The Rise and the Fall of the MC5
photo by Leni Sinclair
by Ian Fines
It is Halloween night, 1968. An anticipatory excitement is building within the eager crowd at Detroit's Grande Ballroom (1). There is something extraordinary in the air, beyond the smell of incense and marijuana. This something is the hope of a Revolution, a hope epitomized by the band the Motor City Five. Before long, Brother J. C. Crawford jumps onto the Grande stage, making the opening statement, asking the question, "Are you gonna be part of the problem or the solution?" (2).
The Solution itself is unleashed onto the stage, in the form of the MC5. The thunder of primal rage bursts from the guitars of Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith, while vocalist Rob Tyner squirms and leaps like a possessed demon, and the rhythm of a million discontented youths is kept constant by drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis. This is the night that the MC5 are recording their first ever album, live in front of a jam-packed audience. As a result of this night, the nation and the rest of the world would be exposed to the force of the MC5, along with their revolutionary aims. At this point in time, on Halloween night, 1968, it almost seems possible that the MC5 and the Revolution could take over the nation.
Out of those live recordings came the MC5's legendary LP Kick Out The Jams, yet it was in 1964 that the seeds of the band which would come to symbolize the anger of the Revolution were planted. Conceived in Lincoln Park, Michigan, the MC5 were originally a straight rock and roll band with matching uniforms. The first signs of energy came when the original drummer and bassist quit because the rest of the group was moving towards "cranking our amps to ten and using feedback and distortion," (3). This new use of noise was eventually noticed, and by 1966, the Five were a regular slot at "Uncle Russ" Gibb's newly-opened Grande Ballroom, which would rapidly become the epicenter for the exploding Michigan music scene. In October 1966, the band caught the attention of local hippie king John Sinclair, who by early 1967 came to manage them. Under Sinclair's influence, the MC5 took on his White Panther Party ideals of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Also, the band's range of musical influences began to broaden, including such jazz greats as Pharaoh Sanders and John Coltrane. These influences led to the MC5 becoming more wild, creative, and improvisational, and in the end more widely recognized as the new hot act in the Motor City.
Before long, the MC5 were outdoing the national headlining acts they were opening for at venues around Detroit. More and more, kids wanted to hear and see the band known as the MC5, and their popularity skyrocketed. But, already the band was known for it's bad-boy image, and were continuously involved with the police. As one Free Press columnist noted, "It often seems that they're desperately trying to live up to an already established reputation by misbehaving" (4).
But, ironically enough, the fear of getting into trouble overtook them in July 1967, when the Detroit riots took place. Fearing for their own personal safety, and generally fed up with daily raids by the Detroit cops on their apartment, the MC5 moved to Ann Arbor. Being a college town, forty miles away from the flames and mayhem of the riots, Ann Arbor was relatively peaceful compared to Detroit. Residing in a mansion on Hill Street, University of Michigan's fraternity row, the Five along with Sinclair, their wives, and roadies, could now better concentrate on their musical aims and revolutionary agenda.
That same summer, the MC5 showed their commitment to the Revolution when they were the only band to show up for the Yippie "Festival of Life" counter-convention in Chicago, protesting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Norman Mailer's reaction to the event showed the intensity of the band at the time:
The singer was taking off on a galactic flight of song, halfway between the space music of Sun Ra and "The Flight of the Bumblebee"... an electric caterwauling of power... burning it, flashing it, whirling it down some arc of consciousness, the sound screaming up to a climax of vibrations like one rocket blasting out of itself... it was the roar of the beast in all nihilism, electric bass and drum driving behind out of their own non-stop to the end of the mind... as if the electro-mechanical climax of the age. (5)
By this time, the MC5 had caught the attention of Elektra Records' A & R ace, Danny Fields, who signed them on September 22, 1968, following a typically riotous show in Ann Arbor's Fifth Dimension club. As Wayne Kramer later stated, "It all peaked then and there, I knew, finally, it was really gonna happen. We were on the cusp of the success smiling at us just right around the corner," (6). Success did seem near at that point, but for some reason the MC5 couldn't hold onto the moment for a very long time.
With the recording contract came the MC5's first album, Kick Out The Jams, a live recording from Grande Ballroom on October 30-31, 1968. "Kids knew if they went to see the MC5, something extraordinary would happen," said John Sinclair. "I figured if we could record live, in our stronghold, to a packed crowd going wild, then we'd be able to capture it" (7). Whether the Five captured the entirety of the spirit of the Revolution is still under debate. While Billboard hailed the MC5 as "five rock evangelists who are simply the electrifying, exciting and inciting rock riot in America" (8), Miller Francis, Jr. called the album a "disaster". He went on to state that "they play with their hands and feet, not with their guts and soul," (9). The fact that the band was downed by Francis, one of the most respected underground journalists of the time, showed that they still hadn't achieved their goal of fusing the Revolution with rock and roll.
Even though the MC5 had a hit single in the LP's title track, controversy still surrounded the band. As Billboard stated, "the album, Kick Out The Jams, used a slightly different lyric for its title song than the group's hit single of the same name" (10). Simply put, record stores refused to deal with the uncensored album, with it's opening command, "Kick Out The Jam's, Motherfuckers!". When the band ran a series of ads in The Ann Arbor Argus, proclaiming "FUCK HUDSON'S", Elektra dropped the band on account that the MC5 were too political and confrontational. The ads were taken out because Hudson's refused to deal with the band's LP. With the break in the contract, the Five's debut album faded off the charts. All Wayne Kramer could say was, "They didn't even know what we meant when we demanded to have that 'motherfucker' on the album" (11). That demand might have left the MC5 in the dust for good.
Although the MC5 were still popular in Michigan, what had translated on a regional Midwestern level wasn't clicking nationally. As the Rolling Stone put it, "All has not gone smashingly for the MC5 on their current national tour" (12). On the West Coast, the Five weren't being accepted in the least bit, and they ended up playing for free at the Straight Theater in the heart of Haight-Ashbury (which also happened to be the heart of the Revolution) for less than 200 people. This showed that still, through all the hard work and controversy, the band was not received as they thought they would be a few months before.
Still, with the Five's popularity waning, the cops followed. Among many incidents, the band was busted while driving across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, along with Sinclair going to Detroit jail for his participation in a clash with police. On a pitiful note, bassist Michael Davis was busted by Ann Arbor police on a larceny rap for sealing sunglasses from a drugstore. As a common response, it was said that "the MC5 deny everything and promise that Campus Korner Drugstore 'will surely face the wrath of the people through lawsuits for the MC5" (13). Although Sinclair managed to get out of his first offense for assaulting a police officer, he "found himself drawing an incredible nine-and-a-half to ten-year prison term in late July, 1969, for the heinous crime of possessing two marijuana joints" (14).
With Sinclair, and his White Panther Party regime, locked away, the MC5 took on the influence of producer Jon Landau. Landau came along with the deal the band struck with Atlantic Records after they were dropped by Elektra. Back in the studios to record their second album, "the Five gained Landau's more disciplined approach at the cost of Sinclair's commitment" (15.) This approach consisted of a tight, stripped-down sound, very much different form the powerful, feedback-laden energy of their first album. The album, titled Back in the USA, was generally ignored, peaking at #137 on the Billboard charts. As Greil Marcus of the Rolling Stone stated, "the problem of the music is in it's competence. And the problem of it's competence is in it's so-carefully worked out intentions" (16). He went on to say that "the music, the sound, and in the end the care with which these times have been shaped drags it down" (17). It's obvious the public wasn't ready for a clean, tight MC5. Yet, still some saw the album as a breakthrough, with Melody Maker calling Back in the USA unbelievably tight, perfectly structured" (18). Besides some critical acclaim, Dennis Thompson claimed, "The bottom line is that we cut our audience in two, didn't have an audience to replace it, and didn't do enough touring to back up that album" (19).
The main factor missing from the MC5's repertoire after their second album was their revolutionary stance. No longer immature troublemakers on the brink of starting a riot, Rob Tyner summed up their new demeanor by saying, "We're still pretty crazy, but not quite like we used to be" (20). Indeed they weren't, for heroin use became a problem within the band. As Kramer stated, "it became an activity that was time consuming, and all of a sudden, it just became easier to get high" (21). With their popularity dwindling, the Five decided to head for Europe, where they had almost legendary status. Even though it ended up being that, "the English were expecting white hot revolutionaries and got refried American hot rod music replete with Led Zeppelin licks" (22), the band did end up finishing their third, and final, album.
Titled High Time,the album was a step back to the days of their first album, capturing the full intensity of the band once again. In response to the album, Lenny Kaye from Rolling Stone said:
It seems almost too perfectly ironic that now, at a time in their career when most people have written them off as either dead or dying, the MC5 should power back into action with the first record that comes close to telling the tale of their legendary reputation and attendant charisma. (23)
Still, while the album received much critical acclaim, High Time failed to improve the MC5's muddled sales record, and failed to win a niche in the top 200. Because of poor sales, Atlantic ended up dropping the band, which continued to suffer from drug problems and a lack of the unity which had been present a year before. Also, in late 1970, it was revealed that the band had filed for bankruptcy. To this, Pete Andrews, manager of the SRC band/recording complex responded, "I'm not surprised. The last I heard, they were $80,000 in debt. They weren't dealing fairly with promoters and agents, and I guess nobody would book them. They've kind of declined in popularity in the area anyway" (24).
Scrounging for whatever success or recognition they could muster up, the band again returned to Europe. In the beginning, they were well received, with one critic stating, "the MC5 let loose an hour of sheer goodness" (25) and "the audience was nearly caught with it's trousers down" (26). Still, heroin use plagued the band, which eventually fired Michael Davis because of his over-zealous habits. With the band slowly falling apart, even the people of Europe realized that "the Revolution, to which they had formerly pledged themselves, certainly was not going to be a musical one" (27). Before long, Rob Tyner and Dennis Thompson refused to continue touring, and that signaled the end of the MC5. On New Year's Eve, 1972, the MC5 played their farewell concert at the Grande Ballroom for a pathetic amount of $500.
The MC5 went from being the hottest commodity, to becoming the coldest cast-away in the musical world. They were at their peak when the Revolution was brewing, but died away when they realized that they were fighting a losing battle. When the band tried to change their focus and play straight rock, they couldn't compete, for there was just too much competition. Also, the MC5 sank into oblivion because of terrible drug habits, poor promotion, bad press, and internal conflicts. Yet, most of all, the MC5 could never live up to the reputation that they had been given early on-one of a fierce band of young revolutionaries that could lead the masses of the youth of America into rebellion against the System, solely through their music.
When it comes down to it, the MC5 just weren't easy to digest. They told it straight, the way they saw things happening around them. It's interesting to note that the MC5's spirit lives on in the Punk Rock and Heavy Metal music of today. Most present bands are eager to note that the MC5 were a major influence on their music and way of thinking. It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there will be another band like the MC5 someday.
1) The Grande Ballroom was founded in 1966 by "Uncle" Russ Gibb, a wealthy business man. He saw the likes of Bill Graham opening ballrooms in the San Francisco area, and also saw the monetary possibilities. Guessing right, the Grande quickly became a well-known venue, and attracted the most popular acts in the nation from the Who and Jimi Hendrix to Sun Ra. Once hailed as the mecca of the Mid-west rock scene, the Grande Ballroom eventually lost it's hipness and faded away.
2) David Walley, "MC5", Jazz and Pop,September, 1969, p.15.
3) Mike Johnston, "Open Up the Limits," www.cen.uiuc.edu/thompson.html, p.2. (no longer online)
4) Martha Kinsella, "The Anti-Establishment MC5 and a Local Recording Session," The Detroit Free Press, November 8, 1968, p.14.
5) Eric Ehrmann, "Kick Out the Jams!", Rolling Stone, January 4, 1969, p.15.
6) Ken Kelley, "Wayne Kramer-An interview with the MC5's other guitarist," www.addict.com/issues/1.02/Features/MC5.
7) Ralph Heibutzki, "Edge of the Switchblade: To Hell and Back With the MC5," DISCoveries, December 1995, p.26.
8) Edward Ochs, "Motor City 5, A Non-Stop, Driving Unit," Billboard, January 10, 1969, p.11.
9) Steve Johnson, "Underground Journalism," Rolling Stone, October 4, 1969, p.13.
10) William Dillard, "Elektra Cleans Up Lyrics On MC5 Cut After Complaints," Billboard, March 15, 1969, p.11.
11) John Bryan, "MC5 Kick Out the What?" Rolling Stone, April 19, 1969, p.14.
13) David Smith, "Cops 'n' Robbers For the MC5," Rolling Stone, July 12, 1969, p.10.
14) Heibutzki, "Edge of the Switchblade: To Hell and Back With the MC5".
16) Greil Marcus, "Back in the USA," Rolling Stone, May 14, 1970, p.52.
18) Richard Williams, "MC5-still the bad boys of rock," Melody Maker, August 8, 1970, p.11.
19) Ralph Heibutzki, "Edge of the Switchblade: To Hell and Back With the MC5," DISCoveries, December 1995, p.29.
20) Williams, "MC5-still the bad boys of rock".
21) Heibutzki, "Edge of the Switchblade: To Hell and Back With the MC5," p.29.
22) Paul Goring, "Random Notes," Rolling Stone, September 17, 1970, p.4.
23) Lenny Kaye, "High Time," Rolling Stone, September 2, 1971, p.43.
24) Ray Gaspard, "Major Changes in the Motor City Scene," Rolling Stone, October 15, 1970, p.18.
25) Roy Hollingworth, "MC5," Melody Maker, March 4, 1972, p.41.
27) Dave Hopkinson, "Caught in the Act", Melody Maker, July 1, 1972, p.42.
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