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'
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,
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
'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
- - - - - - - - - - - - - '
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.