There seem to be quite a few acts coming over
here at the moment - Iggy Stooge for example. What's the scene in Detroit
at the moment?
Well, Detroit's a really heavy place to live in - it is so
dangerous, like there were 700 people killed last year, and the kids
have nothing to do so they just pick up on the music thing to escape
the factories. That's where the high energy comes from - the environment.
The way the band came to the concept of a higher energy music is quite
simple. If you take everything in the universe and break it down to
a common denominator all you've got is energy - it's the level we communicate
from - that's the essence of the urban sound.
"Kick Out The Jams" was a raw electronic rock
music, very like the Velvet Underground "White light - White heat" period.
But "Back In The U.S.A." had a much cleaner sound and a concept scene.
Then "High Time" went back to the raw sound but in the studio context.
Yeah, we have been through a lot of changes and that's the
way it should be. We've got to expand.
Are you still very much influenced by people
like Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders?
That ties in with what I was saying about the urban sound
and energy level. In a sense, the black jazz musicians have the same
life style and experience as we have. They're shooting for the same
thing and there is a parallel in our urban vision. Like the 'Skunk'
track (on "High Time") in which we use Detroit jazz musicians - it was
a really fine synthesis - urban rock and urban black jazz.
John Sinclair started out as a spiritual Father
and Manager of the Band and then he was busted. Now he's out, do you
have any contact with him?
No, I haven't talked to him at all. I think he feels a little
bit guilty over the things he said about us when he was in jail. I'd
really like to see him again, there's a lot of things I'd like to talk
Well could you put the picture straight from
your side about the conflict which seemed to arise.
All the time he was in jail he was making accusations about
us wanting to be rich and famous and not caring about the revolution
which is totally untrue. I think his statement reflects his state of
mind at that time - you know there was incredible paranoia and the whole
thing was total madness anyway - 10 years for 2 joints, no-one believed
it would happen. I've read letters he sent to friends and they were
crazy and paranoid - it was madness.
There was a definite philosophical/political split and it came at that
point. We were getting more and more militant in our rhetoric: "Off
the pigs" etc., you know. "The black panthers have guns, so the White
Panthers must have guns. We've got all sorts of machismo - dig me, I'm
bad". But around that time we were developing our own ideas and John
was articulating our ideas but putting his own slant on them. Before
we'd met John we weren't very articulate about politics.
But was the basic discontent there?
Of course. We were brought up in America and you can't be
in that situation without asking why the country's so fucked up. Vietnam
was just peaking when we were about 18 so there was the army hassle.
We were radicalised by our own environment. But the split came around
the militancy point. We just realised that violence wasn't the answer
- that's the old way. The revolution is a revolution of communication.
Getting guns is not the way - and when John told the kids to arm themselves
we just said 'forget it' because that wasn't what we were talking about.
Now John's out I think he's reviewed the situation and has modified
his ideas a little.
Was he on an ego-trip towards the end?
Well, the tension just got higher and higher and he just
got more and more repressed and had to act really tough. That was it.
How heavy a communal scene were the White
Panthers into in Detroit?
It was like a constant party, but not a political party though
we were using all the words. 25 and 30 people lived there and the MC5
set-up paid for everyone - it was an interesting experiment - that band
lived together a year before and a year after the whole thing and I
really dug it. It was like a laboratory - you've got to deal with people,
communication is the keyword behind the whole concept.
Do you regret the way things turned out? You
seem to have constantly been fighting off the pretentious hype that
went with your image.
Well , yeah, when you're putting over an alien vibration
on a high energy level you've got to be tough to that kind of backlash.
But it's the only way for us, we can't do anything else and it's too
late to stop now. We're totally committed to our thing - it's a highly
emotional thing and in that respect it's always a calculated risk.
What's happening with the White Panthers in
The White Panthers don't exist any more. I think they realise
that the "White" had racist overtones and the "Panthers" had violent
overtones, so overall it didn't work because they weren't racist or
really violent. All that is essentially John Sinclair's organisation
- it's his house and all the people stay with him there.
"Back In The U.S.A.". How strong was Jon Landau
(rock writer for Rolling Stone and part-time record producer) 's influence?
Very strong. It was Sinclair's idea to hire him ; we weren't
too keen on the idea but it worked out OK We'd always wanted to make
a rock and roll album that was perfect - clean and neat. It was just
one phase, one dimension in the whole construction. One time we were
going to make a really weird album - maybe the next one which we're
working on under the tentative title "MC5 Live on Saturn".
Will "Black to Comm" be on that?
Maybe. We've been playing it for six years and it's probably
at the forefront of whatever we're into - it's an energy chant - it
must have been through a thousand evolutions in character. We've all
changed so much working over here - working with Ronan and everything
- that I don't know what direction our music will take, we'll just have
to wait and see.
What do you think of the more decadent aspects
appearing in rock, like the Stones' current music and Alice Cooper?
The Stones' credibility is suffering for me at the moment
but Alice Cooper really gets to me. Their theatrical aspect is really
fine though the music doesn't quite hit me. They're all good friends
This idea of 'a total performance' seems to
be the way that rock music is going now. After all the progressive crap
and the country rock period we're finally getting back to the real thing.
What's the music scene like in Detroit now?
There's a band called the Brat - 3 black guys and 2 white
guys - they've got it. There was a really fine band called the Rationals.
They were superb and they've now reformed into a band, The Guardian
angel, which is promising. There's Bob Seger - he's written some classics,
and there's Mitch Ryder, of course. The real music seems to be coming
from the big cities now - Detroit and New York.
Yeah, the west coast scene seems to be dying.
The music has got very complacent of late.
I was never into that scene on any real level. I was hearing
these great reports about this band Jefferson Airplane, how they were
burning up all the halls they played at. But when I heard their record
"Somebody to Love" - it's a great lyrical thing but there was no real
drive going for it. The music that made it for us had this characteristic
called "drive": Chuck Berry's music has got it and Tamla Motown had
it too - things like "Dancing in the street" and "Fingertips" - they
were unbelievable. There are still some really creative people at Tamla:
the house bassman James Jameson and Tony Newton and the drummer Pistol
Allen - they've really developed their own expression.
Things are loosening up - the white cats are jamming with the black
session cats and vice versa. We've done 2 or 3 different projects with
black jazz musicians. We've built up orchestras and done all sorts of
material, Coltrane stuff and MC5 stuff. It was fantastic. Personally
I think I'm light years away from coming into my full strength as a
musician and an artist. The band has come nowhere near to getting into
its real strange. It hasn't happened yet. The thing about Trane's music
which at this point I am concerned with is the melody. The rhythm we
have - being a rock group, and rock is 2 or 3 chords with lots of beat
but we're starting to explore melody - expand our harmonic sense and
get away from traditional western music forms to a melodic emotional
sound. Not necessarily a musical phrase - it's hard to discuss, doing
it is one thing but talking about it is another.
What's the immediate direction your music
is going in?
You can't really foretell things like that - that would be
defeating the purpose. I think an important aspect of this direction
is a concept that Ronan has been hipping us to called "Loving awareness"
as opposed to a defensive awareness. When you're born you love everyone
but then your parents and your environment place all these structures
and values on your capacity to love and so it works down you just can't
put restrictions on a thing like that, because if you do by the time
you are 20 or 30 you won't know how to love any more.
This whole thing with Ronan O'Rahilly, how
strong is it?
Oh incredibly strong.
Stronger than your relationship with Sinclair?
I don't think you can put a value on it. The relationship
we have with Ronan is, like, "artist to artist" as opposed to "artist
to manager" or anything like that.
How did you meet?
At Phun City. He was just there and there were all sorts
of hassles about getting groups to play. Like that band Free. They wouldn't
even get out of the car unless they were given money which is ironic
seeing as they're called Free in the first place. But it was a great
gig - we just went on and played, and Ronan dug it. We communicated
by transatlantic phone for 18 months and now we're working on a few
different things. We're doing the sound track to a movie he is producing
as well as working with some other guys on a concert series which could
work out to be a free music thing this summer.
Did the Phun City gig have the same atmosphere
as those early performances you gave at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit?
Well, those gigs were incredible. We used to have what we
called "Spectaculars". Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated and
there was this incredible paranoia we used to play on. We used to burn
the American flag and erect this new flag with "Freak" written on it.
One time,we got a friend of ours to run on stage with a pistol and shoot
Rob who had this bag of blood he'd throw in his face. Unfortunately
the gun didn't go off (laughter).
You had all sorts of problems with the cops
in the States. Were you lucky not to be busted like Sinclair was?
The thing is that the authorities just don't understand the
power of rock music. It's a dead system that doesn't realise that what's
happening in communication - people are opening up to each other, that's
the basic thing.
The whole rock concept is a live performance
; when there are very strong flashes going on between the audience and
musician - it seems the music is feeding on the chaos which arises from
the situation. Jim Morrison built his act around taking this situation
to its extremes. Is that what the MC5 are into?
I think the keyword is anarchy. In that kind of setting,
people can bust out of all the structures placed on them. The way we
build up a song in concert is very anarchistic. I never saw Morrison
live but he was into a very good flow, a very strong direction.
When you are into something really creative and you're expanding constantly,
soon you start to leave the earth. I really believe that one of the
ways to save the planet is through space travel. If we could really
play on Saturn.....but then you reach a point where you do go beyond
everything. I don't believe Trane could have lived any longer. He just
had to die when he did - he had to get beyond this thing to a more spiritual
level - greater space.
Are there any rock bands that hitting the
level that Trane was into?
No, definitely not.
I agree. Coltrane's music is very spiritual
whereas rock is very physical. But surely the whole coming together
of a really inspired rock concert is in a way a spiritual event.
Oh definitively. Absolutely. But on musical terms, there
are no bands hitting the note like Trane did.
What do you think of the Grateful Dead? They're
the only band I can think of who got near to the feel of free jazz in
their more innovative days. The music on 'Live Dead' for example.
Oh yeah, the Dead were into some very heavy territory at
The original Quicksilver too....
I never really listened to them mainly because they refused
to play a gig with us at one the Fillmores. There was always conflict
between our scene and the west coast scene. Bill Graham was very wary
of the MC5.
I've read reports that stated that Rob Tyner
doesn't carry the MC5 in the way that Jagger carries the Stones or Iggy
carried the Stooges.
Well in those case the lead singer's flow is the strongest
in the group, but the MC5 is more of a unit. The creative flows run
crossways instead of forwards ; the band works on a very anarchistic
How do your numbers come together, 'Sister
Anne' ( on 'High Time' ) for example?
Fred (Smith) wrote it, arranged it, and produced it. The
two numbers I wrote I completely arranged one and partly arranged the
other. Dennis' song ('Gotta keep movin') we all arranged that. I wish
we could do that one live on stage but it doesn't quite work. It's a
little too hot to handle.
I really like the idea of the 2 guitar line-up
you have. A single guitarist is usually on an ego trip but 2 guitars
working together can really be creative.
It was a natural situation to begin with. Fred and I function
perfectly - I push him and he pushes me and we run the entire gamut
of our knowledge. We've been playing music together for about ten years.
At the moment I am studying music ; some jazz musicians have been teaching
me new stuff because I need that information for a composition thing,
to give me another perspective in order to work in a linear context.
What are your immediate plans then?
After touring England, we're going to Germany for a few dates.
Then we are going back to the States for 5 weeks to clear out our apartments
and to get rid of our cars and all that shit. All these fucking possessions,
man - I've got more stuff than I need right now on the road. We've also
got to clear up some business with a former manager of ours. We were
almost declared bankrupt but we seem to have gotten over that into the
Is there anything you would like to add to
what you have said already?
Well I just want to stress this thing about communication.
The whole reason for having this interview in the first place is to
get some sort of communication going. In terms of revolution Marx and
Lenin came up with the best idea they could at the time to keep the
people together. They tore off the top strata - you've got the bourgeoisie
and the proletariat - but now that situation doesn't work any more.
Young people can relate to those figures emotionally but in terms of
revolution those concepts are no longer applicable. Then, there was
no TV, no rock bands, no real media to talk about. The terms of the
culture are different now and everything is much more supersonic. Now
we're talking about telepathy whereas the old revolutionaries were talking
about machine guns.
NICK KENT © Frendz-1972