Well cats’n’ kittens, I was asked to write a column about all the old music that I’ve been spending so much time listening to over the last few years, so here goes…..
First off, the story of the MC5, a much celebrated band by many who came later, from Motorhead to Black Flag to a whole slew of others, this band was basically uncelebrated in their prime, which is usually the case. A lot of those who name the 5 as one of their main influences went on to have some success (not all, but a lot).
Founding members Wayne Kramer, Fred “Sonic” Smith and Rob Tyner, with rhythm section Pat Burrows on bass and Bob Gaspar on drums, the band started its existence around 1965. There’s some recorded bits and pieces that are available on various compilations on various labels, and it’s pretty good stuff, although quite similar to what was happening at that time, with bands like The Who, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and Blue Cheer.
However, it’s a few years later, with the rhythm section of Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson on drums and Michael Davis on bass, and their association with John Sinclair, a Detroit poet and hippie with a commune known as Trans Love Energies, that they made their mark with performances at the Grande Ballroom and their 1969 release of Kick Out The Jams, their only release for Elektra Records, a live album recorded over 2 nights at the Grande in Oct. 1968.
Having been released during the tumultuous summer of ’69, they were right in the midst of the hippie movement. But, being from Detroit, this was not your typical San Francisco styled psychedelic band.
Their music was much more aggressive and visceral. From the opening strains of Ramblin’ Rose to the final notes of Starship, it laid waste to anything else happening at the time.
Stories of their performances at the Grande are legendary. Opening for such heavyweights of the time such as Big Brother and The Holding Company, Cream and others. Those who saw them speak of how they would blow the headliners away as an opening act; and it’s not hard to believe when you listen to what they were doing at that time.
Then, there was the unfortunate circumstance involving Hudson’s. Hudson’s was a Michigan retail store who refused to stock the album due to the writing in the gatefold about revolution and debauchery. The band’s response to this was to take out a full-page ad in a local underground paper that used the Elektra logo with the words “Fuck Hudson’s” under it. Hudson’s in turn, threatened to remove all Elektra product. Elektra was upset that the band used its logo in the ad, so they released the band from their contract, leaving them without a label.
Enter Atlantic Records, and Jon Landau, a rep for the company who had never produced an album before this. In 1970 the band released their first album for Atlantic called Back In The USA. The album, though thin sounding, has some of the band’s best songs such as American Ruse, Human Being Lawnmower, Tonight and Shakin’ Street. Also at this time, internal strife and drug use was tearing the band apart.
They toured a lot and while in the UK, started preparing to record their 2nd album for Atlantic, High Time. This album, released in 1971, was much better sounding than the previous effort, probably due to being co-produced by the band and Atlantic staff engineer Geoffrey Haslam and also has some prime cuts such as Skunk (Sonically Speaking), Poison, Over And Over and Gotta Keep Movin’.
Neither of the Atlantic albums sold well and before long, the band was once again without a label.
In the UK again, the band’s bad habits were catching up with them, and they had to let go of Michael Davis, who wasn’t showing up for rehearsals and just seemed generally disinterested in the band.
He was first replaced by Steve “Annapurna”Moorhouse, then Derek Hughes. They went back to the US for some shows, then as they were getting ready for another UK run, singer Rob Tyner said he wasn’t going to go. Fred Smith went to see him and apparently a fistfight occurred and the problem was not solved.
Not long after that, Dennis Thompson also announced his departure, leaving just 2 original members. Wayne Kramer, Fred Smith and Derek Hughes hired a drummer for some Scandinavian shows, which by all accounts were disastrous. A video circulates of a show in Finland, and it’s not hard to see why people were disappointed. So home they went.
A final show at the Grande in 1972, with all 5 members of the classic line up was played. Poor attendance and general malaise with the situation made the show lackluster and midway through the set, Kramer walked offstage, never to return. And that was the end of the MC5.
This is a short version of the story. There are great resources out there if you want to dig deeper. It’s worth the effort.
MC5 Gateway – http://makemyday.free.fr/mc5.htm
MC5 A True Testimonial – unreleased documentary. Look around, if you find it it’s worth the hunt.
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