Concert Report: The MC-5

Sunday 13, February 1972, *The Fox*, Croydon, UK


Charles Shaar Murray

    The Fox in Croydon, Surrey, is a very long way indeed from the Grande Ballroom in Dee-troit, Michigan, and the MC5 were a very long way from home, but it didn't seem to matter.The stage was too small, there was no lighting worthy of the name, the gig was chronically under-advertised, and there was every reason to doubt that any significant proportion of the audience knew who the MC5 were.
'well, if they don't know who we are now, they sure as hell will when we're through', said singer Rob Tyner and took another slug at the band's bottle of Old Grandad. It takes quite a lot to shake up a band that's been together seven years.
    Even if the audience in Croydon had a fairly low level of MC5 consciousness, devotees of the underground press could recite the band's life and times verbatim even if they'd never actually bothered to go out and listen to the records. The MC5 are the centre of two of the most potent myths of contemporary rock - the 'other' Detroit sound and the 'Kick Out The Jams, Motherfucker!' legend of John Sinclair and the White Panthers. From Michigan has come a whole set of bands playing a peculiarly aggressive blend of hard rock and ostentation, ranging from the exhilarating to the dreadful. The Stooges, Alice Cooper, the Frost and Grand Funk Railroad are all products of Detroit's 'high energy' rock scene. And the MC5. The Motor City Five.
    The White Panther Party was financed from the earning of the MC5, until the ideological differences between Sinclair and the MC5 became too great. Sinclair's machine-gun rhetoric and 'Armed Love' stance was irreconcilable with the band's belief in 'loving awareness' as opposed to 'defensive awareness'. Despite Sinclair's statements to the contrary, his defence fees were paid by the MC5 while he was in the hands of The Man, sentenced to nine and a half years for giving two joints to a narco, and released a few weeks back. Since getting out he has studiously avoided the MC5.

Taken from Cream Magazine
~ March 1972 ~

At Croydon, support group Barabas are packing crowds into the bar and the deejay is playing an unusually hip choice of records, slipping Steeleye Span, Gerry Raffferty and Lindisfarne in amongst the Hooples and Zeppelins. A few people are chanting "EM-SEE-FIVE ! EM-SEE -FIVE !" Eventually they filter onto the stage, and they look like a real rock band. Lead guitarist Wayne Kramer is wearing a striped Lurex drape jacket that would being tears to the eyes of any self-respecting Ted, and he looks the total epitome of the nasty little rockanroll punk, hoodlum, revelling in the applause.
The rhythm section are also smart and luminous, and second guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith just looks extreme. He's wearing a skin-tight super-hero costume in black and silver Lurex with 'S.S.' emblazoned on the front, and a silver cap and cowl. With his huge black shades, he resembles a Star Trek villain whose ray-gun has just turned into a Rickenbacker.
Then they're roaring into 'Ramblin' Rose'.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - ' My love is like a ramblin' rose
- - - - - - - - - - - - The more you feed it the more it grows',

sings Kramer in an outrageous falsetto. The MC5 play hard and loud and fast. None of them are particularly good musicians, but by some alchemy they produce a volume and violence that invigorates instead of depleting. The audience sense it too, and by the mysterious telepathy that always operates on these occasions little clumps of freaks at various points in the hall are feverishly twitching and leaping. Tyner comes on for the second number, and between Kramer and Smith he looks positively straight. He wears a black velvet jacket and dark pants, and as he starts 'Sister Anne' he seems to be a huge mouth rimmed with an immense puffball of Afro hair.
In theory, the MC5 are just another multi-megawatt heavy band. Kramer and Smith seem to concentrate on playing with all the speed and volume they can muster Tyner's range is minimal, and bassist Mike Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson are just about adequate. Technically it sucks, and the whole thing is crass as hell. But it works, I'm dancing. Something happens when the MC5 get it on that only happens when the very best bands get it on. What makes it happen is that the MC5 understand rock and roll, and they understand it well. They are masters of kinetic excitement, they know how to open a song at maximum power and then build from there, and that is what makes them a better show than many a band whose technical ability may be infinitely higher.

The MC5 making themselves at home in London

Tyner is throwing the spoken passage from John Lee Hooker's 'Boogie Children' into the middle of their own 'Tonight' but he extends it slightly to talk about his own rock past. The song is about the joys of partyin' and listening to rock bands. 'Detroit', he says, 'is the boogie capital of the universe'. Later on they play Hooker's 'Motor City Is Burning' (credited to Fred Smith on the Kick Out The Jams album), and Thompson goes clean through the skin of his bass drum. They're not ashamed to come on with all the Rama-Lama-Fa-Fa-Fa of a real rock and roll group, because that's what they are.
A few weeks back I'd seen a group called Sid Bishop's Big Boppers try to evoke the '50s by playing the golden hits of the old rockers tricked out in grease and leather, and all in the key of A. they failed because the good times are rolling in different directions now. The MC5 know where. Even Tyner's peace and love rap in the middle of Kramer's 'Poison' fits.
Finally the yells for 'Kick Out The Jams' (still their best known song after three years) are gratified. Tyner takes a deep breath and expands around the microphone. 'KICK OUT THE JAAAAAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!' he screams. During the song he crouches in front of the stage, staring a little girl in the front row right in the eyes. She's transfixed, she even forgets to clap time.
When they leave, the applause is still going on ten minutes afterwards. So half-changed, they come back for one more. During 'I Want You Right Now' all hell breaks loose. Tyner hugs a girl who pulls him off stage. They roll around on the floor while Kramer piles excess on excess. Behind his cape, Smith is slowly removing his costume, but midway through the strip, he tangles his cape and the head of his guitar in the lead of one of the drum mikes. He thrashes around madly, sending mikes flying and tearing his cape. The stagehands mouth fierce imprecations at him. Eventually Tyner is separated from the teenybopper and Smith from the wires. It is clear that the MC5 have set new standards for teen outrage in Croydon. Kramer dismisses the incident, 'Somethin' weird always happens when we do encores, man'.
On the way back Tyner and I start talking harmonicas. He ask me what I think of Bob Dylan's harp playing, and frowns at the reply. 'Dylan is like the John Coltrane of that instrument, man. You got Blonde On Blonde at your place? You listen to 'Pledging My Time' two or three times, and if you can play that shit then you a baaad motherfucker.'
Tyner does not drop Coltrane's name easily. In his sculpting days he listened almost exclusively to jazz. The most verbally expressive of the five, his love for his audience is almost painful to behold. He says that to stand in front of the MC5 is his whole life, and you can't help but believe it once you've seen him work. When he talks about 'loving awareness', he means it. 'The important thing in any revolutionary activity' says Fred Smith, 'is the communication of the real values'.
'What we're concerned with is not so much a revolutionary consciousness', continues Tyner, 'I think the consciousness that we're concerned with, if you summed it up in a word, would definitively encompass revolutionary in the sense of the change in the sense of values that is needed right now, and that would be something that we would term loving awareness, as opposed to a defensive awareness, which is what most of the world functions in today, and always has. That was a prime example of where John Sinclair's head was at, and that's why we didn't agree with it. We knew it wasn't right, we knew it wasn't gonna change things...'
'The most important thing for us to do', says Smith, 'is to try to project a loving awareness attitude. If I come to you and I'm projecting a defensive awareness attitude, then I'm totally blocked off to you, and there is no communication. In our situation as a group, in our music, in our stage show, in the things we say on stage, we wish to project this openness, this loving awareness, this sensitivity towards a higher level of communication.'
'Vibrations, the art form we are dealing with is literally vibrations', says Tyner, 'because we produce sound vibrations. These sound vibrations come out of us, through the circuitry of our instruments, out into the air and into you. You don't have to know that rock and roll's being played, you just open the door and walk in and immediately it comes into you. If it says something to you on a vibrational level, you stay and you become more opened up by it.'
A far cry from the freeze-dried sloganeering and clenched-fist Red Book politics with which most people link their names. Despite coming on, in Lester Bangs' words, like '16 year old punks on a meth power trip', the MC5's music, and its attendant ideology, are far more subtle than is first apparent.
Of all their albums, I find the second Back In The USA more durable than either the first or the third, with their respective revolutionary and jazz pretensions. On that album, they come on like Danny And The Juniors in possession of a fearsome electronic technology, grown up, politicised, doped to the eyeballs and angry. Sandwiched in between Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' and Chuck Berry's 'Back In The USA' are a handful of short, compact, blazingly hard-ass songs about teenage lust, high school and 'The American Ruse':
- - - - - - - - - - - - - ' I'm getting tired of being abused,
- - - - - - - - - -And I'm finally getting hip to the American Ruse',

bawls Tyner, shouting 'Rock'em back Sonic!' as Smith, backed by military snare rolls from Dennis Thompson, plays the first line of the 'Battle Hymn Of The Republic' and then squeezes most of Berry's best-known licks into one commendably brief solo.
The MC5 don't leave you gaping in awe at their collective virtuosity, but they make you dance and they make you sweat. They play rock and roll.

© Charles Shaar Murray - 1972
Thanks to Anders Röder --