"Rough trade from Venus"
by Chris Hodenfield
The obvious question : "He's drinking?"
Thompson : "Yeah, well, look at it this way, we're a band that came right out on the big time. And all the gigs in the States have been getting tough lately, and now we're trying to make a comeback. It gets hard sometimes man."
It started in Detroit. The city had been pumping out hard rock, and the MC5 were acknowledged as one of the best. Surely, they were the loudest. Beginning of 1968, they were staying in a commune in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Impressionable kid Eris Ehrman comes up for an interview. The MC5 jack him full of dope, lecture him hard on the merits of teenage lusts, and send him home, wide-eyed and gaping. Kid Ehrman writes a story and sends it to Rolling Stone magazine. Sensational story of an unleashed rock band. Dope, Revolution and Thrills Very Cheap.
Sensational. It was mostly Kid Ehrman's fantasy, but nevertheless (who knew?), it was sensational. (Says Fred Smith, "He did know we were onto something and he did write about us...but he was just a stupid kid. It was distortions. I wanted to beat his ass for a while after that.")
Not too long after that story, the New York Fillmore was accosted by a gang of self-acclaimed revolutionaries, the East Village Motherfuckers. The MC5 played the subsequent free night given them at the Ballroom. Time Magazine covered it...and there was a picture of Rob Tyner in gold lame with that Revolutionary band...the MC5...and now all of Middle America knew.
But where to now? This is their reputation. They have a past, but what do they follow up their act with? Maybe they'll have a hit single. This would complete their qualifications, and Melody Maker would ask , "Are the MC5 selling out?"
For their recent trip to England, they drew packed houses. A phenomenal amount of world-of-mouth preceded them, and most of it concerned Revolution. It was a phase they passed through two years ago, but that's no matter. Revolution is a Now subject. That a band should live, breathe, eat, sleep, osmose rock'n'roll...it's simply not as sensational. The sociological derivations of rock'n'roll, as we know, are the hot rods and the high schools and the speed and the clan machines and the first warnings that the Kids were taking over.
Or so everybody acted. Still, it was energy. None of this gossy epic progressive music. Rock'n'Roll ! Maybe the MC5 isn't the most original band in the USA. But they are totally USA. And Detroit is in the middle of that with the automobile factories, the muscle. Motown came out of Detroit. And Motown translates " Motor City ". Beyond those factories out there are drag races and kids in supercars loaded up with 427-cubic-inch, four-on-the-floor, cheater-slicked exhaust-stacked rumble and groan.
The nearest equivalent in England is Birmingham, the city that gave us the Move, Black Sabbath, the Uglies and half of the Led Zeppelin. All loud, unsubtle, gutsy bands. From Detroit, the MC5, the Stooges, Catfish, Amboy Dukes, SRC, Bob Seger System and the fading memories of Mitch Ryder.
"I hate to use the word", says Fred Smith, "but there is kind of a Detroit scene. I mean, some bands are schlock, but in terms of rock and roll, there's no doubt that it's one of the most productive cities in the United States. You can go into most cities, New York or San Fransisco, and as far as that city producing a home band...you won't find much. They've all gone to California or someplace to join a band."
The MC5 started nearly a decade ago, coming from such supergroups as the Vibratones, Jeff and the Atlantics, and the suprateen band, the Raydells. Fred Smith, Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson, at 13, banded together in the Bounty Hunters, and started right in on the heavy culture songs of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. (That's "culture" in the young-man-blues sense or "counter-culture" in the Now sense.) And then the heavy instrumentals like "Boss" by the Rumblers and "409" by the Beach Boys.
Sidemen came and went. People who dug Bobby Vinton and Bobby Vee had no place with the Bounty Hunters. A teenage band of rough-housers. "We used to play at school, y'know? And after school, we'd play at parties. And then we'd play for drinks or something, or just play for the hell of it." A teenage band. Paying dues.
At 15, Wayne and Fred met Rob Tyner in high school. Tyner was the school weirdo. Fifteen years old, and he wanted to be an artist. Every Saturday he'd go down to the park at ten o'clock and paint Weird-Oh shirts for the kids. And Weird-Oh shirts are as Detroit-Americana as you can get, a craze started by the king of kustom kars, Big Daddy Roth. The t-shirts would have some fantastic ghoul-headed character in an open hot-rod with big smoking slick tires and a hand grabbing the stick-shift a mile up in the air. The legend would say, "Mother's Worry" or "Powered by Ford". All this spray-painted in day-glo green and orange. Precursor to the psychedelic generation. They were called Weird-Oh shirts. And Rob Tyner used to paint them for the kids in Lincoln Park on Saturday at ten o'clock.
"He didn't have too many friends", says Smith, "he was kind of weird guy. He just drew shirts and was into weirdness, y'know. But we all liked him."
Then Rob decided he had to get into this school hero band, the Bounty Hunters. Remembers Smith, "He had this idea, Rob did, that he wanted to manage a rock'n'roll band. He was only 17...or 16...so he got in touch with us. He said he could get us a couple of gigs and we didn't think much of it, but he said he could do it. So we thought what the hell and we said get the gigs. And he never got any gigs. And he was trying to get into the band, y'know? So we started getting it together and he bought a bass guitar and Rob started playing bass for our band and he played bass for about two months and he was a horrible bass player and finally we said to hell with this, he can't do it, he just ain't got it going doom-boom-dum-bum. He just didn't have it. But one thing we found out was, that he could sing."
They started out wearing green corduroy jackets and ponderosa shirts. And then in 1965, the Bounty Hunters matured into the MC5. In 1966, they, like god-knows-how-many millions, began to turn on. Enter bassist Mike Davis (the grandaddy of the band at 27, to everyone else's 22). "We met him wandering down the streets of Detroit with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. He'd just got back from New York where he'd been for six months starving, and he was looking for a place to stay." The band made a fast shuffle, took him off to their commune, and solidified as the present MC5.
The green corduroy jackets and ponderosa shirts gave way to barbarian suits. That changed to the sparkle kings, and Fred Smith became Sonic Smith. Then the fetish outfit stage. And then...then, as described by Dennis Thompson, there was the Rough Trade from Venus stage.
JOHN FLIPPED OUT
Outside of Chuck Berry, their strongest career influence must have been John Sinclair. He moulded them, in a sense, was their first real hard-nose manager and probably was the one to change them from unhip esoteric to Hip Esoteric. And in Detroit, Sinclair was the standard by which underground hip was measured. For one, he'd been busted twice for dope by that time, and when the Five moved into town in 1967, Sinclair was just finishing off six months in the sweat house.
"John was a poet, music critic, musician and founder of the Artist workshop in Detroit, which is where all the hip people came every Sunday." says Smith. "He'd just gotten out of jail, everyone was happy to see him." At the party, the poets read and the musicians played, except these people weren't too into rock and roll. Most of them were jazz musicians. They saved us untill last. So it's about three in the morning and somebody from upstairs pulls the plug on us, which we thought was strange. These people were supposed to be the hippest people and they were unplugging us because we were too loud. So we said to hell with this crap, and packed up our stuff and split."
After this, Sinclair wrote a column in an underground paper, the Fifth Estate, which downgraded rock and roll. The MC5 wrote back, arguing their validity. Sinclair answers, saying Coltrane and Miles Davis were where it was at. After five weeks of this, they met for a showdown. The result: "John flipped out over the music we were playing", Fred shines, "and he started writing letters to all the papers saying how great we were." In a year, he was their manager, and the Five moved into his commune.
Sinclair gave them politics and the White Panther party. He influenced them with his jazz records, and the result was 'high energy rock'. When they recorded the first album Kick Out The Jams, the only records they were playing at the house were Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane. Free music, third world music, explosive energy movement music.
But the world, paying attention to the flying hype, was waiting for something different. The album hit the stands in 1968, at a time when rock fans accepted Traffic's or BS&T's occasional be-bop lick as their testimonial to jazz. But nothing more. Cream was getting 'free' indeed, but it wasn't accepted as such. And then the MC5? All that noise? All that free crap!?
(One of the few people I ever heard say anything good about that album was a friend who stayed up all night and listened to it, full blast through his ear phones, and bombed on acid. He couldn't hear too well for a couple of days after that, but it made a new man out of him.)
YOU PEOPLE SWORE
The politics of the band was ahead of its day. At concerts, J.C.Crawford would come out and introduce the band by screaming and haranguing, "Getting down to it!". And then the band would come bolting up and plug straight in and Rob Tyner would be charging them up, "Time has come, brothers and sisters! Time has come for you to decide whether you are going to be the problems or you are going to be the solutions!"
It was a real Reichstag party. The cops knew about it too. I mean, those kids don't go in there getting hopped up like that and then talk about peace and love. Nossirree.
Two kids started hanging out at Sinclair's commune. Dressed in hip threads. Kinda long hair. After pestering Sinclair for a little smoke of dope, he finally gave them a couple of joints. Hah Hah, coincidence, in through the door came the law.
The state of Michigan requires by law that if a person is busted on narcotics for a third time, then no less than nine-and-a-half years in the can will do. But, as consolation, no more than 10 are really necessary. While the case was hanging in court, the Five went to play a local club. The law moved in again. Sonic Smith relates: "This crap-ass club-owner had promised us so much money, and then he had it worked out with the cops outside the club that if we said 'fuck' as in 'Kick out the jams motherfucker', then he would come on stage and cut the power off."
"So we said it. And these cops came up, about six state police and some rent-a-cops. There were about 15 cops there that night, and they closed the show. They said, "You people swore, and that kind of crap, and tried to kick us out of the joint."
Smith and Sinclair started to argue that they wouldn't leave without the money and got arrested for assaulting an officer of the law. Fred got four days, Sinclair got six months. While they were at it the State dragged out his dope case and handed him ten years. He's in the can right now. (I once wrote the governor of Michigan about repealing that mandatory sentence law. He replied to me, and it was a bold testimonial of ambivalence. He said, in essence, that the judicial, the executive and the legislative departments were all different sections of the state government. So what could he, a mere executive, do to infuence anyone else. Case closed.)
"They were waiting to bust John for a long time" the Five maintain, "because they thought he was the leader of the hip community and if they could bust him, then it would all fall apart. Which it didn't.
"But, you know, this is the kind of crap the band was going through at the time."
It's also what made them the kind of band they are. This was when the world took note. They took in a few setbacks from the business, too. A few undergroundies started to badmouth them. Elektra Records took their album off the stands to take the obscenities off the inside cover. The MC5 took out an ad in a newspaper to publicly slam a record store that wouldn't stock their album, and then used the Elektra masthead and charged the whole thing to the company. Elektra said Hold On, and then fired them. Atlantic Records snatched them up.
DEFECATING IN SEATTLE
The MC5's reputation was assured. They drifted from the Sinclair commune to their own, out on a country farm. Now, after three years of living in each other's armpits, they live separate. Like several other bands that were victims of hype, they went back to their music. Back In The U.S.A. was intended as an all-out no-crap album, each cut a dynamic three-minute power display. They have great respect for the idea of urgency. Of getting it said and done with.
Still, people seem to remember that they are revolutionaries. All that jive. It was once wrongly reported in the underground weeklies that Rob Tyner defecated on stage in Seattle. Defecated. In Seattle!
("Y'know", says Thompson, "we were the only band to play at the Chicago
convention". Didn't Chicago Transit Authority? I ask. "Naaah", says
Tyner. "They weren't even together then." At this point, Wayne Kramer
begins to sing.)
What kind of stuff do they have to deal with?
At one point in an interview with Smith, a busy-busy guy comes marching in for a radio interview. Long hip hair, but dressed in tweeds. He talked like a regular fellow until his microphone was turned on. Then it was hello- there-la-deez-and-gentlemen smiles and personality oozing from every pore.
"Doug Crawford here, with our Detroit group the MC5...The Motor City
Five. Fred Smith, you're a revolutionary group, aren't you?"
(He said, speaking with such clear David Frost enunciation.)
They are "aware" of upheaval and revolution about as much as you and I. Still, they are good at opening concerts with lines like "We're not here for talking and politics. We're here for rock and roll!!"
And then comes that rock sound, bringing home memories of the early Velvet Underground, the STP-drenched thunder of the Who, the youthful hot rodisms of the Beach Boys, even Bo Diddley. And when they introduce a number, "Waaaall, here's a number from all the boys in the band, dedicated to all of yew out there." It passes right over the heads of the youthful progressive rockers who didn't spend their Saturday nights at the local dance.
But then, what can be next? Technical improvements? A lot of people are just getting turned on to the idea of this "full scale energy assault" rock and roll, and there's no album on a record player going to replace the antics of Wayne Kramer and Rob Tyner vaulting around on stage like a couple of methedrine queens and all the sweat, showbiz, sock and shazam that goes with it. When in England, they finished off the recording of their third album by doing "Sister Ann", the story of a nymphomanic nun. (This is not to be confused with the equally salacious "Sister Ray", by the Velvet Underground.)
Again, it doesn't smack of terrific originality, but it's further into their amalgamation of classic and "virile" rock and roll, drawn from the very pages of history.
Their recent tour was a shambles, comprised largely of false promises by the Phun City promoters for gigs and money. Of their four shows, only one was in their best form of theatre : the outdoor stage. People got turned on. Another tour is planned for November. Maybe their next album will be a well-produced piece of dynamite. A few people have said things like "they're a dead group...won't go anywhere new," while others are spiritually uplifted.
"Got to have the urgency," says Smith. "Even Led Zeppelin had a hit with 'Whole Lotta Love,' but it was a short version with all the long middle part taken out. It's got to be there from the beginning to the end. All the urgency."
A rock writer once reported that the "jams" they referred to in their slogan song was an obvious reference to a 1950's rhythm and blues term, "Jive Ass Motherfuckers". But Tyner has definite ideas otherwise. "We made that up ourselves. It was supposed to be about these English bands that come up and jam around on stage, y'know. So we'd say, kick out the jams. Get off, we wanna hear some rock and roll!"
Nevertheless, they seem to be in a different place than they were a year ago. Think they have a lot of energy now? A year ago, their act had the split-second timing of a chorus-girl line. One person would have the spotlight, then the next. Like prize fighters or vaudeville jugglers. And, further, they explain that if they did the kind of act now for the English that they were two years ago nobody would ever get over it. Their outdoor show at Phun City showed them close to their old standards, but the club dates, in the claustrophobic scene-maker joints, they took their time. Horsed around some. Evenseemed to be jamming. It wasn't self-serving foolishness, but then it wasn't urgency.
Like nearly every other no-jive lotsa-rocks band, they come from the fists and the beer cans of the working lower-middle class. And when you turn on that Victrola 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.
Reprinted by permission of the author