Michael Davis-bass, Wayne Kramer-guitar, Fred ‘sonic’ Smith-guitar, Dennis Thompson-drums, and Rob Tyner-vocals are the MC5. Together, they were the hardcore of late-60s musical revolution in the American Midwest.
In the fall of 1965, they create an explosive electric music that will put them in the forefront of the radical scene in their native Detroit. They’re backed-up by an artist’s collective later called Trans Love Energies, and quickly become its symbolic figurehead. They’re the embodiment of an extravagant group, subversive and totally hip!
By 1966, they’ve become the resident band in the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, a former 30s dance hall where, every weekend, hundreds of kids live the MC5 experience. Unforgettable.
Their second single, " Borderline/Looking At You ", comes out in early 1968. It finds its way to Elektra Records’ " in-house hippy " ("A&R man at Elektra in charge of that new rock'n'roll) in NY, where local papers have already written about the MC5’s reputation. 1968 is also the year where they run into a lot of trouble with the authorities. They nevertheless sign a contract with Elektra in September 1968, and record their first album, " Kick Out The Jams " a month later.
This album, recorded at the Grande Ballroom, documents a live MC5 performance. The group’s sound is powerful, and terrifying for the uninitiated. The album perfectly displays their varied influences - pure energy, improvisation, and a lot of feedback and drive. As a matter of fact, Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis have the innate ability to make the band assault the audience in the same way soulsters and free-jazz players can work their magic. Fred Smith and Wayne Kramer are possessed of a redoubtable complicity with their intertwining guitar playing, and Rob Tyner tops it off with his provocative lyrics.
Following several incidents, the East Coast tour set-up to promote the album turns into a publicity disaster for the band. They’ve become targets for the ire of concert promoters as well as the police when they decide to travel to the West Coast. By mutual agreement, the contract with Elektra is voided.
Atlantic Records welcomes them immediately. But the new contract forces the band to take a long hard look at itself. They come out of their cocoon and move away from their original entourage. Released in January 1970, the second album, " Back in the USA " is, formally speaking, the exact opposite of their first one. It is raw, smashing rock’n’roll; leaving no room to improvisation or imprecision. In the process, they learn to be more rigorous in their song-writing and to depend on nobody but themselves. The audience, however, is disoriented by this about-face, and the lack of organizational logistics bring the band slowly to disintegrate. They will go into European exile several times between 1970 and 1972.
Their last album, " High Times ", comes out in July 1971. We feel the MC5 are free again, having perfectly mastered their subject matter. It’s a perfect mix of " Kick Out The Jams " and " Back In The USA ". In spite of the album’s excellence, the reviews are mediocre and Atlantic doesn’t renew their contract. The band falls apart, Michael Davis leaves, followed by Dennis Thompson and Rob Tyner in 1972.
Since then, twenty or so of their songs have been covered by more than a hundred bands, and a recently released movie (MC5*A True Testimonial) tells their tale. Often imitated but never equaled, they inspire respect from their contemporaries and can still arouse passion. In 1970, Chris Hodenfield wrote: " ...when you turn on that turntable, kid, you immediately become lower class. Not pop, not folkie, not country, but rock, the street level, the tasteless, the vulgar. I wouldn’t wish the MC5 to aspire to greater heights, to grow into superb musical philosophers. Keep them as they are: the tuff guys - 1970 style. "
Today, history shows us that the MC5 have remained an enduring musical influence to the various musical waves that have " resensified " rock’n’roll ever since the 70s, from the NY and London punk scenes, passing through Sidney and Seattle, or more recently Scandinavia and Detroit. Recognition may come to pass with a spot in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.
(c)2003 by Francois Hostal
Translated by Michel Polizzi. Check his Photos and Images, Voyages en Inde et Italie, Radio Playlists, record reviews and musical nonsense! at http://mpol1.free.fr/index1.htm