|MC5 - publicity photo|
Interview by Devorah Ostrov
"Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" The introduction to the second track on the MC5's debut album — the song that was surely destined to be a hit single — was loud, mean and clearly enunciated. It was the battle cry for a teenage revolution; a real-life Wild in the Streets.
But the MC5 weren't stupid. They knew that version of the song wouldn't get radio airplay, and as much as the band wanted to lead a revolution, the guys also wanted to be rock stars. They had a plan: the less offensive "brothers and sisters" would replace the expletive on the single; if you wanted to hear lead singer Rob Tyner shout an obscenity, you'd have to buy the LP.
It was a good plan, but it didn't work. And the ensuing brouhaha ripped the band and its fan base apart.
* * *
MC5 on the cover of Circus magazine
All this somewhat explains why when the rest of the country was mellowing out with folk-inspired pop, America's "motor city" was producing high-energy, hard-driving rock 'n' roll groups like the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Grand Funk Railroad — and toughest of 'em all, the MC5.
Rock historian and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye expressed it best in an article for Cavalier magazine: "Where other cities have always had a collection of cultural currents to distract and push them in certain directions (both San Francisco and New York, for example, have had long intellectual and Bohemian traditions), Detroit had had practically nothing. Composed almost entirely of factory workers (and in Detroit, everybody works for the factories), there was little but television culture around to divert the minds of its inhabitants…
"Since Detroit was not an intellectually inclined city, Detroiters shied away from any ideas of technical excellence or elaborate joinings of musical forms. Their music was primitive, built more on vibrations than on actual arrangements of notes. There was no art-rock here, no baroque trumpet breaks in the midst of sedately chorded songs, no classical rock, no raga rock, no Blood, Sweat and Tears jazz rock. Nobody could write long Musicology 101 theses on the parallel themes of love and death in the lyrics of any of the Detroit bands...
Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for A Dance
Concert at the Grande Ballroom with the MC5
& the Chosen Few - October 7/8, 1966
In 1962 (or maybe '63) Wayne Kramer's parents moved the family from Detroit to the blue-collar suburb of Lincoln Park ("downriver" as the locals called it). According to the guitarist, who would have been a 14 or 15-year-old teenager at the time, the relocation was part of his parents "never-ending search for the American dream."
Over the phone, the now 45-year-old self-described "anarchist/ revolutionary/intellectual/rock 'n' roller" recalls how the move to Lincoln Park led to the formation of the MC5.
"I had already been playing music," he says, "so I started asking around if anybody knew anybody who played any instruments. And I discovered that there was a happening little rock 'n' roll scene, a lot of neighborhood bands, very competitive..."
In 1964 the seeds of the MC5 were sown. "I met this juvenile delinquent named Fred ["Sonic"] Smith," explains Kramer. "He had a band that he was in [the Vibratones], and I had this band called the Bounty Hunters. We decided to form a supergroup with the best members of both bands — that's when Fred and I started playing together."
|MC5 - publicity photo|
Rob Tyner on the cover of Rolling Stone
Tyner also came up with the band's moniker. "He said it sounded kind of like a serial number," observes Kramer, "the whole industrial thing. MC5 was like XL7 shock absorber!"
(While it's generally accepted that the initials MC stand for "Motor City," Kramer reveals there's other options. "We also filled in Morally Corrupt, Much Cock, Mustard and Catsup, Marijuana Cigarette, Mostly Cosmic... you could go on forever, y'know.")
An early lineup of the group included drummer Bob Gaspar and bassist Pat Burrows, but the two almost immediately disagreed with the group's musical divergence into Free Jazz. "We had started to discover feedback," states Kramer, "and this concept we called Avant Rock, where we found we could go beyond the beat and beyond the key of the song into pure sound. Bob didn't like that at all, he thought it was noise; Pat wanted to do Motown."
In 1965, Michael Davis, an art student and friend of Tyner's from Wayne State University, replaced Burrows. "He could play folk guitar and sing Bob Dylan songs," reflects Kramer. "I said, 'If he can do that, I'll teach him how to play the bass.'"
"I Can Only Give You Everything"
b/w "One of the Guys"
AMG Records (1967)
(In a 1979 interview with Goldmine magazine, Thompson said that he and Davis joined the band just after they opened for the Dave Clark Five at Cobo Hall, which dates it to early December 1965.)
With a setlist that included Chuck Berry, Little Richard and John Lee Hooker covers, the teenagers "played any place that a band could play," says Kramer. This included teen-clubs and parties at friends' houses, as well as gigs at the Crystal Bar on Michigan Avenue and local Battles of Bands.
"We played in a few really exciting Battles of the Bands," recalls Kramer. "We had a great rivalry with another neighborhood band called the Satellites, and this culminated in a big playoff where we'd play a song, then they'd play a song, and then we'd play another song... They ended up declaring it a tie."
The MC5 & fellow Detroit bands Frijid Pink
& Up play a benefit for John Sinclair at the
Grande Ballroom. Thursday, July 29, 1971
"They hated us!" exclaims Kramer when asked about the group's early audiences. "We'd save up our Avant Rock thing for the last song of the night, and we knew when we'd cleared the room that we were on to something. If we could force 500 teenagers out of a room, we knew it was just a question of turning it around and we'd be forcing 'em into the room!"
The summer of '67 found the Five still looking for an audience and beginning to flounder a bit. But things picked up when they met John Sinclair. The charismatic 26-year-old had graduated from the University of Michigan - Flint College in 1964. He wrote for Downbeat magazine and was a self-styled poet-philosopher as well as a fervent admirer of saxophonist John Coltrane. "Sinclair was in charge of the beatnik community then," Thompson told Goldmine. "He was the head man."
Sinclair became the group's manager because "he was the only guy that any of us would listen to," says Kramer. "We were basically unmanageable, we were such maniacs. We'd had disc jockeys try to manage us; we had one woman who was an international archery champion; my mother tried to manage us! [Apparently, even Tyner gave it a go.] But none of it worked 'cause we weren't good little soldiers that lined up and did the right thing. We were a little more … volatile! John could break things down and make it all make sense for us: 'There's a good reason to do this.' John explained it, 'Bing bang boom it works like this.'"
Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for the MC5
show at the Straight Theatre in San Francisco.
March 14-16, 1969
The band moved into Sinclair's communal house, dubbed Trans-Love Energies, which basically became a support system for the Five: the commune included publicists, graphic artists, the equipment crew, girlfriends and clothing designers. In addition to organizing the group's business and instilling his rhetoric of a cultural revolution, Sinclair also turned the guys onto the music of John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Archie Shepp — "The entire wonderful world of angry black music," enthuses Kramer.
|MC5 - publicity photo|
|Atlantic advert for Back in the USA|
At the same time, Sinclair hooked the group up with Michigan disc jockey "Uncle" Russ Gibb, who was operating a Fillmore-styled concert hall in Detroit called the Grande Ballroom; the MC5 became the house band, opening for nationally known groups almost every weekend.
According to Thompson's Goldmine interview: "First time we played the Grande Ballroom there were twenty people out there, bowl haircuts, frats, greaseballs … But week by week, it steadily built and built."
In his letters to Zigzag, Sinclair wrote of the Grande: "It was a good situation, because to put famous recording bands on the same stage as the Detroit groups was enough to let the kids in the audience see that their own bands were as good, if not better, than well-known star bands — and the local bands were able to develop reputations and followings of their own, even though they had no records out on major labels."
"Kick out the Jams" b/w "Motor City is Burning"
Issued through Disques Vogue France (1969)
In Cavalier, Lenny Kaye excitedly described an MC5 show from this period: "Like a flash they're all onstage, guitars weaving, snatching at their amplifiers and letting out rumbles and howls of feedback, lots of hair and beautiful clothes. All in their places now, they stop for a moment, just standing there, holding the crest of energy until it breaks and when it does the electricity sort of cascades down like an avalanche, bass rumbling through the floor, the drums pounding pounding and the git-fiddles on each side of the stage wailing out, playing all notes at the same time. And that's not all, 'cause there's this vocal thing that comes over the roar, not really words but maybe sound patterns launched into some kind of cosmic space..."
The summer of '67 was particularly hot and turbulent in Detroit. For several days during July race riots raged downtown, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people and the destruction of many businesses in the area around 12th Street.
Advert published in The Fifth Estate
"We had a fan club that we called the MC5 Social and Athletic Club," says Kramer, "and one day somebody came up with the idea of calling it the White Panther Party — kind of as a tribute to the Black Panther Party."
The White Panther's early agenda called simply for rock 'n' roll, dope and fucking in the street. "And we went with that for a while," notes Kramer. "But those were very scary days. The city was at war for a week; John was being prosecuted for a reefer conviction and was being set up on another one; there were undercover agents all over the neighborhood; there was the war in Vietnam, a lot of our friends were coming back dead or crazy. So, what started out as kind of a joke became more serious as we became more militant."
How much control did Sinclair have over the Five's political activism?
Kramer: "He didn't have any control because we were uncontrollable much to his dismay. But he had great influence on us inasmuch as... What we knew about America being fucked up was from a gut level. We knew it was fucked up and we didn't like it, and we were ready to do something about it. John could put it in an intellectual perspective. He could explain why it is that things are the way they are."
Advert for the Detroit Pop Festival featuring the MC5,
the Amboy Dukes, Sweetwater, Bob Seger System, the Frost
and SRC, among others - Monday, April 7, 1969
The Fifth Estate reported that on July 23 Sinclair and Smith were "brutally assaulted, beaten, MACEd, and arrested by members of the National Security Police, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, and the Michigan State Police while performing at a teen-club in Oakland County."
MC5 - publicity photo
"We knew that while we were playing everything would be cool," states Kramer, "because the crowd had something to focus on, but the minute we stopped playing all that energy had to go somewhere."
Rock hustler Danny Fields had talked Elektra Records into signing the MC5 [as well as the Stooges]. "It was the classic thing," points out Kramer, "they offered us lots of money! We were in debt up to our asses. No matter how much we made, we still couldn't meet expenses. We had the five musicians, the wives and girlfriends, roadies and trucks, reefer, and everybody's gotta eat. They offered us $10,000 [other sources put the figure at $25,000]. We said, 'Yeah, that'll just about get us up to zero.' Plus, Elektra came off as being fairly hip [it was after all, the Doors' label]. They told us we'd have complete control over our music and complete control over advertising."
Did the band actually get complete control?
Advert for the MC5 & the
Stooges at The Pavilion in
Flushing Meadow Park, NY
September 3, 1969
The rock music press was definitely interested — in its January 1969 issue (a month before the album hit the shops), Rolling Stone featured Rob Tyner on the cover with an article written by Eric Ehrman that warned: "If you hear of some notoriously freaky band coming to your town with a trail of policemen, narcs, freaks and guerrillas, it'll be the MC5" — but reviews were, to say the least, mixed.
CREEM editor Dave Marsh continued to praise the LP for several years after its release. In the October 1971 issue of the magazine, he wrote: "Those who were prepared for a total assault on the sensory culture to which they had been accustomed were delighted … Those who weren't ready were aghast, horrified in a way they'd never been before by a mere rock 'n' roll band..."
However, Lester Bangs was a prime example of someone who didn't get it. In his first published piece for Rolling Stone (April 5, 1969), the now-revered rock critic declared that Kick Out the Jams was a "... ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album." (Kramer still sounds a bit hurt when he paraphrases Bangs: "He said we were snot-nosed white boys that couldn't tune our guitars.")
The negative reviews may have stung the guys on a personal level, but that didn't stop the album's title track from reaching the very top of Detroit's local rock charts and the LP going Top 30 in the US. And believe it or not, therein laid the problem.
July 1970 issue of the counterculture newspaper
it, announcing the MC5's first-ever European
appearance at the Phun City Festival
The 45/radio-friendly rendition opened with the nonincendiary "kick out the jams, brothers and sisters." Meanwhile, the LP (or "true") intro had the vocalist clearly enunciating "kick out the jams, motherfuckers!"
"Our plan," asserts Kramer, "was to make sure the single was firmly established in the charts; it was already #2 in Detroit, it was on in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. We told Elektra to wait until the single was a lock smash hit, then we'd put out the album. Of course, the shit would hit the fan, but nothing could be done about it because it would already be a hit."
But they hadn't counted on record company greed. Once Elektra saw the single making money, they couldn't wait to release the album.
Kramer: "And of course people started hearing the real version of "Kick Out the Jams." Parents started calling the radio stations saying, 'My kid came home with this MC5 record and there's swearing on it!' So, the radio stations had to back off playing the single because it would encourage sales of the album."
"Back in the USA" b/w "Tutti Frutti"
Atlantic Records (1970)
"We put the Elektra logo on the ad and sent them the bill," muses Kramer. Elektra, for all its hipness, did not find it humorous. Before the label dropped the MC5 like a hot potato, Kramer tells me, "They came to us and said, 'All these records are getting returned. Can we put the clean version on the album?' We said, 'Absolutely not! We have to stand by our guns!' They said, 'Okay,' and went and did it anyway."
(In its frenzy to sanitize the LP, Elektra also wiped out Sinclair's politically-charged liner notes which read in part: "We are free men and we demand a free music, a free high energy source that will drive us wild into the streets of America yelling and screaming and tearing down everything that would keep people slaves. The MC5 is that force. The MC5 is the revolution in all its applications...")
Two Gary Grimshaw-designed posters for MC5 shows at the Grande
(Left) With Wicked Religion and the Maxx - April 4/5, 1969
With PG&E and the James Gang - April 6, 1969
(Right) With Southbound Freeway and Bossmen - November 4/5, 1966
But at least that magazine printed both sides of the story. (In the label's defence, President Jac Holzman was quoted as saying: "Elektra is not the tool of anyone's revolution.") Other articles — like the one headlined "Rock For Sale" — just assumed the band had wimped out.
|MC5 - publicity photo|
Thanks again to Danny Fields, the band wasn't label-less for long as full-page ads in the music press soon proclaimed: "Atlantic Records Welcomes MC5!"
Too bad Fields couldn't make all their other problems disappear as easily.
Before the group had even begun working on its Atlantic debut, Sinclair was arrested for giving (not even selling) two joints to an undercover officer. Rolling Stone threatened: "If John Sinclair gets sent up the river, Detroit will burn." But he was still sentenced to a ten-year prison term (of which he served two).
At the same time, the Five were growing up, developing attitudes and political ideas of their own, which often put them at odds with the Panther's increasingly more dangerous agenda. For instance, Kramer realized that killing everyone who didn't agree with him would mean killing half the world, and that, he claims, "wasn't the revolution we were talking about. We were talking about a revolution of ideas."
Advert for the MC5
at Friars in Aylesbury, England
Friday, February 11, 1972
It was an emotional period, with hurt feelings all around. Sinclair lashed out at the Five with his soundbite, "They wanted to be bigger than the Beatles, but I wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao." Meanwhile, Kramer struck back at Sinclair in the pages of Rolling Stone saying, "He was just getting his ideas over through us, and we were getting tired of that."
Through it all, with an undeterred sense of allegiance, the band continued to pay Sinclair a percentage of its earnings, contributed to his legal defense fund, and played benefits on his behalf.
Into the fray stepped Jon Landau, a recent graduate of Brandeis University and music editor at Rolling Stone — "Mr. Rationality," as Dave Marsh called him.
Landau recalled his first MC5 experience in an interview with Fusion magazine: "The kids were in an absolute frenzy. Rock 'n' roll hysteria for the first ten minutes … And then the power failed. This winds up being the highlight of the evening. Rob starts yelling at the club owner that the power's gone. And then he starts screaming 'Power! Power!' as a chant … And the whole place was screaming 'Power!' — all these kids. They're just shaking their fists and chanting, 'Power! Power!' It was scary, and then the power goes on. I personally did not interpret it as a mystical intervention of the Lord, but I think a lot of people there may have."
My autographed copy of Wayne Kramer's solo CD
The Hard Stuff (Epitaph)
Albeit a strong undercurrent of militant politics ran throughout the LP. To quote Dave Marsh: "... tunes like "American Ruse," "Human Being Lawnmower" and "Call Me Animal" are probably the finest examples of politics in our music since Dylan's The Times They are A-Changin' album."
In the more than two decades since its 1970 release, Back in the USA has proved to be one of the most influential hard-rock albums of all time, but in '71 Marsh logged the LP's initial lukewarm reception: "Back in the USA bewildered most Five fans. Some reacted bitterly, some hostilely, others were just confused."
Advertisement for the High Time LP
(illustrated by Rob Tyner)
Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for Big
Brother & the Holding Co. and the MC5
at the Grande Ballroom - March 1968
But he stresses that the producer "didn't hold a pistol to our heads. This was what we wanted to do." (One oft-cited gripe is the album's lack of bass, which could have a parallel in Landau's wanting to replace Mike Davis with a Nashville studio musician; an idea vetoed by the band.)
Despite poor sales (at one point Landau stated that Back in the USA might have sold 60,000 copies, while the band guessed 100,000), the MC5 recorded a second album for Atlantic. Released in 1971, High Time left the Five to their own devices — "Cut loose from all the gurus," as Marsh cleverly states in the liner notes to the CD reissue.
"We made the best record of our career," affirms Kramer regarding High Time. "At that point we were no longer intimidated by the process of recording. We were producing it ourselves. It was our decision making, and we understood what we were supposed to sound like, who we were supposed to be."
And the rock press gave the LP a big thumbs up. In his CREEM review, Marsh raved: "Listen to 'Sister Anne,' which Greil Marcus says is the first song in seven years to remind him of Them's 'Mystic Eyes,' to Fred Smith's 'Baby Won't Ya,' which is the third generation tradition of Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry's songwriting … to Wayne Kramer's beautiful Beatles' parody 'Miss X,' which is what every band who ever tried to sound like the Beatles ever desired to accomplish."
Flyer designed by Edward Barker for the July 1970
Phun City festival in Sussex, England.
But this album, too, failed to take off (which probably had nothing to do with the nearly non-existent advertising campaign) and Atlantic dropped the band, citing a $128,000 debt that could not be repaid. According to Kramer, the label is still trying to recoup the debt with sales of the CD reissue.
How disappointed was the band when High Time didn't sell?
Kramer: "We were crushed. My heart was broken. From the time I was ten or eleven-years-old, all I'd worked for my entire life was in this band, and it all collapsed."
But Kramer maintains that the MC5 didn't collapse by itself. "It was helped in great measure by the [government] authorities and the music industry. Every time we did something that had political significance it incurred a larger, stronger political reaction. There was a prevailing attitude of, 'When is somebody gonna do something about the MC5?' And of course, they did. We had constant problems with the police. We were beaten, fined, jailed, concerts were cancelled..." (When he was arrested in the mid-seventies for dealing cocaine, Kramer was not surprised to find that the FBI had a file on him going back to 1966.)
|MC5 - publicity photo|
The group made some forays to Europe where they found a ready audience (they'd made their European debut in 1970, playing for free at England's Phun City festival), however "between the lack of response in the record industry and the band's own burgeoning substance abuse problems, we just couldn't quite make it through," explains Kramer.
When the end came, it wasn't pretty.
Kramer: "We had a tour [of England] booked, and two days before we were supposed to leave, Rob said he wasn't gonna go. He had been unhappy for some time, he wanted to stay home and write, and be with his children. Dennis said he wasn't gonna go either because it would interrupt his [drug] treatment. So, me and Fred did the tour without them — and of course it was hideous. We didn't even know some of the lyrics. The songs were all in the wrong keys. We met the drummer in the dressing room on the first night of the first gig."
The final show featuring all the original members of the MC5 took place (fittingly) at the Grande Ballroom on New Year's Eve 1972. "It was terrible," says Kramer.
Gary Grimshaw-designed poster for a
1967 MC5 show at The See in Detroit
Kramer: "I don't know if it was that we didn't like each other... We didn't like ourselves. We didn't like the band. We had been beaten down to where we had no pride left."
"The worst part of the break-up," he adds, "was that we lost each other. I lost my brothers. These were the guys that I had gone through the fire with and all of a sudden we weren't there with each other anymore."
It would be twenty years later when Wayne Kramer, Fred Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson would once again join forces, and it would be in tribute to Rob Tyner, who died last year of a heart attack.
The group's three-song set of "Kick Out the Jams," "Ramblin' Rose" and "Black to Comm" (a wild show-stopper which they never recorded) drew 8,000 fans to the Michigan Theatre, and raised over $30,000 to be used as a scholarship fund for Tyner's children.
"I used that show as an opportunity to reclaim my brothers," reflects Kramer. "Sadly, it took the death of Rob Tyner to bring us all together."
* * *
* Many thanks to Metal Mike Saunders who supplied me with copious magazine clippings when I originally researched this article.
* Thanks also to Loren Dobson who recently fact-checked the article for this blog.