The Romantics' Mike Skill credits Detroit, and his brother's 45s, for inspiring his music

·7 min read

Detroit-born rock 'n' roll superstar Mike Skill has been on the road touring the past 40 years with The Romantics, the group he cofounded during the 1970s in the Motor City.

He wrote many of their signature songs that have passed the test of time, like “What I Like About You” and “Talking in Your Sleep.”

He’s rocked it in an industry famous for being fickle. He’s done so by being creative and fearless as he set lofty goals for himself and the group (along with Jimmy Marinos who started The Romantics with him).

Mike Skill on stage live.
Mike Skill on stage live.

At 68, Skill continues to play guitar with a vengeance, sing and write "killer" songs. Which is where our conversation began as we talked about his first solo album — “Skill ... Mike Skill,” which is available now as a digital download at all streaming sites and at mikeskill.com, with CDs and 12-inch vinyl LPs coming as soon as pressing plants can catch up to the demand. He also confirmed he's playing Toronto on Feb. 27 with Rick Rat joining him on guitar.

But Detroit is where it started. Skill grew up in a middle class family on the city's east side. His dad worked as an accountant and his mom worked as a waitress, cashier and at Ford, while raising five children.

Back stage at the Detroit Music Awards in 2019.
Back stage at the Detroit Music Awards in 2019.

Skill, who went to Finney High School, said he developed a love of rock 'n' roll from listening in the late 1950s, to his older brother's 45s. By 10, Skill was well-versed in the new Motown music coming out. He decided he wanted to start a band and got his first guitar at age 13. The rest is rock 'n' roll history.

Today, Skill lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and son, Mick. When it comes to his music, he continues to look to Detroit for inspiration. He worked with Pearl Sound Studios in Canton on his new album. His parents have passed, but he still has a sister and two brothers in Michigan.

Because of the pandemic he’s been off the road, which gave him time to write more songs. Before long, he had seven or eight. He also decided to do his own version of “What I Like About You.”

He answered a few of my questions recently about his new album and more. His answers have been edited for space.

QUESTION: This is your first solo album. So, why now?

ANSWER: I had recorded and mixed a few songs in my studio ... during the pandemic (he set a studio up at his son’s former high school outside of Portland. In exchange for space, he donated musical instruments and had artists come talk to students). We used it at night after class was out. I tracked a few songs in Chicago with producer Mike Hagler. Then I met producer Chuck Alkazian from Pearl Sound Studios. He asked me to send him my recorded tracks and I did. He remixed everything and they sounded so good, it was like he lit the candles and put icing on the cake. We finished the rest of it at Pearl Sound. … The response to the album has been fantastic!

Mike Skill in the recording studio in Portland, Oregon.
Mike Skill in the recording studio in Portland, Oregon.

Q: Tell me how your upbringing influenced your music.

A: When I was about 5, my younger brother and I would take out our older brother's records and play them when he was out on weekends. We listened to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Penguins, Elvis and The Everly Brothers. Then in 1960, it was the beginning of Motown and their songs played on CKLW with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Four Tops and Supremes. Then Detroit’s rock 'n' roll bands and teen club scene started to explode with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Bob Seger and the Last Heard, Grand Funk Railroad, The MC5, the Psychedelic Stooges with Iggy and the Amboy Dukes. I worked at a small auto parts store in high school to earn money to buy a guitar, amps and other gear. I also discovered John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Steve Cropper, The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was a different guitar world!

Q: One of your songs is about Detroit’s 1967 uprising. Tell me more.

A: The riot took place in July 1967. The National Guard, Army helicopters were overhead and armed Jeeps were in my neighborhood, even though we lived 5 miles from it. Fear and hate was everywhere. In the end, it created a wider racial divide. I felt the need to write a song about it. The title for the song came first, then the beat, then the guitar line and melody. I give my producer, Chuck Alkazian, credit as he helped finish the recording. He thought I should ask Wayne Kramer from The MC5, to record a guitar solo for it. It took me a couple weeks to get the nerve (I grew up listening to him). I called and he told me to send it over and he loved it. I told him to do what he does, free form, improvise. We received the track back from Wayne and didn’t do a thing to it, no edits … it’s epic!

Mike Skill on stage live.
Mike Skill on stage live.

Q: Why is Detroit so important to you?

A: Detroit is where I grew up musically and started my first bands, and later The Romantics. Detroit is highly respected in rock 'n' roll music circles but most people don’t understand our upbringing and don’t get the tough, hard, working-class union town it has been. With six months of winter and few months of summer, our cloud nine then was a storefront we rented and holed up every evening as we learned to write, play and grow as musicians. That harsh outside and escape inside released an energy. You could hear it in the way we hit the drums, banged the guitars, pushed the vocals out — it’s alive in the music that comes out of this city. You really only know what that’s all about if you came from Detroit. It is a different attitude.

Q: Did you cross paths with Bob Seger, Alice Cooper and others tied to Detroit?

A: Yes, all of them. In the 1970s and '80s, we crossed paths with Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Johnny Bee, the Clash, the Ramones, Elton John, Iggy, Johnny Thunders with Wayne Kramer. People would show up at area clubs — The Red Carpet and Union Street, Sexy Sadies, Maxie’s, Juke Box in Royal Oak ... and Pipers Alley in Grosse Pointe. We would hang out in the clubs and then sit and jam together.

Q: You co-founded The Romantics. How long did it take before your first hit?

A: I had been in earlier bands. It was 1976 when Jimmy Marinos and I were returning from New York and decided to start a new band. We recruited Wally Palmar on rhythm guitar and Rich Cole on bass. All four of us sang lead vocals.

The first song ideas came from my home recordings on a cassette that I brought to the band’s first rehearsals at a former barber shop on Gratiot and 6 Mile Road we had rented. I came up with “What I Like About You” on my guitar in my parents' backyard and brought it to rehearsal that night. I played the chords and Jimmy started coming up with the verse and melody. The other guys arrived and we played it for them. It would be three years and playing at small clubs before we signed on with Nemperor Records and our first album “The Romantics” was out. “What I Like About You” was one of the hits and constantly played on MTV, in movies and TV commercials. I also recently found a "Soul Train" video from the 1980s that showed people doing a line dance to it.

Q: What can you tell me about the business side and advice for someone starting out?

A: I have my own company, Skillsongs, that oversees my music, Unleashed Music handles marketing and EMPKT does my media. And my advice: Always have your own lawyer and accountant helping you in any deal.

Q: How has the pandemic impacted you?

Mike Skill on stage with The Kingsmen and Fang from Paul Revere and The Raiders, September 26, 2021.
Mike Skill on stage with The Kingsmen and Fang from Paul Revere and The Raiders, September 26, 2021.

A: The pandemic stopped the closeness between artists and fans while increasing the domination of internet, podcasts and interviews. If you weren't already pushing yourself on the web — you are now. Without live shows it has slowed the income, big time. But, without the frenzy of travel and the moving from van, bus, hotel, stage, airplanes, that slowdown has given me time for things I would've put off or just wouldn't do. And there's more time for family.

Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or clcain@cbs.com. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 8 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See DTE CEO Jerry Norcia and Bishop Edgar Vann on this Sunday’s show.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Romantics' Mike Skill credits hometown Detroit for inspiring his music