The mid-1960s was a turbulent time for Detroit, and the music of the Motor City Five—or MC5, as they would become known—stood as an aural reflection of events like the Cass Corridor race riots and area youth protests. Although rock music has become synonymous with censorship issues and the confrontation of authority, the MC5, vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson, were one of the first bands to stand up for freedom of speech and expression in performance. In explaining the band’s enormous influence, Village Voice contributor Mike Rubin asserted in 1991 that the MC5’s aggressive approach “lives on in any heavy metal band from Motley Crue to Metallica, and their antiestablishment posture was at a least as big an influence on punk rock.”
The MC5 did not start out as the innovative bad boys they would later become. The band formed in the winter of 1964 from the ashes of Smith and Kramer’s junior high rhythm and blues band, the Bountyhunters. Initially, the Five were a pedestrian rock and roll outfit whose
Members included Michael Davis (born June 5, 1943; attended Wayne State University), bass; Wayne Kramer (born Wayne Kambes, April 30, 1948, in Detroit, MI), guitar; Fred Smith (born August 14, 1948, in West Virginia), guitar; Dennis Thompson (born Dennis Tomich, September 7, 1948), drums; and Rob Tyner (born Rob Derminer, December 12, 1944; died of heart failure, September 17, 1991), vocals.
Group formed in Lincoln Park, MI, 1964; played local sock hops; performed at protest of Democratic National Convention, Chicago, 1968; signed with Elektra Records, and released LP Kick Out the Jams, 1969; signed with Atlantic Records, and released Back in the U.S.A., 1970, and High Time, 1971; disbanded, 1972.
concert repertoire relied primarily on the material of other, more-famous performers. The band quickly earned a reputation with concert promoters, however, for showing up late—if at all—playing too loudly, and often not playing long enough to satisfy concertgoers. Not yet quite “bad,” the MC5 were at this point merely irresponsible.
As if their unreliable reputation was not enough to hamper their progress, the MC5 soon found themselves in competition with the Motown sound. While Motown Records and its rhythm and blues acts were putting the Detroit music scene on the map, they were also creating a formidable shadow from which young rock and roll acts found it difficult to escape. Vocalist Tyner commented on this predicament in Motorbooty magazine, stating, ’To be a white singer in Detroit at that time, you simply were the wrong man for the job; I did not feel comfortable as a performer until I could pull off James Brown material without flaw.”
As luck would have it, the MC5 found a patron of sorts in John Sinclair. Sinclair was a poet and musician, known around Detroit’s Wayne State University as the “king of the beatniks.” He was a fan of the Five and after witnessing their state of affairs—the band’s equipment was being repossessed due to nonpayment—offered his services as manager. Along with his managerial approach, Sinclair instilled in the band his political beliefs, which leaned toward socialism. He viewed the group as a tool for the promotion of an ideology that he and the band developed in emulation of 1960s political agitators the Black Panthers. They dubbed their dogma the White Panther Ten-Point Plan; its most infamous tenets were “dope, guns, and f—ing in the streets.” Essentially, the plan called for freedom from everything and the abolition of money. In Guitar Army, Sinclair’s book chronicling his life with the MC5, the poet-provocateur summed up the spirit of the time: “We were totally committed to carrying out our program. We breathed revolution. We were LSD-driven total maniacs in the universe. We would do anything we could to drive people out of their heads and into their bodies. Rock and roll was the spearhead of our attack because it was so effective and so much fun.”
While Sinclair’s guidance put the MC5 on a more professional path, difficulties with club owners continued; at one concert at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom the Five burned an American flag onstage and raised in its place a banner with the word “Freak” emblazoned across it. At the end of the show, a nude fan climbed onstage and began to meditate. Club owner Gabe Glantz was none too amused. In Guitar Army Sinclair elaborated on the incident, recalling, “Glantz started ranting at Tyner and me about ’committing crimes’ and ’obscenity’ and ’Is that what you think of your country?, ’ threatening us with eternal expulsion from the Grande.” The group was, in fact, temporarily banned from the venue. The exile did not last because the group attracted significantly large crowds to their concerts.
In August of 1968 the MC5 were invited to perform at the Youth International Party’s “Festival of Life” in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Although not officially labeled a protest of the Democratic National Convention, the “Yippie” festival was mounted simultaneously with the convention to show, as Sinclair put it in Guitar Army “a sharp contrast to the way of death epitomized by the Democratic Death Convention.” Securing their place in history, the MC5’s appearance at the festival helped spark the 1968 Chicago riot. In Motorbooty, bassist Michael Davis recounted the event: “We were doing the show and everything was going okay when all of a sudden from over a hill came a huge line of policemen in riot gear charging toward the crowd. We packed up our gear as fast as we could and barely made it out before complete chaos ensued.”
Events like the Chicago riot and the political reservations of concert promoters began to wear on the nerves of the band and created a rift between them and Sinclair. The division of the band’s income became a major concern. Tyner commented in Zig Zag magazine, “I invested a lot of trust in John Sinclair, and he just kept bleeding us for money, we never knew where the money was going.” Tyner elaborated in Motorbooty, stating, “[Sinclair’s] politics were so out to lunch, [but] we were the ones getting our heads busted open onstage every night and he was the one getting the money.”
The band’s first LP, Kick Out the Jams, released by Elektra Records, was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in October of 1968. ZigZag called it “a quasi-political holocaust of white noise and skin-deep [jazz saxophonist John] Coltrane.” While that comment was meant as a compliment, Rolling Stone compared the release unfavorably to the San Francisco band Blue Cheer and criticized the album’s raw production values. Still, though the recording’s quality perhaps failed to showcase the musical abilities of the MC5, it amply succeeded in capturing the energy, power, innovation, and political sloganeering of the Detroit group. Songs like “Come Together” called for the unification of youth, while “Starship” was a free acid-jazz odyssey featuring the band at their most experimental. Obscene lyrics in the title track caused such an uproar that Elektra was forced to terminate the MC5’s recording contract.
Back in the U.S.A., the group’s second LP, was released by Atlantic Records in 1970. While not as overtly political as the band’s previous effort, it did showcase the developing songwriting and musicianship of the performers. Owing largely to production values brought to the project by rock critic Jon Landau, the second LP was much more of a pop record than Kick Out the Jams, as was intimated by the selection of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry’s song as the release’s title track. Cowabunga magazine concluded that the Five were “rediscovering their roots” and that Back in the U.S.A. was primarily a work about “life as a teenager.” The mood of the record was light, evidenced by the inclusion of 1950s shouter Little Richard’s “Tutti-Frutti.” Also featured on the record was the soulful ballad “Let Me Try.” The Detroit publication Big Fat criticized the band’s new direction, commenting, “Superficially it was fair rock and roll, best in its tightness and [conciseness] worst in its shallowness and lack of invention.”
The MC5’s third and last LP, High Time, attempted to combine the energy and inventiveness of Kick Out the Jams with the studio technology, control, and coherence of Back in the U.S.A. Unlike the first two LPs, High Time contained all original compositions, from the Kick Out the Jams-styled “Skunk” to the Back in the U.S.A.- reminiscent “Sister Anne.” Though critically acclaimed in some circles, High Time suffered the most dismal sales figures of the band’s three releases.
Interest in the MC5 has remained constant since their demise in 1972. Indeed, their spirit lives on in the many “alternative” and mainstream bands who emulate their style and rebelliousness. The Seattle “grunge” revolution of the early 1990s owed much to Detroit’s pioneering noisemakers, and the purveyors of that sound were not shy about disclosing this influence. In a retrospective of the MC5, Big Fat remembered, “Not since the summer of 1967 had a band possessed the power to illicit such a broad and strong response from an audience. If the Five’s revolutionary ambitions were grand, so was their ability to win over and activate.”
“I Can Only Give You Everything”/“One of the Guys,” AMG Records, 1966.
“Looking at You”/“Borderline,” A-Squared Records, 1967.
Kick Out the Jams, Elektra, 1969, reissued, 1992.
Back in the U.S.A., Atlantic, 1970, reissued, Rhino, 1992.
High Time, Atlantic, 1971, reissued, Rhino, 1992.
Marsh, Dave, Fortunate Son, Random House, 1985.
Pareles, Jon and Patricia Romanowski, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Sinclair, John, Guitar Army, Douglas, 1972.
Big Fat, March 1970.
Cowabunga, November 1977.
Metro Times (Detroit), November 18, 1992.
Motorbooty, October 1990.
Rolling Stone, February 14, 1969; December 12, 1991; June 11, 1992; December 10, 1992.
Village Voice, October 1, 1991.
ZigZag, September 1976; July 1977; August 1977; November 1977.
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