It started in Detroit. The city had been pumping out hard rock, and the MC5 were acknowledged as one of the best. Surely, they were the loudest. Beginning of 1968, they were staying in a commune in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Impressionable kid Eris Ehrman comes up for an interview. The MC5 jack him full of dope, lecture him hard on the merits of teenage lusts, and send him home, wide-eyed and gaping. Kid Ehrman writes a story and sends it to Rolling Stone magazine. Sensational story of an unleashed rock band. Dope, Revolution and Thrills Very Cheap.
Not too long after that story, the New York Fillmore was accosted by a gang of self-acclaimed revolutionaries, the East Village Motherfuckers. The MC5 played the subsequent free night given them at the ballroom. Time magazine covered it... and there was a picture of Rob Tyner in gold lame with that Revolutionary band ... the MC5 ... and now all of Middle America knew.
But where to now? This is their reputation. They have a past, but what do they follow up their act with? Maybe they’ll have a hit single. This would complete their qualifications, and Melody Maker would ask, "Are the MC5 selling out?"
In 1965, the Bounty Hunters matured into the MC5. In 1966, they, like god-knows-how-many millions, began to turn on. The green corduroy jackets and ponderosa shirts gave way to barbican suits. That changed to the sparkle kings, and Fred Smith became Sonic Smith. Then the fetish outfit stage. And then, there was the Rough Trade from Venus stage.
Outside of Chuck Berry, their strongest career influence must have been John Sinclair. He moulded them, in a sense, was their first real hard- nose manager and probably was the one to change them from unhip esoteric to Hip Esoteric. And in Detroit, Sinclair was the standard by which underground hip was measured. For one, he’d been busted twice for dope by that time. "John was a poet, music critic, musician and founder of the Artist workshop in Detroit, which is where all the hip people came every Sunday." says Smith. "He’d just gotten out of jail, everyone was happy to see him.".
Sinclair wrote a column in an underground paper, the Fifth Estate, which downgraded rock and roll. The MC5 wrote back, arguing their validity. Sinclair answers, saying Coltrane and Miles Davis were where it was at. After five weeks of this, they met for a showdown. The result: "John flipped out over the music we were playing, and he started writing letters to all the papers saying how great we were." In a year, he was their manager, and the Five moved into his commune.
Sinclair gave them politics and the White Panther party. He influenced them with his jazz records, and the result was ‘high energy rock’. When they recorded the first album Kick Out The Jams, the only records they were playing at the house were Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane. Free music, third world music, explosive energy movement music. But the world was waiting for something different. The album hit the stands in 1968, at a time when rock fans accepted Traffic’s or BS&T’s occasional be-bop lick as their testimonial to jazz. But nothing more. Cream was getting ‘free’ indeed, but it wasn’t accepted as such. And then the MC5? All that noise? All that free crap?
The politics of the band was ahead of its day. At concerts, J.C.Crawford would come out and introduce the band by screaming and haranguing, "Getting down to it!". And then the band would come bolting up and plug straight in and Rob Tyner would be charging them up, "Time has come, brothers and sisters! Time has come for you to decide whether you are going to be the problems or you are going to be the solutions!" It was a real Reichstag party. The cops knew about it too. I mean, those kids don’t go in there getting hopped up like that and then talk about peace and love. Nossirree.
Two kids started hanging out at Sinclair’s commune. Dressed in hip threads. Kinda long hair. After pestering Sinclair for a little smoke of dope, he finally gave them a couple of joints. Hah Hah, coincidence, in through the door came the law. The state of Michigan requires by law that if a person is busted on narcotics for a third time, then no less than nine-and-a-half years in the can will do. But, as consolation, no more than 10 are really necessary.
While the case was hanging in court, the Five went to play a local club. The law moved in again. Sonic Smith relates: "This crap-ass club-owner had promised us so much money, and then he had it worked out with the cops outside the club that if we said ‘fuck’ as in ‘Kick out the jams motherfucker’, then he would come on stage and cut the power off."
"So we said it. And these cops came up, about six state police and some rent-a-cops. There were about 15 cops there that night, and they closed the show and tried to kick us out of the joint." Smith and Sinclair started to argue that they wouldn’t leave without the money and got arrested for assaulting an officer of the law. Fred got four days, Sinclair got six months. While they were at it the State dragged out his dope case and handed him ten years. He’s in the can right now.
"They were waiting to bust John for a long time" the Five maintain, "because they thought he was the leader of the hip community and if they could bust him, then it would all fall apart. Which it didn’t. But this is the kind of crap the band was going through the whole time." It’s also what made them the kind of band they are. They took a couple of setbacks from the business too. A few undergroundies started to badmouth them. Elektra took their album off the stands to take the obscenities off the inside cover. The MC5 took out an ad in a newspaper to publicly slam a record store that wouldn’t stock their album, and then used the Elektra masthead and charged the whole thing to the company. Elektra said Hold On, and then fired them. Atlantic Records snatched them up.
The MC5’s reputation was assured. They drifted from the Sinclair commune to their own, out on a country farm. Now, after three years of living in each other’s armpits, they live separate. Like several other bands that were victims of hype, they went back to their music. Back In The U.S.A. was intended as an all-out no-crap album, each cut a dynamic three-minute power display. They have a great respect for the idea of urgency. Of getting it said and done with. Still, people seem to remember that they are revolutionaries. All that jive. It was once wrongly reported in the underground weeklies that Rob Tyner defecated on stage in Seattle. Defecated. In Seattle!
"Y’know", says Thompson, "we were the only band to play at the Chicago convention. We were set up about 500 yards from the action and had just finished our set and we’re putting away our equipment when the police began their charge. It was like Shiloh, the first shot of the Civil War. The shot heard round the world." At this point, Wayne Kramer begins to sing: ‘And the rockets red glare, The bombs bursting in air, Gave truth by the light, That my amps were still there’.
What kind of stuff do they have to deal with? At one point in an interview with Smith, a busy-busy guy comes marching in for a radio interview. Long hip hair, but dressed in tweeds. He talked like a regular fellow until his microphone was turned on. Then it was hello- there-la-deez-and-gentlemen smiles and personality oozing from every pore.
"Doug Crawford here, with our Detroit group the MC5… The Motor City Five, you’re a revolutionary group, aren’t you?" (speaking with such clear David Frost enunciation.) Smith: "Pardon me?" Crawford: "A revolutionary group. I mean, what I know about you is that you really … hit people. You shock people." "Well uh, that’s certainly possible." "What are you aiming at?" "What are we aiming at?" "Yeah, I mean, what’s the technique … I mean, if you’re playing music, why do you want to hit them, shock them, offend them?" "Hmmm, do we want to offend them?", Smith just can’t get over that. Crawford switches off his tape recorder. This is the part you never hear out there in radio land. "If I, for example, was making music, and I showed up at the old mike and said, you know, starting calling my own audience … (still that David Frost calculated elocution) …‘motherfuckers’, as I believe you have done, that would offend them. It would certainly offend the middle-aged people" Smith: "I don’t think there are too many middle-aged people in our audiences." Later he explained motherfuckers as a term for people "who are into it, not to offend them." The revolution: "I don’t know about over here, but in America at least, a band has to have some political awareness, because there’s so much happening in America. In establishment politics and youth politics. These are politics that are hard to describe without using those words you’re not allowed to use on the radio."
They are ‘aware’ of upheaval and revolution about as much as you and I. Still, they are good at opening concerts with lines like "We’re not here for talking and politics. We’re here for rock and roll!!" A rock writer once reported that the "jams" they referred to in their slogan song was an obvious reference to a 1950’s rhythm and blues term, "Jive Ass Motherfuckers". But Tyner has definite ideas otherwise. "We made that up ourselves. It was supposed to be about these English bands that come up and jam around on stage, y’know. So we’d say, kick out the jams. Get off, we wanna hear some rock and roll!"
Like nearly every other no-jive lotsa-rocks band, they come from the fists and the beer cans of the working lower-middle class. And when you turn on that Victrola turntable, kid, you immediately become lower class. Not pop, not folkie, not country, but rock, the street level, the tasteless, the vulgar. I wouldn’t wish the MC5 to aspire to greater heights, to grow into superb musical philosophers. Keep them as they are: the tuff guys - 1970 style.
Extracted from an article in ‘Strange Days’ magazine, 1970, by Chris Hodenfield.
We also cut our own 45 ‘Looking At You’ / ‘Borderline’ (recently released on Skydog). It was a really non-existent production job, since I produced it and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I just knew that the music was killer and that we had to get it down, but I didn’t know the first thing about mixing, and consequently the record was never really mixed; it was just released unmixed. I wanted to make that sure all the high sound got in there because I had noticed that when records were played on the radio, the high sounds tended to drop out... so I loaded treble onto ‘Looking At You’ to the point that the record was just about worthless for standard record players. But I never expected many people to buy it... we just wanted to get it on the radio in Detroit and wherever else we could, so that people could relate to the fact that the band really existed. In the Music Business it’s impossible to get the big shots to notice a band unless it has some kind of solid product - a recording of some sort - to make them ‘legitimate’. So we had a record, however ill-conceived and executed, and that helped us to get more gigs around Michigan, which we had to have in order to stay alive and make the payments.
'Thunder Express' FREUD CD 071
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