MC5: The Most Radical Band on the Planet
MC5: The Most Radical Band on the Planet
by Cary Loren
“When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” –Plato
TRANS-LOVE+ENERGIES= MC5 / GRANDE BALLROOM
The early Artists Workshop was centered around jazz music and poetry. The year 1966 brought a Sea-change to culture. A psychedelic world had opened the floodgates and transformed the times. Rob Tyner was an early advocate of the Artists Workshop –back in 1965 hanging out at Jazz shows as a young teenager. When John Sinclair came out of prison on his second marijuana conviction, a new long-haired psychedelic planet awaited.
The “Festival of People” took place on Aug. 7, 1966, a day-long affair celebrating the release of Sinclair and the revival of the Artists’ Workshop . The MC5 played at the “Festival of People” beginning late at night, perhaps at 1 AM. John and Leni retired after the third song. “…and then Leni Sinclair came downstairs and pulled the plug. Never happened to us before. We were never censored like that before. Here we were, being censored by a bunch of beatniks. It was weird, we were knocking ourselves out to please.” ( Rob Tyner quoted in The Legends of the MC5)
It took one meeting with Rob Tyner along with Frank Bach to convince Sinclair that the MC5 was offering was something new, radical and powerful. As close to Free Jazz as rock could get. The genius of Tyner was to cross-breed the free-jazz movement to rock and Sinclair’s was to cross-breed rock ‘n roll with radical politics.
They were trying to extend rock and roll into something that had more space for creativity and improvisation. They called themselves avant-rock at the time…They were people that were totally into their music and into trying to make their music more effective and their whole performance aesthetic more complete.… they fused with jazz instead of fusing jazz into rock. So there’s all these different aspects of them that have come down in history…They built a mass following in their hometown. In Detroit, the MC5 was as big as the Rolling Stones. We headlined all the local (bands) show at Olympia Stadium and drew more people than the Beatles… — excerpt from John Sinclair interview on MC5 on Furious.com Perfect Sound Forever
Trans-Love Energies was born when Sinclair shared a peace offering joint between Rob Tyner and Frank Bach as they listened to Cecil Taylor. A year later, Trans-Love became a nontraditional business conglomerate of various bands, light shows, artists, underground newspapers, posters and head-shops. Sinclair saw the burgeoning potential for rock music as a vehicle for radical change and action. As full-time manager of the MC5, “the most radical band on the planet,” and with the antiwar movement in full swing, John recognized this time as being the prime opportunity to “indoctrinate” “turn-on” and freakize American youth. Fusing a strange brew of radical politics, outsider culture, poetry, free-jazz, sex and dope (marijuana) with rock and roll and communal attitude became Sinclair’s focus. His efforts went toward educating and radicalizing the youth movement growing out like a weed. There was work to do. Tyner and Sinclair saw the MC5 as the perfect vehicle; compressed energy, a weapon of culture and free expression. A message shot from the darkness.
The music of the MC5 is the city / The city is meat and energy in motion / And sound / And the sound is the MC5
–John Sinclair, WORK/5
The opening of the Grande Ballroom (October 7th, 1966) kicked the Midwest psychedelic movement into gear. In the summer of ’66 rock entrepreneur, school teacher and WKNR-FM radio personality “Uncle” Russ Gibb [Uncle Greed some say] saw the possibilities of the exploding hippie movement during a visit to Bill Graham’s newly opened San Fransisco, Fillmore Ballroom. He then commissioned one of the largest strobe lights ever to be built, and installed it in the Grande Ballroom on Joy and Grand Boulevard in Detroit. The Grande was a 1920s dancehall, designed in faux-Arabic Moorish style revival; with an oriental wooden dance floor set on springs; it oozed baroque plaster ornamentation, intricate mosaic tiles and large arched doorways. It quickly and logically made a conversion into Detroit’s first rock palace. Sinclair saw a partnership in the offing and installed the MC5 at the Grande as the “peoples” band.
Russ Gibb said, “The first day 50 people showed up. The next week it was 100, then 500.” Every weekend the scene exploded and waves of local bands appeared. Gary Grimshaw’s poster art celebrated the scene and soon branded the MC5 into a cultural artifact, propaganda art that flourished under the direction of the White Panthers. Groups like the Rationals, Savage Grace, The Frost, The Scott Richards Case, the Psychedelic Stooges, and the Frut would find a home on the Grande’s stage. Word spread to the predominate white suburbs and overflowing crowds stormed the ballroom every weekend; crazed rebellious kids on LSD and marijuana searching for a way out of the mowed lawns and wire fences in the suburbs.
The Grande attracted international rock bands like The Who, Cream, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother. It was a rite of passage for touring bands. A Detroit audience was the litmus test. They made howling foot-stomping noise, showing a rowdy love for the music. The MC5 played almost every weekend, earning $125 a week, a figure that never changed even as they were packing the ballroom, opening for international acts, and often blowing them off stage. Russ Gibb supplied the space and bookings and Trans-Love Energies created the scene and the light-shows; tapping into an explosion of teenage boomers herding into the city.
PLUM STREET (Detroit’s bid for a flower-power neighborhood) and the Grande offered youth an exotic destination, an escape into urban-life and rock music untamed. “A dance in the San Francisco style” stated the ads. During the 1967 Detroit riots, Uncle Russ wondered why the Grande was spared, when other buildings around it were torched. A group of neighborhood kids said, well because man, that’s where the music is happening.
“Let me put it as simply as I can: I was probably even more deeply influenced by Tyner’s thought and practice than he was by my own,and –with the possible exception of Thompson–so was the rest of the band.” –John Sinclair, Reprise in The MetroTimes
Like every other band, the MC5 evolved out of a garage rock aesthetic, but from their embrace of avant-jazz and roots music, the MC5 became music ambassadors; a bridge to black culture. Both John Sinclair and Rob Tyner came off the same page, passing on their love for avant-jazz– the energy of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra through the MC5 into the public. Rob Derminer changed his name to Tyner after his jazz hero: pianist McCoy Tyner. This avant-garde vision of the band was in his game plan from the beginning. Tyner who was a great jazz fan, spent his teen years hitting jazz clubs and sneaking into the Artist Workshop SUnday events to hear live poetry and jazz. Tyner was a dedicated driven force–committed to social justice and change.
Sun Ra, Ayler and Coltrane represented the stratosphere of musical ideas. Sinclair initiated contact with Sun Ra in 1965, when he traveled to New York City to conduct an interview for an early issue of the Warren/Forest Sun newspaper. Sun Ra and his Solar Myth Arkestra represented a parallel mind-set to the Artists’ Workshop; they practiced do-it-yourself aesthetics; ignored mainstream distribution and held disciplined work ethics. Sun Ra’s Arkestra also lived and worked communally since the early 1960s; first in Chicago, New York and then settling in Philadelphia.
On their first album, the MC5 gave tribute to Sun Ra by including his poetry: There is a land Where the sun shines eternally, Eternally eternal: Out in outer space a living blazing fire…
Sinclair hosted several concerts by Sun Ra and the band often camped out at the White Panther Hill Street house in Ann Arbor. This influence of jazz on the MC5 is well documented. What is interesting is how they took that passion; that spiritual quality of jazz, putting it over into rock ‘n roll. Fred “Sonic” Smith constructed his own theory about music and its wave construction. When playing solos ‘Sonic’ Smith visualized a spectrometer; watching sound waves as images cresting up and down on a graph. Smith saw the universe constructed as sound and he visualized these waves.
There is a land
Whose being is almost unimaginable to the
On a clear day,
We stand there and look farther than the
ordinary eye can see.
Far above the roof of the world,
We can encompass vistas of the worlds.
There is a land
Where the sun shines eternally . . .
Out in outer space
A living blazing fire,
So vital and alive . . .
There is no need to describe its splendor.
HIGH TIME : AN ANIMAL THING
The Ramones were indebted to the intense style and high powered antics of Detroit bands like the MC5, Up and Stooges. They often cited Back in the USA as a blueprint and seminal influence. The working class patched and torn uniforms of Patti Smith, the Ramones and Dead Boys were worn everyday by Iggy 7-10 years earlier; a ragged street style that said “fuck-off” to store bought goods. Sigrid Dobart and Becky Derminer helped the MC5 develop a strange array of over-the-top freaky costumes; using glitter, spangles, tight sewn-on jeans and torn American flags; twisted American folk-art wear. Dobart and Derminer found their materials in second hand stores. Years before glitter rock surfaced, the MC5 and Alice Cooper were blending rock into raw theater with costumes and choreographed stage moves.
The MC5 went beyond British pomp when Sigrid Dobart put together a superhero space suit for her husband, guitarist Fred Smith –a silver space-suit that put to shame the future Glitter-rockers of the ’70s. Smith debuted his space helmut and cape at the Michigan State Fairgrounds and it can be seen on the cover of High Time.
“I was disgusted with ’em… I didn’t understand it. It was kind of a menacing thing. They’d gone outside the format… Fred Smith in a spaceman outfit?!? I thought they’d lost their fuckin’ minds! … it was inauthentic,” said John Sinclair, who saw this as a negative development.
The punk scene in both Europe (British punk) and America can be seen as inspired and fueled by a handful of high-octane albums from the motor city. The influence of Detroit rock on late 1980s New York and Seattle noise bands also known as shoe-gazers, for their pose of often staring at the ground, shouldn’t be underestimated. By using noise and “controlled feedback”, the MC5 took rock to its outside limits. Early performances by the Stooges had nothing to do with rock. They were experimental happenings. The MC5 performed the soundtrack for the Living Theater’s Paradise Now, taking it to the edge of free rock. Too extreme for their manager Sinclair, who was now weary and disgusted by where the band was going.
BlACK TO COMM : RE-ENTRY
The MC5 ended each set with a free-form sonic weirdness called Black to Comm— a Fred Smith/Rob Tyner freekout, balls-to-the-walls Avant-rock that ended with JC Crawford, Fred Smith and John Sinclair wailing with saxophone honks, the audience stripping down, dancing wildly on stage, flags burning, shredding guitar riffs, feed-backing in swirling loops.
Tyner named the song after the wired connections on the back of the PA system–and he also invented the art of taking a solo on the microphone; messing with the squealing piercing feedback that happened when he’d point the mic into speaker cabinets. Wayne Kramer said, “We could clear the room in 30 seconds when we played Black to Comm… and that’s when we realized we were onto something.”
I felt it in my group, you know, like “unhhh, unnhhh, I’m cooking,” and POW! – one night we EXPLODED. We didn’t care if the people dug it or not, and musically we just exploded. We used to do our “avant” numbers as sort of unleashing a monster on the crowd – we didn’t even care if they liked it, we hoped they hated it, because we were killing them, we were shooting them down with these monstrous amplifiers and we just didn’t care. We were obnoxious. We’d get up and do all of our tunes, and then at the end, we’d COME. –Rob Tyner (from a Sun interview with John Sinclair)
Patti Smith was introduced to Fred Smith through her guitarist Lenny Kaye in 1976; and she based her LP Radio Ethiopia on Black to Comm. Bands under the influence of the MC5 are too numerous to list, but one solid upfront quotation came from experimental rockers Sonic Youth–best known for their oddly tuned droning feedback and high-energy noise squall. They adopted their name from Fred “Sonic” Smith as an homage . SY went on to influence countless other she-gazer bands, including the noise-rock supergroup Nirvana. In his published diaries, Cobain cited his top favorite albums of all time as; Raw Power and Kick Out the Jams.
Avant-Rock was an expression of liberation; a fusion of protean noise and protest; the noise of adolescence breaking out and breaking apart. The extreme edge of sonic improv. Rock and roll in a garage or basement is a rite of passage. Guitars, drums and amplifiers are instruments easily found and not difficult to play. After the breakup of the Stooges and MC5 in the early ’70s –other reactive groups carried on in the same tradition of avant-rock and industrial noise; Throbbing Gristle, Destroy All Monsters, and the LAFMS all used noise strategies carried to the outer-limits –making their own instruments, using blenders, toys, drills and electric shavers; borrowing from free jazz, street musicians and out-rockers. In the late ’80s another off-shoot of avant-rock happened out of Japan with bands like the Boredoms, Keiji Heino, Merzbow and others–using computers, condenser microphones placed in the mouth, psychedelic feedback and electronic waste shattering sonic barriers. Aggression in rock music never dies. It gets reborn again as something ugly, radical and incomprehensible.
The techno movement was a reaction away from intensity and high-energy; it provided a mask of coolness, an electronic pool of bliss; it gives you a satisfying sense of “control” and regularity verses Avant-Rock’s barbaric “out-of-control” madness and freedom. Minimalism vs. Maximalism. The driving beats of techno are virtual ones; juiced up computer algorithms, New Age music repackaged and sold as dance grooves for a new consumer-addicted generation.
The beauty of the techno underground is the invisibility of the barrier between man and machine; it produces predictability, consumerist values and asexuality: a grey box that denies community . There’s no longer the need to study the form or hold an instrument. Fingers are for pushing buttons. Music for the matrix. In techno, the rawness and identity of the human voice is neutered, desexualized, cut off, unnecessary and removed. Improvisation is pushing a button, switch or slider. The unity of the group or community dissolves into a single consciousness; focused and packaged musical fascism. Rock Action is dead.
When voices are used in techno or electronic music (and they rarely are) they are often “treated” –a mechanical tool; non-emotional, robotic and flattened, made ambient with over-layering, compression or phased effects. On the downside are the adopted fads and fashions; ambient electronica and dance club scenes reminiscent of the highly consumerist disco era. New music is the domain of elite sound architects; the wizards who create software and sell their inventions on laptops and cell phone. Music as a cheap byproduct of electronic software, where human energy has been gamed and sold. It is the cool reaction to the sweat and sex that once set rock n’ roll free: The Human Being Lawn Mower: CHOP,CHOP, CHOP CHOP, CHOP, CHOP. CHOP…
“… Tyner was himself a radical firebrand and a charismatic frontman who sang fervent pleas from the stage urging people to rise against the government..and its human being lawnmower of a system..” – John Sinclair
The MC5 wanted to shatter chains and prisons: break down jail house doors, ending all the games with their high energy jams! Guitar cords, raw screams and Black to Comm. Where is rebellion and emotion in our current sea of blind happiness inc. and American Idol? Nothing Is. (as Sun Ra said) The Red Squads are now underground, holy invisible! Seek and download. And remember those words of wisdom spoken during 9/11, when President Bush told us all to go shop our way out of a crisis. The MC5, rest their souls –gave the rest of us a clue, where music and revolution could take us.
“People of tomorrow we salute you… Thunder in the night forever!” –Rob Tyner
[Cary Loren 2005/ revised 2014]