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The Mighty Motor City Five

Let me be who I am, and let me kick out the jams!”


In my last post I described what really makes a groupie, well, a groupie. The most basic definition is someone who hangs out with groups. But there’s so much more to it. True groupies love the music, the happenings, and that indelible creative force that lights up the air around musicians like static electricity. A groupie wants to be as immersed in that energy as they can, even if it means partaking in the un-glamorous activities like helping load equipment after a show. Anything to be close to those who drive the music. And that is exactly the way I love music. For me, it's not enough to just hear the music.


So this begs the question: which band would I have been a true, old-school groupie for? Who do I find fascinating enough that I’d seek them out after every show just to know how they make those instruments sound like that and where do the lyrics come from and how do you all play together so well, all while trying my hardest not to make goo-goo eyes? The frontman whose photo is framed on my perfume tray is a pretty big hint. (Hey, every girl is allowed her favorite!) Not Morrison, not Plant, and not Sir Mick Jagger.


Let me introduce you to the hell-raisers of late ’60s Detroit: the mighty MC5.


Pictured: The classic MC5 lineup in all their glory, photographed by Charlie Auringer. From L-R: Michael Davis who looks like a completely different person in literally every photograph I see of him, Wayne Kramer, Robin Tyner, Dennis Thompson and Fred Smith.


The MC5 was a powerhouse rock-and-roll band based in Michigan from 1964-ish to 1972. The classic lineup consisted of guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith, bassist Michael Davis, Dennis Thompson on drums, and Rob Tyner on vocals and occasional harmonica. Gotta love a man who can play a mean harmonica; listen to personal favorite “Look What You’ve Done” for proof.

For brevity's sake, I'll be covering the better-known history of the group; from their rise to fame/infamy through their debut record.


The enduring legacy of the MC5 is that of an incredible live band. The only way it can be described is pure power! It was rock-and-roll! And they could get a crowd moving. Before long, they became a staple of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. The Grande was meant to be a counterpart to Bill Graham’s Fillmore venues; the East and West Coast’s premier hippie haunts. But with this group present it was a lot more firepower than flower power. Their performances were the stuff of legend. The pure electricity will shock you even through the crummiest of bootlegged recordings (which you've gotta get used to in order to become a frequent listener.) I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to see that; to be in those crowds stunned totally stupid by what they were hearing!


Pictured: MC5 playing to a full house, featuring a sequin jacket I would 1000% steal if the mistake of leaving it unattended was made.


They outdid just about every group they ever opened for at the Grande. And that was no easy feat, seeing as headliners included Cream, The Who, Procol Harum and The Yardbirds. They were even slated to open for Big Brother and the Holding Company...keyword “were.”


Get this: they backed out. According to Jerry Goodwin, a DJ at WKNR-AM in Detroit during the Grande's heyday, Janis and the rest of Big Brother refused to take the stage after whatever explosive show the MC5 had given. "I think her words were, 'No fucking way.'"


Yes yes yes. This would’ve been one hell of a group to roll with.

The MC5’s reputation as formidable performers – the kings of the Grande – soon piqued the attention of Elektra Records. But had they met their match? Oh, the antics to come!


Pictured: It appears we have the predecessor to the “London Calling moment” here...(photographed by Leni Sinclair, 1969)


There’s one huge component you can’t leave out when covering the brief but explosive history of the MC5, and that is the politics. This is what ultimately made them too "edgy" for the music industry at this time. The band was taken under the wing of the White Panther Party, a radical-left-wing anti-racist group based in the Motor City. Fun fact: they started as the MC5's fan club. Its leader, John Sinclair, became the band’s de facto manager. Well...not exactly. The term “manager” was too “bourgeois” for him. But for the sake of reducing how silly his alternative term would look typed out here, I’ll just refer to him as the “not-a-manager.”

Despite their radical political affiliation, the MC5’s music wasn’t strictly political. The members would individually admit later that, despite moves they made at the band’s peak popularity, they weren’t really revolutionaries. They did believe in the principles, though. Anti-racist, anti-establishment, pro-environment, etc. In Kramer’s words, it was “picked up from the Black Panther Party and filtered through (their) psychedelic, marijuana haze humor.”


I really can’t tell you how BONKERS the scene surrounding the MC5 and the White Panthers was in the late ’60s without making this article a 25-goddamn-minute-long read. By all accounts, the band was unmanageable.

I won't say "the politics ruined the music, man!" because that's not 100% true. Kathy Asheton went as far as to say they "weren't as much fun" in this phase and I thoroughly disagree. The live performances do not lie. Yet as a fellow foul-mouthed intellectual, what speaks to me doesn't lie entirely with the politics. What draws me to the MC5 is the raw passion behind what they were saying. They believed, and they really had the heart to want to start something. It’s the kind of raw passion that makes a group of scrappy kids into one of the most exciting and dangerous groups of the ’60s. That passion is what draws me right in.


Wife of not-a-manager and co-founder of the White Panthers, Leni Sinclair, was the MC5's principle photographer. When it came time for promotional material for their major label debut to be shot, she was the natural choice.

Well...the MC5 and subtlety went together about as well as a lighter and an aerosol can. The shoot featured the band posing with various musical instruments and rifles; picturing them as revolutionaries to their audience. Again, they weren’t really revolutionaries. That’s the thing: their political stance and public relations were tough to balance in the climate of late ’60s America. Considering that environment, the shoot was provoking to say the least. Turns out Detroit police didn’t take too kindly to such a radical, militant, and public affiliation. In response, the band’s phone lines were tapped, their house was raided, and their van was fucking firebombed.


Pictured: Rob Tyner, photographed by Leni Sinclair in 1968. This whole photo shoot was just incredible, was it not?


As for MC5’s relationship with Elektra records...oh man. This one’s gonna be good.

As opposed to recording two or three studio albums and then a live one, the band lobbied to release the live recording first. Their rationale: it would’ve cost Elektra a lot more time and money to make a studio album for a band not used to being in a studio. It was best to capture their sound under the environment in which the band was at its strongest. Thus, Kick Out The Jams was born. The material was recorded at their home venue, the Grande Ballroom, and slated for release in early ’69.


There was just one problem.


It was Rob Tyner’s rallying cry on the title track. A twelve-letter word you can’t say on the radio made the final cut. Elektra executives were horrified, pulled as many copies as they could, and edited over The Word with “brothers and sisters.” But this still wasn't enough, and they were essentially blacklisted from radio play.

Following this incident, the MC5 was on thin ice with Elektra. But things were about to be taken to the next level via Detroit-based department store chain Hudson’s. They refused to carry Kick Out The Jams alongside the rest of the label’s catalog, on the grounds of “explicit content.” Pretty rich, seeing as The Doors’s debut album was also on Elektra and has a song about Oedipal activities on it. In retaliation, the MC5 took out a full-page advertisement in local underground publication Fifth Estate. The ad proclaimed, ever so eloquently:

FUCK HUDSON’S!”

Pictured: The greatest ad you’ll ever see, as it ran in Fifth Estate. Fun fact: Rob Tyner was a very talented visual artist and had quite a few cartoons appear in the publication!


Hudson’s stopped selling Elektra’s catalog entirely after the MC5’s stunt. Though the label’s logo appears on the ad, they had nothing to do with it. In a desperate attempt to save face, the MC5 was dropped like a hot potato.

I can’t help but see this event as the predecessor to the Sex Pistols’s soured relationship with EMI/A&M Records. In more recent memory, I think of Death Grips’s spectacular falling out with Epic Records over the No Love Deep Web fiasco. The MC5 were being PR nightmares for the sake of provocation and artistic integrity. It’s punk sensibilities before punk had a name; and the precedent they set would expand far beyond the reaches of punk.


Sure, the MC5 didn’t accomplish what they sought to. The bigger they are the harder they fall, and this titan of a group collapsed come 1972. Labels dropped them. Drugs happened. Personalities clashed. Not-a-manager Sinclair went to jail for 10 years for possession after giving an undercover cop two joins to flirt with her. Standard fare for rock-and-roll bands breaking up.


I could talk in detail, ad nauseam until you literally puke about why I can’t get enough of the MC5. They hold a place in my heart, as they were on my soundtrack for that ill-fated trip to Nashville I’ve mentioned before. (The only redeeming parts of that trip were the tunes I listened to, a cute photo I took outside a store for rich people, and the Uber driver who played “A Love Supreme” in his car.)

But ultimately, I have to consider the environment this writing exists in.

This website isn’t a hub where you can discover anything and everything about a given group. That’s for memoirs and wikis. Instead, this site functions as the diary of a girl who doggedly pursues the act of discovering rock-and-roll as it was originally intended. I’m describing the lens through which I perceive this music. And in order for this piece to align with my mission statement, I have to round this out with the beginning: how I discovered Kick Out The Jams.


My first listen came from the act of picking a record by chance from a cardboard box of “extras” in my room. That’s right: this was one of the hundreds of records I’d acquired for free. And I almost didn’t keep it. This was sometime before my birthday last year; the sticky hot summer months just beginning. My house is old, without central air, and if I don’t want to pop a circuit in the middle of the day and get everyone pissed I can’t run my A/C and spin records at the same time. The oppressive heat couldn’t have been a more perfect backdrop for my first listen.

I prayed for some aid from the ceiling fan. Then it’s drop the needle and go. I’ll be honest. I was busy ogling at the gatefold. (NO SHAME.) That is, until...


You can lay it on me babe any ol’ time,

We can shimmy so good we’ll both be stoned o’mind

I got to keep it up ’cause I’m a natural man,

Robin Tyner’s the name, and I kick out the jams!

I’m the man for you baby,

Yes I am for you baby!”

Suddenly it was hotter than hell in that room. “Rocket Reducer No. 62” (or “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa”) had grabbed me firmly by the hips and wasn’t gonna let go.


Here’s the thing: it didn’t matter that the MC5 couldn’t change the course of rock-and-roll while they were together. They had BALLS. That put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is attitude worked in the long run. Hell, even Lester Bangs changed his tune on them after initially slamming Kick Out The Jams in Rolling Stone!

The MC5 is loud, it’s dangerous, it’s wild, it’s smart, it’s sexy as hell. Everything this wannabe groupie could ask for. And that’s why I love them.

And hey...a shiny disco pirate shirt and sequin jacket certainly doesn't hurt.


Pictured: A shot from the Back In The USA cover shoot. From L-R: Fred Smith, Michael Davis (again, he looks like a totally different person in every single photo!!), Dennis Thompson, Wayne Kramer, and Rob Tyner. God bless Rob’s shiny disco pirate shirts.

To wrap things up, here’s live footage from Tartar Field in 1970 which Wayne Kramer was so kind as to grace us mere mortals with via YouTube.

Here’s my personal favorite: their performance on the Beat Club Sessions in ’72. As much as I love Kick Out The Jams, I’m partial to the MC5’s later period. Dare I say...I favor High Time. Note Rob’s EVERYTHING and Wayne’s shiny all-green outfit, which he mysteriously swaps out for “Ramblin’ Rose.”

A lot of insight for this one came from Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It’s an incomparable source (thank you again for your contributions Wayne Kramer. In case it isn't obvious already, I deeply respect this guy.)


And here’s my playlist of essential tunes…or at least what I think the essentials are. Kick out the jams, motherfuckers.


Pictured: I made this shirt in the spirit of the old-school groupies who came before me: DIY’d, purely for the love of the music.



Endlessly,

- Layla

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