Perfect Sound Forever

MC5- Ben Edmonds interview

photo by Leni Sinclair

by Jason Gross
(November 1998)

PSF: How did you first hear about the MC5?

In 1968, I was going to college in Ohio and heading back to Boston (my hometown) for the Christmas holiday. I stopped in New York to see some friends of mine who were signed to Elektra- Magic Terry and the Universe, they never recorded but they were kind of an aesthetically legendary band. They were the first band to put together poetry and rock and roll. This was the late '60's so there was no concept too grandiose or far out not to be tried. The idea of a poet screaming in front of a punk band wasn't out of the question. Danny Fields, the guy who bought the Stooges and the MC5 to Elektra, had signed them. All these bands quickly saw themselves as being part of the redefinition of the possibilities of rock and roll.

The first thing they said was 'you're going to school in the Midwest, tell us about the MC5.' I said 'what?' I had no idea what they were talking about. I got the whole MC5 spiel then and saw them do their first show in New York, a free show at the Fillmore run by a group of street people called the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. These are the same people who three weeks later would disrupt the MC5's show at the Fillmore. On this night, they had just played the Boston Tea Party and it was their first time out of Detroit to play. I saw them and I thought that they were hands down the best rock and roll band I had ever seen in my life. It's an opinion that I hold to this day.

In terms of the context of the time, it was still pretty hippy-dippy peace-and-love with three-hour solos. They were like a throwback to what the New York Times called 'rock's disreputable roots' but at the same time, they were forward looking, into free jazz and metal and all of that. It was like getting the best of both worlds, a reminder of the crotch-level impact of rock while at the same time aspiring to take it to places it had never been before. That just completely blew me away. Also from a performing point of view, they were probably the best rock and roll band I'd ever seen- no one else even came close.

PSF: Did you think there really was a Midwest scene that they were a part of?

In terms of bands like MC5, the Stooges, they all saw themselves as being an alternative to the alternative music that was then popular, epitomized by San Francisco peace-and-love. This was darker, a much more street level kind of a movement. All those bands and the people around them saw this as the next step beyond what was fashionable.

PSF: What about the politics that the band adopted with John Sinclair and the White Panthers? Was that sincere?

I think it was sincere. The situation with the White Panthers was basically that they started as a joke. You had all of them sitting around a big table in Ann Arbor smoking a lot of joints and saying 'wouldn't it be cool if there was something for white people like the Black Panthers?' They saw the Panthers as a group that gave black people pride and some sense to fight back against very real oppression that was coming down then. But the White Panthers started out as a joke really, almost an MC5 fan club. It wasn't until they announced the formation of the White Panther party and the 10 Point program that a lot of these ideas were made public. The reaction against it was so swift and powerful and frightening that a lot of these things that they had said tongue-in-cheek in the beginning suddenly came true. They then had to constantly defend themselves as a revolutionary party. It was a situation that started out one way and over the course of its lifetime, based on the political realities of the time, went a whole other way. I'm sure John Sinclair never saw himself winding up in jail.

You look at what they did with the politics. The Black Panthers did education programs and food programs. The White Panther party, as a political entity never really did much. It was just a name. As soon as you put a name to it, you also made it a target. It sort of pushed things in a radical direction that was pretty extreme.

A lot of the interest in the MC5 now is based on the perception of them being this political band. My interest in the MC5 is in terms of what they accomplished as a band and what they contributed musically. The rest of it is all part of the story. The White Panthers are a peripheral part of the MC5 story.

PSF: The band eventually broke with the Panthers and Sinclair. What's the story behind that?

You get a different story about that depending on whom you talk to. John is still very bitter about that and feels that the band sold him out. Wayne Kramer, who now has a close personal relationship with John, tends to be a little more philosophical about it. There are other people in the band who feel other things. You're talking about a situation where each individual has a completely individual take on each situation and they don't always tally up.

Personally, I see the break with Sinclair as being inevitable just because there was so little real organization in the White Panther party as a political situation. The way it came down and the time it came down and the way it looked was far from ideal. When John went to prison, there was no one else there who could take over the reins of the MC5 on a day-to-day basis. If they had had a stronger organization, I think that they probably could have survived all that stuff with the band's associations with Trans-Love Energies, which was what it was called originally. Incidentally, after they were called the Panthers, they were The Rainbow Peoples' Party and they actually did organized politically and did accomplish some real things.

PSF: You were talking about how they incorporated jazz into their music, even before Miles Davis was doing it.

A lot of that comes from Rob Tyner, in the beginning. He named himself after John Coltrane's piano player McCoy Tyner. John Sinclair is widely credited with pushing the band into the free jazz area because that was his main love. But in truth, the band had been exploring that even before they met Sinclair. He gave just gave them the confidence to go further down that road. Rob had been this suburban Detroit beatnik in the early '60s who thought that rock and roll was dead and corrupt. He was only into jazz and blues and was later brought back to rock and roll by the Rolling Stones. But those kind of ideas were there already, as John himself will tell you- they were already floating around in the band by the time that Sinclair found them. In fact, that was one of the things that appealed to him- here was this rock and roll band that had these out-there ideas about what they wanted to do with rock and roll music. John, who had been a jazz snob and rock and roll hater, had seen that here was a rock and roll band that was doing something interesting.

PSF: Compared to the fusion music that came later, how successful do you think the band was with this idea?

I don't think they were very successful with it. You go back and listen to their great jazz-rock epics and not many of them hold up these days. Compared to the very rigid stylized thing that it turned into as fusion, at least there was something fresh about the MC5's exploration of those areas. This was coming from kids who didn't initially aspire to become jazz musicians and didn't have the jazz chops. All those ideas had been filtered back through musicians whose prime inspiration had been Chuck Berry. It was a different thing from the slick thing that fusion would become. I suppose it was more like punk-fusion than anything else.

PSF: How well did their first album capture what you'd seen in their live shows?

To me it didn't really come close. The tragedy of that album was that it was recorded in October 1968. The band had been performing that particular set for the better part of the previous year. In my view, they played that set at that time once or twice too often. It was just kind of past its peak as the set goes. It's exciting, dynamic, crazy, wild and wonderful but compared to the MC5 shows that I saw (I never them prior to recording that album), it's somewhere in the middle. It's not even close to the MC5 but does it kind of get that glorious energy of the moment.

PSF: Why was there such a huge change in the band's sound by the time of the second album?

Because of the volume and because of the primitive quality of the music that they played, the MC5 tended to be dismissed by serious music people as just noise-mongers. It was a very definitive desire with the second album to prove to the rock and roll establishment that the MC5 were great musicians, which in fact they were. From my point of view, they cared far too much about that and the second album was as extreme in its way as Kick Out The Jam had been in its (way). They went to the opposite extreme. One's as bad as the other to me although somewhere in the middle is the ideal MC5, of my dreams anyway.

PSF: So you think they streamlined their music too much then?

It wasn't that so much as a producer, Jon Landau, who had never produced before and had a lot of the right ideas conceptually but technically couldn't get a sound for that. If you go back and listen to it now, it was shocking at the time because there was almost no bottom end to it, no bass or kick to it. That is something that has been improved somewhat on the CD remastering- they upped the bottom end so it's a little punchier and a little more powerful. If anything, the sound on that second album is tight but it's tight to the point of being strangulated.

PSF: Also, it's interesting that the first record made the top 40 but that one flopped in comparison.

There was a lot of backlash from people who had bought the hype on the first record and decided that they didn't like it. These people weren't going to buy Back In the U.S.A. no matter what it sounded like unless there was a huge hit on there (which it turned out there wasn't). Because there was this perception here in Michigan that the band had dumped Sinclair to become stars, they also lost their Michigan audience. The album failed because they lost their local audience here and they didn't pick up the national audience that they were trying to get on that record. They wound up with nothing on that record. But Kick Out The Jams, Take Two would not have been successful either. Who knows? In retrospect, these things could have been played a hundred different ways but it could have been the same.

PSF: What about with the Atlantic? There wasn't anyone there as sympathetic as Danny Fields at Elektra was there?

No but then again, apart from Danny Fields, they didn't find anybody as sympathetic at Elektra either. Danny originally convinced Jac Holzman (the president) that this was a hot, happening thing that Elektra should be a part of but from my research I found out that a lot of the other company executives didn't have Jac's enthusiasm for the project from the get-go. When things started to go bad, there was already a force there to tell him that 'they're too much trouble, you should get rid of them.'

When they got to Atlantic, it was a situation where it was going to be a strictly bottom-line dollars-and-cents evaluation. Did they sell enough records to make money for the company? No. Basically, you shouldn't expect any sympathy from a record label unless you're selling enough records to earn it. It's basically a bottom-line business- either you move product or you don't. The second MC5 record didn't move much product, the third even less.

PSF: By the time of the third record, they were working by themselves without outside producers. What do you think High Time reflects about the band at that time?

On one hand, you can say that it was a band that was finally beginning to get a grip on the process of making records and what their records should sound like. You could look at it as a realization that perhaps came too late to them. I really feel that the third album was almost like their second first album where the band were rediscovering this spark and beginning to really grow especially as mature musicians who had an idea of how to make the studio work for them. Some of the songs that they wrote after the third album (like "Thunder Express") were great and I think it's too bad that they never got to take that fourth step. Whether you think High Time is great or not so great, what would have come after it would have been better because it was like a rebirth for the band on some levels.

With the third album, you also kind of saw the blossoming of Fred Smith as a songwriter. We never got to see what he would have produced or what would have come after that. When he started Sonic's Rendezvous Band, it was kind of like going back to the beginning for him and they just had that one single and some rehearsal tapes that were released as a bootleg. Patti Smith is talking about collecting some tapes and releasing something though.

PSF: Other than getting dropped by Atlantic, what led to the MC5 breaking up?

It was a combination of no record sales, limited interest in the touring market place and the onset of heroin use. All those things are so intertwined that it's almost impossible to figure out where one starts and the other begins.

PSF: What do you think their legacy is?

That's a tough one. With all the research I've done and all the time I've spent thinking about the band, I'm not sure I can put their legacy into a simple sound bite. The story is far more complex than anybody knows. The legacy of the MC5 is an ongoing thing. What their legacy was then is different from what is perhaps perceived today. Twenty years from now, it may be different again. That's probably why I'm doing the book- what exactly is the legacy of this band that I've spent most of my life obsessing over? We'll see.

PSF: What about the fact that when they broke up, they didn't have as much influence as they do today?

History is a cumulative thing. They started to get some recognition during the first wave of punk and then with the next commercial wave of punk in the early '90s, they took that a step further. You find that things in history are cyclical and maybe the next thing that people obsess over is Emerson, Lake and Palmer and quadruple record sets of band member's solos. It may be that it's going take another punk revolution for interest in a band like the MC5 to be taken a step further. It's all cyclical and everything eventually gets examined. What you find is that the fallow periods are necessary for a regenerative process to give way to another resurgence. As each audience comes up every ten or fifteen years, depending on their tastes, they'll want to know about this stuff hopefully.

PSF: What kind of things do they think people pick up from the MC5?

I think they hear a genuine energy, passion and it's also... nostalgia but it goes beyond that. I think it's a longing for a time when people didn't talk so much about living large. People dreamed large and life then went that way. People don't seem to dream as much these days. The MC5 were nothing if not a bunch of musical dreamers. I think that's always going to be appealing and even more so when dreams seem to be at a premium, where we are right now. There's an awful lot of music out there but you don't seem to hear the same energy and the same level of passion in that music, even the music that's been inspired by the MC5 as you do with the music going back to the original source.

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