- Category: Music
Formed in 1964 by guitarists Kramer & Smith as the Bounty Hunters they recruit Rob Tyner on vocals (originally wanted to be their manager) who comes up with the name MC5 and recruit Michael Davis (bass) and Thompson (drums). The name MC5 is thought up by Tyner and chosen because it sounds like a car part and also stands for Motor City 5 which is apt because the band emanate from the tough city of Detroit a city famed for its car industry and simmering racial tensions in mid sixties America.
The band play play offs, battle of the bands and any gig they can get taking an aggressive, competitive edge to these events honing their skills, performance and solidarity but without much success. However with the burgeoning hippy scene the band's fortunes take a turn for the better when they take on John Sinclair, leader of the Trans Love Commune, as their manager. Sinclair was a major figure Detroit's counter culture and had served two prison terms for marijuana related offences.
Being the young hustlers we were, the MC5 started to see that this hippie thing was gonna go, man...So we figured the way to get the hippies to like us was to get the chief hippie to like us, who was John Sinclair. Wayne Kramer 'Please Kill Me'
“We met at school; it's the same old story as millions of other bands. The energy goes into it, you play and you write but you're too crazy to control it - you need direction. In 1968 John Sinclair took our experience and articulated and defined it so it became something political. He know where our interest in the music movement stopped, we were primarily interested in rock 'n' roll music.” Wayne Kramer NME 20.8.77
It was a mutual need. Sinclair himself was looking for a rock 'n' roll band as the ideal medium to turn large numbers of young people onto the possibility for change. With Sinclair on board the band take on an increasingly overtly political stance allying themselves with revolution against a background of steamrollering metal music that incorporated elements of avant garde jazz, rock and blues.
In terms of radicalisation Sinclair and the Trans Love Commune had now formed and become involved with the more radical White Panther Party based on the Black Panthers a new radial black paramilitary movement that had sprung into existence to protect the rights of blacks as tensions simmered. The belief was that armed revolution was inevitable! Events seemed to be bearing this out as they reached boiling point in Detroit in 1967 when the Detroit Race Riots occurred. Caused by the mainly white police force they were responsible for racial harassment and beatings and were known for their excessive brutality. In this period they became out of control and shot dead over forty people (mainly black). During the Riots 467 were injured, over 7000 arrests were made and more than 2,000 buildings were burned down. In the centre of all this the MC5 were living.
As the riots progressed troops and tanks were brought in and Kramer recalls coming out of his door to find a tank pointing directly at him. Troops also assaulted the house though perhaps not surprising as the graffiti below was painted on the side of the house.
With Sinclair ostensibly the leader and Minister Of Information for the White Panthers a higher profile of propagating revolt was being undertaken by both him and the band and and the congregation of large groups of people and conveyance of a revolutionary counter society message through records and gigs. Around this time the group produce a series of promo shots (mildly homo erotic) posing topless with guitars and guns (and a sax!)
This was a bold but dangerous move displaying themselves as hardened revolutionaries. In retrospect they considered this a mistake because they weren't. At the time they seriously considered death in an armed shoot out a possibility.
This and the publicised White Panther 10 Point Program couldn't fail to bring them to the attention of the authorities as a danger and their phones were illegally tapped and they were the subject of covert surveillance by the FBI. During the riots their group van was firebombed and their residence invaded by marines checking out reports of a sniper and who addressed Sinclair chillingly by name. They were marked men.
White Panther Party 10-Point Program
1. Full endorsement and support of Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program.
2. Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock ’n’ roll, dope and fucking in the streets.
3. Free exchange of energy and materials — we demand the end of money!
4. Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care — everything free for everybody!
5. Free access to information media — free the technology from the greed creeps!
6. Free time and space for all humans — dissolve all unnatural boundaries.
7. Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule — turn the buildings over to the people at once!
8. Free all prisoners everywhere — they are our brothers.
9. Free all soldiers at once — no more conscripted armies.
10. Free the people from their “leaders” — leaders suck — all power to all the people! Freedom means free everyone!
John Sinclair, Minister of Information, White Panther Party November 1st, 1968
While they may not have been hardened revolutionaries, they had the cohones to go and play at the Chicago Democratic Conventioneer of 1968. While Crosby Still Nash & Young sang a song about it and the Doors name checked it in 'Peace Frog' other bands due to play failed to show. One band did and that was the MC5. As agent provocateurs mingled with the crowd and police and troopers massed ready to teargas and beat to a bloody pulp the protestors, the MC5 pumped out their hi energy white noise attuned to the whirring helicopters overhead. The atmosphere must have been incredible. Only the band held the crowd together.
Wayne Kramer "...we're talking about the war and the human being lawnmower and everything, and the Chicago police helicopters started buzzing down on us"
Dennis Thompson: "...the police troopers came marching in into the park with their three-foot batons
As they finish their set and make a run for it violence and rioting erupt. The band make good their escape. How much revolution was going on was questionable. For the MC5 as a young rock 'n' roll band point 2 of the Panther's 10 point program was perhaps the most pertinent and it annoyed Sinclair to hell that they actively pursued it and added getting wrecked on alcohol to it to boot.
In 1968 the band release a single on their own label. They are now Detroit's premier underground group and have a regular gig at the 1000 capacity Grande Ballroom and in October 68 their performance their is caught for their debut live album 'Kick Out The Jams' on Electra. Playing at the Grande the MC5 would regularly support big name bands and blow them off the stage like Cream, Big Brother and Blood Sweat & Tears. The aggression in the music would be present offstage and backstage. The MC5 would jostle and intimidate the main bands giving them real attitude an as the home town boys milk encores.
An MC5 set at the time was an eclectic mix of originals and covers. 'Come Together' & 'Starship' mingled with Hooker's 'Motorcity Is Burning', and Ray Charles 'Believe It To My Soul'. Mix in Coltrane's 'unji' and add their own aural freeform orgy 'Black To Comm'. Top that off with a high octane stage act of smith and Kramer ripping shit out of their instruments of standing on their stacks rocking them so much they were teetering on falling over, ripping up the US flag, smashing up their instruments and you can see why people were both fascinated, appalled and loved the band. One thing you could not do was ignore them.
As the music got more frantic, the stage show got farther out, and the people responded wildly...and it got more and more wild. John Sinclair
Another reason was arguably their most famous song 'Kick Out The Jams' which started with the cry 'Kick Out The jams' Motherfucker! Hard to believe but that alone sung at a gig could get you arrested or club owners throw you out or withhold payment.
We started getting hassled by the pigs, private guards and heavies, at gig after gig...the police heard about the song through the pig grapevine...John Sinclair
Sinclair wanted to establish some righteous antidote to the current industry with their on label, production and booking company and venues to nurture like bands. Unfortunately MC5 would be providing the funs for this which would later rankle.
In 1968 JC Crawford joined the band and began to introduce the band as can be heard on KOTJ and helping create atmosphere and heightened the atmosphere. Next came the Electra contract and $20k advance which enable debts to be paid off and a decent backline purchased.
In 1968 they got a taste of real revolt and the infighting factions that can occur in any revolution when they played Bill Grahams Fillimore in New York and met the Motherfuckers. A radical group who anted the Fillimore turned over to them for one night a week as a community place. The gig was to be attended by high profile radicals like Abbie Ho ffman and Jerry Rubin. Two things occurred to raise the wrath of the righteous bearded radicals.
1) Sinclair hired a stretch limo to take the band to the gig
2) Tyner basically introduced the band by saying fuck politics we're here to rock 'n' roll!
What happened next was their equipment was smashed up, Bill Graham was chain whipped (blaming the MC5), seats were set on fire and they wanted to kill the band
You guys are a bunch of fucking pussies. You're pussy motherfuckers. This is the time for revolution. You guys are either gonna be the real thing or if not, we're gonna kill you. Dennis Thompson Mojo
The band high tail it out of the place with reputation in tatters and the influential Bill Graham banning them from his venues and spreading the word on the grapevine the MC5 were trouble.
Meanwhile their was dissension in the ranks even before the Electra deal. You would think this would be great for the band but according to Sinclair the band were pissed off ." They were dissatisfied about their money, about lack of recognition...they were tired of living with my Trans Love Energies crowd, and demanding that they be allowed to get a house of their own....also they start criticising what we were doing in the White Panther Party." Zigzag
It was Danny Fields (Doors, Stooges, MC5 and New York Dolls) who persuaded Electra to abandon its previously more folksy image and sign the MC5 along with the Stooges. It was Electra who encouraged the recording of the 'Motherfucker' in the album but baulked at Sinclair's more radical sleeve notes...Danny Fileds recalls "When Jac Holzman met with the band wanting to remove the word they agreed it was necessary to get distribution and airplay" but Sinclair argues that they refused and it was done without their permission. When influential store chain Hudson's look at the record they find 'fuck' written on the sleeve and refuse to stock it. The MC5 then took out an ad in saying to smash in Hudsons windows and used an Electra logo. Hudsons then refused to stock any other Electra product which would be a big hit financially.
Following this Holzman offered to release the band from their contract as the band have become a liability without mitigating sales. The record eventually reaches no 30. The band gladly accept and moving to Atlantic for a 50k advance.
While this was happening the long arm of the law got even with the man who had become a thorn in their side. Sinclair was busted for just two Marijuana joints and eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. Efforts to get him out would fail until ironically 8 years later John Lennon would play Detroit and dedicate a song to him and his release which would happen virtually the next day!
While inside the band effectively bail out on him (though paying his defence fees) eventually severing all ties with him and the White Panthers. For Sinclair it was the end of the road and his belief was the band had sold out wanting fame and fortune and to be pop stars.
In 1970 they release the 'Back In The USA' album produced by future Springsteen manger Jon Landau. Radically different in sound and approach to the first, the songs are quick and snappy and have an urgency that would make them more in common with later Punk Rock bands. Again the album fails to make headway and the band begin a slow slide into obscurity. They immediately began on the next 'High Times' which was to be in effect a culmination of their previous two and according to the band their best effort. As Wayne Kramer reveals in MC5 A True Testimonial the balance of power had now shifted in the band from him as leader to him and Fred Smith as co leaders.
Next stop for the band was over to the UK where they had considerable kudos, a fanbase and were legends in the alternative agit scene of the time. On July 25th they came over for Mick Farren's Phun City festival at Ecclesden Common, Worthing which though a combination of poor organisation and bad luck became a free festival. The MC5 when they turned up for their money discovered there was none but nonetheless put on their customary fiery show. The link with Farren was to become an important one. Years later when Kramer went to prison for 2 years for drug possession it was Farren who would organise money so Kramer would come out with something to help get him set up. While in London they started recoding the next album and put down 'Sister Anne'.
The next album was 'High Times' which was ahead of its time featuring a combination of hard rock tunes and tearjerkers and even some jazz thrown in. Again no success but bands like Aerosmith and Grand Funk Railroad would take the template of 'High Times' and achieve success. With a hot reputation across the UK and Europe the conquest of these territories was the next big adventure for the five. But first...
Part Two Coming Soon
Used by The Kind of Permission www.punk77.co.uk