I can’t begin to tell the story of the MC5 unless I first talk about the 60’s in general as they can only be understood in the context of the history of that era. I know, I have spent a lot of time in this blog describing the 60’s and correcting misconceptions but this time I’m not going to be describing hippies, free love or flower children. There will be no British Invasion or communes. I’m going to take you on a tour through the seedier side of the 60’s and into the face of rebellion. The MC5 are deeply connected with things like Abbie Hoffman, the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago, the White Panther Movement, the Chicago Seven and violence on stage at Woodstock. You see, the MC5 was the most far left and militant band, bordering on anarchy, to come out of the 1960’s.
…And they made some of the most dynamic and amazing music of the era.
They were founded in 1964 in Detroit, Michigan, by Rob Tyner (vocals), Fred Smith (guitar), Wayne Kramer (guitar and shown in the foreground of the above picture), Michael Davis (bass) and Dennis Thompson (drums). By 1965, they were playing regular gigs in Detroit and entered the studio to record their first single, I Can Only Give You Everything (1966). (I will play this single on Wednesday.) The name, “MC5” was shorthand for “Motor City 5,” which they were never really called.
The Black Panther Party
I must now turn attention to our first 60’s history lesson and cover a topic seldom discussed today. Most people have heard of the Black Panthers and with all of the shootouts and violence, their opinions are probably not very high about this group. To a large degree, this may be deserved but most people forget about the spirit in which they were founded. The early 60’s saw a lot of police brutality and violence aimed at black people and many saw this problem needing to be addressed. Originally, the Black Panthers were set up to be more of a neighborhood watch or patrol but instead of looking for crime, they would step in and act as witnesses to racially oriented police brutality and possibly stepping in to defend the victim. Along with this “neighborhood watch” function there were health clinics, free breakfast for children programs and other community projects.
The police, understandably, saw the Panthers as a threat and confrontation between the two factions became inevitable. FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, referred to them as, "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." But things started out innocent enough and it was in those early days that the Panthers recruited a white man, John Sinclair, to take action on their behalf.
In 1966 John Sinclair, a Michigan resident, actually approached them and asked what he could do to help their cause. The result was that Sinclair founded a sister organization called the “White Panthers.” This group would consist of white people helping their black brothers and sisters in ending police brutality and bringing awareness of the injustices suffered by black people in this country.
|The Black Panthers logo on the left and the White Panthers on the right, note that one is the reverse of the other.|
Now that Sinclair had the organization, he needed people to fill its ranks. He needed to make white people not only aware of the plight of their black brethren, but of the movement they could join to fight for racial equality. In order to get the word out, he started a new enterprise called “Trans-Love Energies.” This organization could be used to address the social needs of the time in a broader sense, like ending the war in Vietnam, saving the Earth, living as brothers and sisters and of course, ending racial inequities. The counter culture was heavily centered on music and John Sinclair knew that he would need to utilize music to get his message to young people everywhere. Since he already had a magazine, the Fifth Estate, to use the printed word, he needed to have his own rock band to help tailor this message through music.
At this time, the MC5 were looking for a new manager. They had already released their first single when they came across Sinclair. The MC5 now had a manager and Sinclair now had a rock band with which he could influence the youth. In 1968, they released their second single, Borderline b/w Looking at You, through Trans-Love Energies. That summer, they went on tour, opening for bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin) and Cream (Eric Clapton). There was just one problem; instead of warming up the crowd for the headliners, the Five were upstaging them. The crowds often demanded multiple encores, cutting into the main acts time on stage.
At one particular concert, where they opened for Cream, they burned an American flag on stage and then put up their own pot leaf flag that had the word “KREEP” emblazoned in red letters across it. The crowd was whipped up into a fervor, one that Clapton and Cream could not overcome. Eric Clapton was not happy. Despite only two locally distributed singles, these performances earned them the cover of a January 1969 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. (See below.) John Sinclair had his voice to reach the youth of America.
|Click to enlarge|
It was on tour in 1968 that they met a group in New York City that called themselves, “Up Against the Wall Motherfucker,” or just the “Motherfuckers” for short. This group grew out of anti-Vietnam groups in the area. They embraced much of the counterculture but in an extremely militant fashion. Abbie Hoffman said they were “the middle-class nightmare... an anti-media media phenomenon simply because their name could not be printed.” Their name was taken from a poem, Black People, by Amiri Baraka, from the line, “The magic words are: Up against the wall, mother fucker, this is a stick up!” They were associated with many anarchistic activities of the time, including bringing the fences down at Woodstock, making it a free concert. The MC5 were now involved with the Motherfuckers, along with the White Panthers.
The Democratic National Convention
Up to this point, I brought you to the first week of January 1969. I need to back up the clock a bit to continue the story and go back to the summer of 1968, before they had become famous.
1968 was a Presidential Election year and the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago. Soon after the location was announced, various counterculture and radical groups began making plans to stage protests. It was a ripe target because democratic President, Lyndon Johnson had escalated the war in Vietnam from 23,000 troops when he took office to over 500,000 by the time the convention would take place in August. Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Women Strike for Peace movement were but a few of the groups planning protests at the convention. There was a music festival scheduled in Lincoln Park to protest the war and John Sinclair knew where he needed to take his new-found band, the MC5, to perform.
The city was not blind to the fact that radical groups planned protests in their city during the convention. Many cities had already broken out in riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous April and tensions only grew after the assassination of Democratic Presidential Candidate, Robert Kennedy weeks earlier. In the weeks leading up to the convention, Mayor Richard Daley had been publicly declaring over and over again that he would maintain law and order in the City of Chicago during the event. The Police Department went on overtime shifts and the Illinois National Guard was called out to assure order was maintained. Finally, while the city could not deny permits for peaceful protests outright, it did drag its feet and created obstacles so that most permits were not processed before the event, making most protests in the city that week, illegal.
The unrest had already begun by Friday, August 23rd, when a number of protesters were arrested. It continued on Saturday with more arrests and the violence began. The police would physically clear protesters from areas and protesters began throwing stones at police while chanting “Hey, Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The “Festival of Life” music festival was scheduled to start at 4:00 PM on Sunday. When the time arrived, the only band to have made it to the Park was the MC5 and they took to the stage. There have been reports that have the MC5 were on stage for up to ten hours or more. They simply are not true. The Five played for less than an hour.
The plan was to have many bands play for a crowd of about 100,000 youth but they didn’t have the permits. Therefore, there were no porta-potties and the concession stand was operating at full capacity feeding the 3000 that actually showed up. Furthermore, there was nothing set up in the way of electrical service and all of the equipment was powered by an extension cord that was ran from that concession stand. After less than an hour, the concession stand was no longer willing to supply the power and unplugged the cord. It was Abbie Hoffman who started the false rumor that the city and/or police had shut down the festival. The rioting broke out in earnest this time and the police again began clubbing and arresting protesters until the park was cleared.
Only two other musicians are known to have made the trip to Chicago. Country Joe McDonald was present at the festival but did not perform and Phil Ochs was among those arrested and jailed the day before. The MC5 was the only band to play the protest at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. John Sinclair and the MC5 managed to avoid being arrested but many did not, including what has become a famous group, the Chicago Seven.
This group was put on trial to make an example and hopefully show the youth of America what happens when you protest. They actually started out as the Chicago Eight but Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, quickly had his charges separated from the rest. The remaining seven, including Abbie Hoffman, would stand trial in late 1969 on federal charges of conspiracy and inciting a riot. The country watched on and soon there was a national movement and protesters everywhere carried signs and wore tee shirts that said “free the Chicago Seven.” Four of the Seven were found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison in 1970. Those verdicts were overturned on appeal in 1972.
|A Farside cartoon inspired by the Chicago 7, click to enlarge|
Kick Out the Jams Motherfuckers… er… um… Brothers and Sisters
The Five had released a couple of singles with small record companies but they soon had a contract with one of the big boys, Elektra Records. The executives at Elektra had heard their singles, recorded in a studio, along with having heard them live. They made a bold decision to do the unheard of. The debut album by the MC5, Kick Out the Jams, would be a live album! They conveyed such energy when they were in front of an audience and they would feed off of it. It was that energy that had them upstaging the likes of Eric Clapton and Janis Joplin. The album was a huge success, climbing to #30 on the Billboard Top 200 in the spring of 1969 and is currently ranked #294 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
|Kick Out the Jams, 1969|
Like anything else with the MC5, this album was controversial.
The title track, Kick Out the Jams, opened with the following words: “And right now... right now... right now it's time to... kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” The song would then start up. Back in the 1960’s this was not acceptable. Two years earlier, Elektra had edited the word “higher” out of a Doors’ song, Break on Through, because it could be construed as a drug reference. Elektra wanted it out but the band and Sinclair stuck to their guns and the recording was released as is.
Without the bands knowledge, Elektra did edit out the offending words for the release of a single that they hoped would get airplay and help support the full album. They had doctored it with a recording of Tyner saying, “Kick out the jams brothers and sisters,” instead. The Five were not pleased with this.
(I’ll play both versions on Wednesday. I’ll open with the doctored, clean version and close with the original, uncensored version.)
After the album’s release, it quickly became something of a hot potato. Stores began to refuse to carry it because of both the vulgar and reactionary content. Elektra Records, again without the bands permission, removed John Sinclair’s extensive liner notes that were extremely militant and anarchistic. It then created two forms of the album; one with the doctored, clean version of Kick Out the Jams, described above, and another with the original, uncensored verbiage. Once again, the Five weren’t happy.
This didn’t end the controversy. The “explicit version” would often be confined to remaining behind the counter and only sold to adults. If you found the album in the regular bins, it was probably the clean version. Furthermore, a large department store chain in Michigan, Hudson’s, refused to carry the album all together. The band responded by taking out a full page ad in the Fifth Estate Magazine that had the MC5 name at the top and showed pictures of the band. Below the picture, in large letters, it said, “FUCK HUDSON’S!” The band, without asking Elektra first, turned the table and put a large Elektra Records logo next to the offending words. Hudson’s countered by refusing to carry any records on the Elektra label, including those by Tom Paxton, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Phil Ochs and the Doors, just to name a few. It was now Elektra’s turn to not be pleased. (See the ad below.)
|The "Fuck Hudson's ad, click to enlarge|
This whole time that John Sinclair was managing the MC5, he was out on bail and awaiting trial on drug charges in Michigan. He had been arrested in 1967 for having just two joints (marijuana cigarettes). In July, 1969, he went to trial and was found guilty of these charges. That same month, the judge sentence him to ten years in prison for just possessing the two joints. Sinclair had been out on bail for over two years and it was customary to allow the convicted to remain out on bail pending his appeal. The judge denied bail pending appeal and John Sinclair was taken straight into prison to serve his ten years. It became obvious that the whole thing was twisted to silence Sinclair.
After the Hudson’s incident, Elektra Records dropped the Five both as punishment for what they had done and to hopefully regain the potentially lost sales they were facing. This was immediately followed by John Sinclair being locked in prison for ten years. The MC5 was dealt a devastating one-two punch and lost both their manager and their record contract at the same time, as they were charting on Billboard.
The following month was the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. The event needs no introduction from me and John Sinclair, despite sitting in prison in Michigan, managed to have his presence felt. Abbie Hoffman was present at Woodstock and between sets, took to a microphone on stage and began a diatribe on the plight of John Sinclair. Later that evening, while the Who were performing, Hoffman came onstage and snatched the microphone away from a shocked Roger Daltry. He continued his rant by saying, “I think this is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison…” He was interrupted by Pete Townsend who yelled, “Fuck off! Fuck off my fucking stage!” Townsend then charged Hoffman, hitting him with his guitar over the head as Hoffman fell into the pit in front of the stage. A few weeks after the incident, Hoffman would begin his own trial as one of the Chicago Seven. You will hear both incidents this August when we recreate Woodstock at AWT. (I’ll play the longer first diatribe on Wednesday too.)
The MC5 soon signed on with Atlantic Records, which had just been breaking into the Rock music scene with band like Led Zeppelin. The Five would release only two more albums, Back in the USA in 1970 and High Time in 1971. Their producer at Atlantic, Jon Landau, tried to restrain them and mold them into something they weren’t and who could blame him considering their recent history? Also, they were now in the studio to make their next record and not in front of an audience. The magic was gone and sales were miserable.
The band fell apart but did manage to get together for their Farewell Concert at the same venue where Kick Out the James was recorded. That concert took place on New Year’s Eve, 1972.
John Sinclair’s plight attracted a lot of attention. In December 1971, the “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Many musical acts came to perform including Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder and Phil Ochs. The event was headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. John had just written a song called “John Sinclair,” and one of its lyrics, “They gave him ten for two; what else can the bastards do,” became a rallying cry. A few days after the rally, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair’s immediate release after having served well over two years in prison. They had found a number of improprieties in his trial. John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band would record John Sinclair and release it on their 1972 album, Some Time in New York City. (I’ll play this John Lennon song on Wednesday.)
The Black Panthers rapidly declined through the 1970’s amid violence, infighting and controversy. The White Panthers did not fare much better and by the mid 1970’s they were no longer an entity. The White Panther logo (shown up above) had been incorporated into the MC5 logo and found its way onto tee shirts, posters and other items. It has become the last bastion of remembrance of the White Panthers. The Five’s logo, shown at the bottom of the page, incorporated much of what made up their controversial existence. There was a pot leaf in the middle, so reminiscent of John Sinclair’s situation. Written across the bottom is “Motherfuckers,” which is both a tribute to the organization in New York and to their rallying cry on Kick out the Jams. Finally, there is prominently displayed, the White Panther.
As we entered the 21st century, nostalgia for the past dictated a few cleaned up versions of the shirt be produced for sale. One of these appeared on Jennifer Aniston on a 2003 episode of Friends. (See picture below.) One has to wonder how many people realized the significance of the white panther that remained on the logo displayed on Aniston’s chest. (The pot leaf and “motherfuckers” were removed.)
|Jen Aniston wears an MC5 shirt on Friends|
The MC5 was like a skyrocket. They went up and bursted to our collective “oo’s” and “ah’s” and quickly burned out, leaving with us nothing more than a memory we enjoy recalling. That fleeting moment forever changed Rock & Roll. Punk Rock would come into being and become a force to be reckoned with by the middle to late 70’s. Many of those acts would point back to the MC5 as one of their major influences. If I was asked to describe the Five in one word, it would be “meteoric.”
Fun Fact #1: The organization founded by Sinclair, Trans-Love Energies, still exists today though it has a different role. It is now a medical marijuana compassion center in Detroit. It helps patients who need marijuana for medical purposes in Michigan, where it is still illegal.
Fun Fact #2: Jefferson Airplane took the lyrics to their song, We Can Be Together, from a leaflet put out by Up Against the Wall Motherfucker and published under the title, the Outlaw Page.
Fun Fact #3: My favorite MC5 song is off of their failed second album, Back in the USA. It is Shakin’ Street. The version I will play is not the final released version but a longer version. The first 12 seconds were cut in the final mix.
Fun Fact #4: Blue Oyster Cult would sometimes open their concerts with a version of Kick Out the Jams, using the "Brothers and Sisters" opening.
Fun Fact #4: Blue Oyster Cult would sometimes open their concerts with a version of Kick Out the Jams, using the "Brothers and Sisters" opening.
If you frequent AWT, you have probably seen the picture at the top of the page here at the club. I used it when I made the landmark giver for the concert platform. Why did I use that picture? It is one of my favorite musical images from the 60’s. Though it is a still photograph, it conveys an energy and intensity that just can’t be put into words. It is a good image to draw someone to a concert. That energy and intensity captured there is what made the MC5 so special and it only came out when they performed live. There was just so much of it that even pictures and their debut live album were able to capture it. That picture is also a poster on the wall of my beach house on Park Place.
In 1969, much of what I have written here could not be published because of the language I have used. I have pulled no punches and described the Five using language they would have used to describe themselves. I felt anything less would lessen your experience of the Five. Anyway, we now live in a world where you can use “motherfucker” on a song recording or even on this blog. Maybe we have the MC5 partially to thank for that.
So, I want all you motherfuckers out there to join me this coming Wednesday, May 30, from 7-9 PM as we kick out the jams at a Woman’s Touch. If you do, I can promise you one thing… You will never be the same again.
Programing Note: My show is from 7-9 PM SL time but I’m only going to play about one hour and fifteen minutes of MC5 and related stuff like the Abbie Hoffman rant and the John Lennon Song.
|The MC5 logo|