Re-examining the cultural legacy of the MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things
Re-examining the cultural legacy of the MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things
photo courtesy of Showtime Archives (Toronto)

Panther, Panther Burning Bright

In the case of MC Brother J.C. Crawford, it was a legendary 1968 Halloween night call to arms at Detroit's Grande Ballroom that launched both his and one particular garage band's meteoric rise to cult stardom.

"Brothers and sisters!" Crawford extolled, his invocation already set to a fevered pitch. "I wanna see a sea of hands out there! Lemme see a sea of hands! I want everyone to kick up some noise! I want to hear some revolution out there, brothers! I wanna hear a little revolution! Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution! You must choose, brothers! You must choose! It takes five seconds! Five seconds of decision! Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet! It takes five seconds to realize that it's time to move! It's time to get down with it! Brothers ... it's time to testify and I want to know: Are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial! The MC5!"

The recording of Crawford's introduction and the fabled show that followed became an instant slice of history that Elektra records immediately packaged as the MC5's debut, Kick Out the Jams. It briefly galvanized the Motor City's working-class-flavor counterculture. It pissed off cops and patriots. It thrilled the hairy proletariat. It gave the newly founded White Panther Party something to do. And for one shining moment, it even toyed with redefining one's civic duty (all carefully specified in the Panthers' ten-point platform) as joining together for a "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets."

"There's no question that we were phenomenally naive," recalls MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. Now living in Hollywood, California, the 51-year-old graying revolutionary finds himself rather consumed with the legacy of his former band, the experimental and raucous Anglo-metal outfit that included the late vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith (the latter was married to punk priestess Patti Smith; both men suffered fatal heart attacks in the early Nineties), bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson. "Idealistically all the [White Panther] points were valid," Kramer affirms. "The end of oppression is a good principle. The end of an economic system that puts profit ahead of people is valid. The end of political imprisonment is valid. Those are all fundamental principles that deserve to be considered."

And despite a laughable premise here and there (a psychedelic economic system called "anarchical syndicatism" that calls for the freedom of time and space for all humans, man) the MC5 distinguished itself from the era's pervasive flower-power constituency like refreshingly rabid Dobermans. "We had a mandate to act in a way that we considered to be patriotic," Kramer notes. "But we were certainly naive in attaching ourselves to rhetoric that was going to cause more problems than solutions. That's what ended up really hurting us."

Armed with guitars and a manifesto that called for hedonism as a means to ending oppression, Michigan's beloved cave dwellers of yore do deserve at least one big-time honorary distinction: They're the only band that had the cojones to perform in Grant Park during Chicago's notorious 1968 Democratic Convention. (Kiddies, take note: Between August 26 and 29, 1968, some 10,000 demonstrators gathered before then-Mayor Richard Daley's police force to protest the ongoing atrocities in Vietnam and the Democratic Party's complicity in the war effort. Shouting "Dump the Hump" to Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey -- who refused to call for a removal of American troops from Vietnam -- the angry protesters got their collective skull caved in.)

"The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane -- they all said they were gonna come and didn't," Kramer recalls. "Everybody knew this was gonna go bad. It was normal for us. We played at a lot of riots. We completely expected the Chicago Police Department to go mad, and they did." Despite the soothing touch of billy clubs and tear-gas canisters, Kramer and company remained levelheaded during those rageful days. "We've been in enough riots to know to get out while the getting's good," he points out.

Kramer also acknowledges the cool of Tyner during those turbulent times, the singer's sense of commitment and his ability to remain in the moment. "He was the ultimate performance artist," Kramer opines. "He understood rock and roll way deeper than many of his contemporaries. He loved language and he loved art. He was a tremendously gifted cartoonist and could play just about any instrument. He was fascinated by everything. He read the dictionary. He was just into so much stuff, and he was absolutely fearless onstage."

Tyner and the rest of the MC5 indeed paid dearly for their high-profile militancy, through routine strip-searches at shows, tapped phone lines, and overzealous visits from J. Edgar Hoover's heavies (who were convinced they were out to destroy America). Even Jac Holzman and Bruce Botnick, the band's producers at Elektra (who released only one MC5 album -- Kick Out the Jams -- before severing its relationship with the band), turned on them. After pushing to include the word motherfucker on Jams, the label distanced itself when record stores banned the release for being obscene. (Botnick would later claim in Holzman's book, Follow the Music, that the MC5 defecated onstage, a charge the band denies.) Meanwhile John Sinclair, the group's manager and a leading figure within the White Panther Party, was sentenced to ten years for selling two measly joints. (He served three.)

"I talk to Sinclair regularly," Kramer says. "We're very dear friends. We have been all our lives." Contrarily the surviving Motor City band members don't all share Kramer's warm feelings for the "spiritual guidance" of their former image-handler; a onetime DJ/rock critic, he also functioned as the White Panther Party's founding "Minister of Information," and attempted to forge an alliance between the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman's Yippies, seeking the overt politicization of the hippie milieu. In a recent interview with the British music magazine Mojo, drummer Thompson went so far as to say that putting a bullet in Sinclair's head right off the bat would've changed the whole course of history, saved the revolution, and made him a trillionaire.

"I'm troubled by Dennis's remark," Kramer admits. "It reflects a degree of bitterness that seems almost incomprehensible. Dennis and I don't talk much anymore." Kramer has plenty to say, though, when it comes to reacquainting old fans and introducing new ones to the thunderous, gear-headed sounds of the "mother-country madmen." With the help of Gary Stewart and Rhino Records, he's coproduced The Big Bang!, a new 21-track compilation. Spanning five years, from 1968-1972, the album catalogues rare singles and the best bits from the MC5's loud, truncated career. A cover of Van Morrison's "I Can Only Give You Everything" kick-starts the band's now-dated assault on Yankee culture and "greed creeps"; astute listeners will no doubt recognize the riff Beck boosted for "Devil's Haircut." "Come Together" has nothing to do with mojo eyeball and everything to do with exchanging gametes, as does the hormonally charged siss-boom-bah pep-rally anthem "High School," a song the glue-sniffin' Ramones included on the soundtrack of 1979's Rock 'n' Roll High School.

The best cuts, though, are the live, excessive, fuzz-toned ones from Kick Out the Jams -- and don't worry, they've included the uncensored version of the title track, a notorious Oedipal reference to maternal coupling that made most record stores refuse to stock the album. "We used [the word motherfucker] because it described that particular feeling of the moment ... eloquently," Kramer notes. Although it's lost its impact through gratuitous gangsta-rap usage, Kramer believes the MC5 helped solidify the term into our nation's lexicon. "We all do what we can," he laughs.

On Jams the MC5 stumbled onto the sound of punk. Like their contemporaries the Stooges and the Troggs, they laid the groundwork of raw noise and unembarrassed distortion that countless bands from Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine to Bad Religion and Sweden's Hellacopters would later harness and expand upon. Combining the aesthetics of microphones in speaker cones and amps set to overkill, the tracks confirm that the MC5 was a band best experienced live. Yet the lion's share of material on Bang! (eight tracks, surprisingly) comes from the cleaner, leaner, more trebly and Chuck Berry-influenced Back in the USA, the underrated followup to Jams. That structured but commercial flop utilized novice studio producer Jon Landau and marked the beginning of the end for the MC5. Dispensing with the customary reckless energy that got them noticed, they were soundly dissed by stateside critics for sacrificing fan appeal for a new, tight, "hit-single" sound.

"The British, you know, Nick Lowe and the Clash and those guys, all told me that Back in the USA was their favorite record because it was concise, with focused pop songs in a day that was featuring the fifteen-minute guitar wank," says Kramer. Needless to say Eric Clapton's slow hand provides no inspiration for the record's unsettling Vietnam protest tune, "The Human Being Lawnmower," nor for the sarcastic, scorching dandy "The American Ruse." High Times, the band's third and final album released in 1971, ventured into longer free-jazz territory; the stand-out track "Skunk (Sonically Speaking)" blends Sun Ra and Archie Shepp-style horn experimentation with blatant metal. Moreover it points to what the MC5 might've sounded like had commercial, personal, and pharmaceutical setbacks not been their unraveling. In the extensive liner notes Kramer penned for The Big Bang!, he laments the reception the album received.

"High Times was ignored across the board," he writes. "And that was the best one. We learned that making records was not about leaping up and down and sweating, that it was about focus, about exploring your innate creativity." Full of lengthy, meandering tracks, High Times didn't chart, and the MC5 was left without a label. Worse yet Kramer soon found himself serving 26 months in a federal prison in Kentucky for selling cocaine. There was one compensation, however: He became friends with veteran bebop trumpeter Red Rodney, a regular member of the Charlie Parker Quintet who'd been in and out of jail on charges related to his heroin addiction.

"He was just a prince of a man. I consider him my musical father. And my mentor. He taught me a Berklee College of Music course in writing and arranging while I was in prison with him. We had a regular band, and we played regular concerts, and a couple of times we got to go out in the community and play concerts in the park with local jazz musicians." But an education in Graystone College, as Kramer learned, ain't all fun and games. "I had a lot of time to think about how I got there," he says, "and what I needed to do to make sure I never came back." Nowadays Kramer is as reflective as ever. And busy as a whirling dervish. Having launched his own Internet label,, he's producing a compilation set to include John Doe, Stan Ridgway, Dee Dee Ramone, David Thomas from Pere Ubu, and Dead Boy Jimmy Zero's new outfit, Lesbian Maker. Kramer also sits on the judge's panel for the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas. Finally there's his dream project: a comprehensive, feature-length documentary in the works titled MC5: A True Testimonial. Produced by the Chicago-based Future Now Films, the effort is slated for release sometime in 2001 -- that is, if the funds are there.

"The wheels turn slow in the documentary-film business. Money's always a problem; well, lack of money is the problem. Money is the solution in this case," he says. Ironically Kramer's extensive search for actual MC5 footage ("Remember, the band existed in a time well before videotape, before minicams, before digital," he points out) was greatly assisted by the unlikeliest of sources: those same great skull-crackin' folks from the Chicago riots. "We got it through the Freedom of Information Act, and it'll be included in the documentary," Kramer says. "We had great United States Army Intelligence surveillance film."


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