© Future/Now Films, 1998, Design by Gary Grimshaw
David Thomas on the MC5 movie
The film will place the story of the MC5 in its historic context, exploring the tension between the idealistic goals of an exploding counterculture and the demands of a commercial marketplace, celebrating the band's accomplishments and high-energy aesthetic, examining the factors that contributed to the rise and fall of the MC5.
Future/Now Films has spent 2 years in research and pre-production on MC5 * A True Testimonial, uncovering a wealth of archival materials from a variety of sources. Much of this material is previously unseen or seen only by a handful of collectors ---- all of it bears visual testimony to the persistent legend of the MC5. As production funds have become available we have filmed interviews with Dennis Thompson (inside Detroit's Grande Ballroom), Wayne Kramer (on the site of the MC5's historic performance during the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago), Gary Grimshaw, and others. Recently completed preview trailers, incorporating archival materials and interview segments, have been screened in Detroit, Austin and London, Cleveland (at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame), New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco.
A portion of the financing for MC5 * A True Testimonial has already been secured in the form of grants from Studio Film & Tape, Chicago, and the Illinois Arts Council, private investment and generous donations. Future/Now Films continues its efforts to secure the funding necessary to complete principal photography.
MC5 * A True Testimonial will be an electrifying film, at once an examination of the MC5's dramatic story and a reflection of their high-energy aesthetic. It is perhaps the last great untold story in Rock & Roll- and a film whose time has come.
There is an earlier, frequently-overlooked MC5 from which all later incarnations spring: the 'garage-band' MC5, 'psychedelic-greasers' from the Motor City. This very early MC5 is much like other American garage / punk / psyche bands of the period (Shadows of Knight, Standells, Music Machine, etc.), and it is out of this aesthetic base, coupled with a soulful mastery of R&B forms, that the MC5 would evolve into the high-octane rabble-rousers of Kick Out the Jams, Back in the USA, and High Time. Taking their cues from The Rolling Stones (the first 'original song' the MC5 ever recorded, "One of the Guys," is a hyped-up "Down Home Girl" with new, topical lyrics), The Who (check the opening stun-chords and "Magic Bus"-like coke-bottle percussion of "I Just Don't Know"), Them ("I Can Only Give You Everything" was a favorite among many American garage bands), and The Troggs (who also covered "I Can Only Give You Everything" and recorded the original "I Want You" which mutates into "I Want You Right Now" on Kick Out the Jams) the early MC5 fashioned a sound which was largely derivative but which provides the jumping-off-point for their subsequent development.
The original A-Squared 45 of "Looking At You," and its flip, "Borderline," while 'produced' by John Sinclair, is clearly rooted in this garage band aesthetic; when John Sinclair first saw the MC5 in 1967 (according to his own account in CREEM, [Vol 2 #8]) it was on a bill with The Unrelated Segments, a great Michigan garage-punk band. At that point the MC5 had been playing around the Detroit area for over two years and at the Grande Ballroom for six months, sharpening their chops on bills with other garage bands like The Chosen Few, The Woolies, The Prime Movers, The Thyme, The Underdogs, and The Spikedrivers. Their repertoire included standard garage-band fare like "Route 66," "I'm a Man," "You Really Got Me," "Baby Please Don't Go, " "My Generation," and other hits of the day. Their sets also included "I Can Only Give You Everything," "I Just Don't Know," and "One of the Guys" all of which were recorded by the MC5 in 1966 (for the AMG label). It is this 'garage-aesthetic,' with its celebration of snotty-bad-attitude-teen-libidos fueled by loud-ass guitars, which is the impetus behind the MC5's sound and image and the common thread that runs through all of their subsequent incarnations.
Kick Out the Jams, recorded live at the Grande Ballroom, Detroit over two nights in October, 1968, is a documentation of the MC5's high-energy stage show just as they were reaching their apex as the most electrifying and dynamic band in the country. Constant gigging throughout Michigan and the Midwest during the Spring and Summer of 1968 had helped them hone their presentation to a tumultuous roar. Kick Out the Jams is a call to arms, a tightrope dance on the edge of chaos, an unleashing of all the power and swagger and soulful exuberance at the heart of Rock & Roll. It is staggering in its sheer energy level --- rarely has it been equalled, never has it been surpassed. For most fans, and probably through all posterity, Kick Out the Jams, will be lauded as the 'real' MC5.
Perhaps no record could be further from the audacity of Kick Out the Jams than its over-rehearsed and over-produced follow-up, Back in the USA. While the blame for Back in the USA's sonic shortcomings lie squarely on the shoulders of rookie producer Jon Landau, the MC5 themselves were willing co-conspirators. Coming off a string of mishaps, blunders and traumatic upheavals (dropped by Elektra, shunned by the critics, Sinclair imprisoned) it is hardly surprising that the MC5 fell under the controlling influence of Landau, attempting to record a followup which would ingratiate them to their many detractors. The playing is often eloquent and mercurial, the arrangements tight and streamlined, and the songwriting is some of their best ever ("Shakin' Street," "The American Ruse," "Tonight"). Back in the USA is head and shoulders above the efforts of most of their contemporaries, but coming off the fire and bluster of Kick Out the Jams, it was a horrible disappointment, an ill-timed and transparent bid for commercial success. The irony and humor of tracks like "Call Me Animal," and "High School" (harkening back to their snotty garage days) and the complexity and sophistication of "Human Being Lawnmower" is largely lost in the 'uptight' mix. Even "Looking At You," boasting a leaner, meaner arrangement, a brilliant lead guitar break, and impassioned playing and singing seems somehow flat (especially next to the original A-Squared 45). Back in the USA seems a great record fighting to get out. Wonderfully inspired but hopelessly flawed, it is as much a reflection of the 'real' MC5 as anything else they ever did. It just doesn't sound like it.
High Time, self-produced with engineer Geoffrey Haslam, puts the MC5 firmly back on the Hi-N-R-G track, and it is a masterful and joyous ride. High Time is an amazingly intelligent record, power-packed and nimble and full of cautionary tales from a band bloodied but unbowed. The playing throughout is taut and self-assured, they seem at once relaxed and ferocious- like sharks in the water. There are moments on High Time that are frightening in their intensity (RobTyner at the edge of his range on "Over & Over," the dual-guitar mayhem at the end of "Gotta Keep Movin," Fred Smith's guttural outburst in "Sister Anne" and the blistering guitar/guitar/bluesharp break that follows, the polyrhythms of "Skunk (Sonically Speaking)") and it is this intensity and confidence which makes High Time such a marvel, and perhaps the quintessential MC5 record. After all they had been through it was a wonder that they could make a record so rich, so full of ideas, and seemingly, do it so effortlessly. High Time sounds like a great Rock & Roll record by a band born to make great Rock & Roll records. At the end of their rope career-wise, with few watching and less really caring, the MC5 did what they really did best- they "done kicked 'em out!"
Flaws intact, the MC5 always walked it like they talked it. Frozen in time in all their incarnations (from Garage-band Neophytes to gun-totin' Revolutionaries, from Pop-Star wanna-be's to washed-up Futurists) the MC5 were nothing if not "real." From their earliest singles to their last recordings ("Thunder Express" and "Gold") the MC5 were forever true to their own dictum:
"Truth ...and Love ...are my Law .... and Worship ....... Form and Conscience are my Manifestation and Guide .........Nature ...and Peace are my Shelter and Companion .........Order is my Attitude ......Beauty and Perfection ....are my ...ATTACK."
from "Poison" - Wayne Kramer
The politics of the band have as much to do with the dynamics of the Sinclair-MC5 relationship as with politics. With Sinclair 'fired' by the band and jailed in July 1969, there were clearly issues of a financial and personal nature fueling Sinclair's subsequent statements about the MC5. Careful listening to both Back in the USA and High Time reveal lyrics which are more pointedly political than anything which appears on Kick Out the Jams. "The American Ruse," and "Human Being Lawnmower," from Back in the USA, and "Future/Now," "Gotta Keep Movin," and "Over and Over" from High Time are all songs which express specific viewpoints on politically-charged issues. The second verse of "Future/Now" may go a long way toward explaining some of the MC5's own view of the dynamics of their relationship with John Sinclair.
After John Sinclair was in jail and the MC5 had ended their association with him, they did play benefits for various causes associated with Sinclair's legal difficulties and 'The Movement.' Through the Summer of 1969 and into 1970 the MC5 topped several bills in and around Detroit which were organized as 'Free John Sinclair' events. On January 24, 1970, a date proclaimed 'International Free John Sinclair Day' by The Fifth Estate and The Seed, SRC and the MC5 headlined a 'Free John Sinclair Rally' at the Grande Ballroom and Eastown Ballroom, Detroit, ......guest speakers included Abbie Hoffman and attorney Ken Cockrell, ....(this is not the more famous 'John Sinclair Freedom Rally' held in Ann Arbor on December 10, 1971 --- an event which the MC5 were NOT invited to perform at). The MC5's participation in this January 1970 event comes six months AFTER they had severed their ties to John Sinclair, Trans-Love, and The White Panthers - and despite the general urgings of Jon Landau and Atlantic Records.
Following the MC5's first appearance in the UK (Phun City Festival, July 25, 1970) it is interesting to note the sudden burst of articles in the English music and underground press (especially International Times) espousing a 'Revolutionary' view, including the announcement of the formation of a London branch of The White Panther Party. Seems at the least that the MC5 were still carrying the message.
Detroit's MC5 were one of the most electrifying acts to ever storm a Rock & Roll stage and their performances in the late 60's are the stuff of myth and legend. In a time when every obscure cult band is an instant legend, the MC5 have a real feel of American folklore. They were the loudest, the baddest, the most outrageous bunch of get-down white brothers the nation had yet seen. They achieved that most elusive of rock Grails -- a new sound, unbelievably loud and hard, yet sensuous, with a strong and original feel for black music. At a time when this country resonated with the conflicting voices of rebellion and repression, the MC5 represented the musical expression of the most radical elements of a cultural revolution. Born of a place where violent labor militancy, black insurgency, and the roar of machinery were real elements of the environment, Detroit's MC5 fused the liberating spirit of high-energy rock and roll with the strident politics of confrontation, applying the counterculture's exploration of consciousness and the senses, energy and spirit, to an older and more traditional kind of Rock & Roll and R&B. Combined with a penchant for high-energy experimentation, an innate sense of showmanship, and a distinctly-Detroit work ethic, the MC5 crafted a presentation which stunned, shocked and electrified anyone who was lucky enough to witness it.
But the MC5's ascendant moment is also the moment at which the whole counterculture, the whole era - snaps. They are identified with the final mad reach of the 1960's- their idealistic aspirations and radical approach come at the very time that the forces of Law & Order are taking the offensive, as the record industry is learning to harness the wild energies of rock music, and as the counterculture itself is fragmenting and dispersing, being co-opted and reabsorbed into the American mainstream. The story of the MC5 is the last great untold story of the 1960s; it is a microcosm of the civil unrest, political revolt, and cultural upheaval that shook the country's foundation; to leave their tale untold is to leave a crucial chapter of American history unwritten.
The MC5 affected many people in their audience on a deeply personal level. Time and time again we, as filmmakers researching the story of the MC5, have heard stories of how this group deeply affected the world-view of those who experienced them. For many the MC5 were a working model of limitless possibilities and the MC5 experience a catalyst for their own personal and political awakenings. Devotion bordering on fanaticism surrounded this group; the MC5 changed many lives forever.
The MC5's energies jump-started and catalyzed a music scene in Southeast Michigan which included Ted Nugent's Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger, The Rationals, Mitch Ryder, The Stooges, Alice Cooper, Commander Cody, Grand Funk Railroad, SRC, Brownsville Station, Suzi Quatro, and others. Many of these artists went on to commercial successes which dwarfed those of the MC5, but few would deny the inspiration and influence that the MC5 had on their own work. Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Marshall Crenshaw, Captain Sensible, and Henry Rollins testify to their impact.
The MC5's music combined diverse influences into a unique and original high-energy style, defining a hard-rock sound which would become universal by the late '70's and planting the seeds of 'alternative' styles which would burst through to commercial success in the 1990's. In 1978 the British music paper New Musical Express referred to their first LP, Kick Out the Jams, as the first 'punk' LP, their second LP, Back in the USA, as the first 'new wave' record, and their third LP, High Time, as the first 'new-metal' LP. While the terms now seem outdated the analysis is accurate.
The MC5 provided a blueprint for many artists and groups that came later- from the dual guitar attacks of the NY Dolls and Blue Oyster Cult to the anarchy of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned; from the punk mayhem of Black Flag and the Bad Brains to the sonic assault of Poison Idea, Spacemen 3 and Mudhoney to recent celebrations by groups like The Makeup and the Lord High Fixers.
Their one 'hit' record, "Kick Out the Jams," (the single reached #1 on AM Radio in several Midwest markets in the spring of 1969; the LP remained on the charts for 27 weeks) has entered the vernacular as a phrase which signifies the breaking down of all barriers in an all-out personal effort. The phrase crops up in a myriad of contexts, from sports writing to advertising; while the meaning is implicitly clear the origin of the phrase is often forgotten or overlooked.
(c) 1998 - David C. Thomas - Future/Now Films. Future/Now films. Inc., Chicago welcomes any and all inquiries.
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