, the band’s history is fascinating and complicated with guest appearances involving rowdy teenage girls, angry outlaw bikers, the marketer of a 1970s fad, and a punch that landed the group in the annals of Detroit music lore.
A student of classical and jazz trumpet as a kid, Don McAlpine picked up a guitar in the late 1960s and started fronting rock bands including one called Black Stone Jury. After that band ran its course in the early 1970s, he sought to start a new group. In July 1975, McAlpine formed The Kid Row Gang featuring a member of a later version of the band Flaming Ember, that changed its name to Mind, Body and Soul, and had a hit with the song of that name around 1970. The Kid Row Gang was originally a six piece that played some house parties and bar gigs. But, McAlpine felt it wasn’t working out because some of older band members seemed to like to drink & smoke weed more than rehearse. So, he trimmed the band back to a four piece after running rehearsals with three area teenagers – guitarist Craig Peters, bassist Steve McGuire, and drummer Terry Fox – who he was extremely impressed with as musicians.
Meeting the Prez
In spring 1976, McAlpine took the new version of The Kid Row Gang into a Detroit studio to record some demos. One of the studio engineers was impressed with the group’s sound as the budding punk rock scene in the US and UK was building and called a friend at another studio, Sound Suite, who he knew was looking for such a band.
At the time, Sound Suite was recording a lot of local r&b following the move of Motown out to Los Angeles a few years earlier. The studio’s owner was Jack Tann. While Tann himself was not a musician, he had the money to run the studio due to his family’s tool & die business as well as his marketing of Mood Rings – a big fad in the mid-1970s. At the time, Tann was interested in developing punk rock bands because of a musician he knew was interested in what was happening around CBGBs and wanted to transition from being a jazz bassist to a singer/frontman.
His name was Don Fagenson.
At the time, Fagenson was a multi-instrumentalist known in the Detroit jazz scene chiefly as a bassist due to his work with Lenore Paxton since the early 1970s and had just completed working on an album with Paxton around the time he and McAlpine were introduced in the spring of 1976. Although known for jazz, Fagenson had previous rock and roll experience as a member of a late 1960s Detroit band The Saturns.
According to McAlpine, Tann had tried finding Fagenson a lead singer slot in several different groups, including an early version of The Romantics, but, he had been turned down.
After meeting, it was determined that they would work together and develop songs out of a project Fagenson had been working on. McAlpine says it took about six months or so for the songs to come together as The Kid Row Gang continued to play shows as a four piece and Fagenson kept up his jazz gigs. During the development, Fagenson and the four piece went back and forth on the name of the group until eventually they settled on The Traitors. Even though Fagenson didn’t win the day with his band name, he wanted to call it President Eisenhower, he did take on different versions of the first part of moniker during group’s lifetime including being called “Prez”, “Prez Fagenson”, and “Prez Genovese”, in a nod to the notorious Mafia crime family, on stage and in media appearances.
Following several months of rehearsals at the four-story Westinghouse Building on Trumbull and I-94 near the Wayne State University campus, McAlpine says he was impressed with Fagenson’s voice but needed help sculpting the frontman persona which he was willing to do given his own experience fronting Black Stone Jury. The band members, beyond knowledge of music, also shared an interest in socially conscience lyrics and sought to cultivate a fanbase in college students, including playing at gig at Wayne State. After reworking Fagenson’s originals and adding in early songs written by McAlpine, The Traitors played their first gig in the fall of 1976.
Savage Teenage Girls, Surly Outlaw Bikers & Snarky Detroit Punks
One of the first performances for The Traitors was at Oak Park’s Clinton Junior High School were Fagenson had attended as a kid and his parents worked as teachers. The Romantics were also on the bill.
McAlpine remembers The Traitors went on first working the crowd of mostly teenagers into frenzy. When the band finished and headed outside to the parking lot for a smoke everyone, except Fagenson who made it to van in time, was chased and tackled by a mob of teenage girls and needed to be rescued by the road crew.
This would be the first, but certainly not the last, of The Traitors getting scuffed up by a rowdy audience. Although, typically in the early days, the band faced bars full of bikers who didn’t appreciate their sound, their look, and considered them “queers”, especially when playing with The Ramrods who were often confrontational.
According to a story in the November 1978 issue of SPOOEE! based on an interview with McAlpine, the article added some on the local music scene were resentful of Tann’s money and that he was a “ruthless, calculating businessman, jumping into new wave with his bucks to get rich, while making a name for himself.”
The SPOOEE! reporter talks about the sound of The Traitors as McAlpine played him a tape “what he had heard wasn’t new wave but more reminicent (sic) of Beach Boys gone bad. Not that the tunes weren’t good, just not in the new wave style.”
In a 2018 interview, McAlpine acknowledges that Fagenson took a lot of heat from contemporaries in the early Detroit punk/new wave scene because he was the frontman. Many in the scene saw The Traitors as “fake”, or contrived, and lacking authenticity. McAlpine says in reality, he was the leader of the group since he had put together the core of the band and felt the group’s musical efforts were sincere. But, he also saw it very much like a show featuring an actor playing a role with the goal of creating the best performance he could with his group for the audience. In a 2017 interview, Fagenson says he can understand the issue of realness for some in the scene and it was a lesson he learned being in the band about how people relate to music.
More than Swinging Hips on “The Scene”
In late 1977, The Traitors were invited onto WGPR’s music show “The Scene”. This Detroit style “Soul Train”, hosted by Nat Morris, was typically the home of r&b and disco acts as local dancers showed off their latest moves on Detroit TV.
Following the band’s performance, Morris interviewed the members and made some remarks about the music sounding like noise.
Morris: “Prez, how do you define punk music?”
Prez: “Man, I don’t define anything. Definitions are stupid. We just play music, that’s all.”
Morris: “Yeah, but some people may not even call this music. They just might call it a bunch of loud noise.”
Prez: “Yeah. Well, you’re talking about stupid people, because that’s just dumb.”
Morris: “Well, I mean I don’t see our studio audience especially getting off on this stuff. It sounds like noise to me.”
Prez: “Well, that’s you, man. And you don’t even know what you’re talking about. Matter of fact, I don’t even know why I’m standing here talking to you.”
Morris: “Well, you can leave anytime you want.”
Prez: “No. Why don’t you leave. I’m taking over this show!”
(Transcript from Trouser Press Issue #25 – January 1978)
That’s when Fagenson grabbed the mic and Morris took chase, shoving McAlpine who landed at least one jab on the host. McAlpine says if Fagenson, Tann and the host planned this in advance he knew nothing about it because his punch on Morris was not staged.
Following the fracas, WGPR cut to a commercial and threw The Traitors out of the building. Photos of the event, taken by McAlpine’s brother, were offered to the local papers and the wire services as the Channel 2 local newscast at 11pm evening carried the story noting “punk rock has hit Detroit, and it packs a punch!”
After the news reports came out, McAlpine says he was told to tell anyone who asked that the whole thing was a skit because Morris had allegedly told WGPR management that he had staged it, fearing that if he told them the truth – it was not staged – that they would fire him.
McAlpine says he felt upset about the events of “The Scene” because it turned something he took seriously, the music, and turned it into a joke.
Building the Revue
Between late 1977 & early 1978, Tann had placed ads in The Detroit News seeking local bands interested in playing punk music. Through the ads Tann recruited a group of square looking white guys and a local Black funk group interested in being part of something new. One band was called The Pigs while the other was called The Niggers.
The Traitors and the two other bands, along with a lighting and sound crew, were marketed as “The Motor City Revue” – a complete punk rock/new wave show for club owners looking to get in on the new sounds and style.
Instead of playing Detroit clubs to less than appreciative bikers, Tann booked the bands into Bookie’s Club 870 in early March 1978. The Revue would be some of the first shows before Scott Campbell and Vince Bannon took over the booking at the club later in the month. The three Detroit bands hit the road playing a club in Boston, New York’s CBGBs & Philadelphia’s Hot Club, which was mysteriously gutted by fire following their performance.
Traitors No More
By late summer 1978, the group of Black musicians had left the Revue after a dispute about the headlining spot. McAlpine says his band became more and more upset with Tann because creative control became more restricted while they were being asked to do things like wear swastikas on stage, something he refused to do. According to McAlpine, Tann could be despotic in terms of how he handled business and the band members did not appreciate it. But, McAlpine concedes he went along with it for a while because it felt like there might actually be a shot at doing something big with The Traitors due to the money and connections that could be provided working in and around the Sound Suite universe, that was until it got to be too much for the band members to handle around June 1978.
Arriving early for a business meeting the band members asked for in late summer 1978, the group discovered a briefcase full of letters in Tann’s office from record companies interested in The Traitors but concerned about the restrictive exclusive contract the band had signed, according to McAlpine.
During the meeting, McAlpine told Tann he was leaving and the other members of the band were interested in starting a new group outside of his control. Craig Peters and Steve McGuire would go on to form The 27 with Mark Norton and Dave Hanna formerly of The Ramrods.
McAlpine would take a break from the scene for a while before forming a band call The Heaters.
When The Traitors ended, Fagenson continued to work at Sound Suite studio while pursuing other musical opportunities. In the early 1980s, he would find success in the Detroit funk-rock band Was (Not Was) with his high school friend David Weiss (aka David Was) taking on the moniker Don Was. Since those early days, although Was has gone on to be a multi-award winning producer for bands as diverse as The B-52s, Bonnie Raitt, and The Rolling Stones, he has always stayed close to Detroit. For well over a decade, Was has hosted a special show highlighting Detroit music history during the annual Concert of Colors at Orchestra Hall. In 2012, Was was named President of Jazz Music for the legendary Blue Note Records label.