Filmmakers Resurrect the Legend of the MC5

For most Americans, the MC5 are just a footnote in rock music history. "* In 1968, played at the Yippies Festival of Life rally right outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago before the police started bashing everyone's brains in." Yet despite their relative obscurity in the US mindset, the MC5 were one of the major foundations of modern punk rock, a huge influence on many heavy bands, and also a quintessential example of the ups and downs of rock stardom. Their tale would make any Behind The Music story seem weak by comparison.

Interview by Ken Wohlrob

February.14th.2003

This article was previously published in Bully Magazine.

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Bursting out of Detroit in the late 1960s, amidst turbulent times in America including anti-war demonstrations, race riots, and a burgeoning counter-culture, the MC5 solidified the harsh Detroit cityscape into an explosive musical sound that was as innovative in it's sound as it's political angst.

Led by manager/spiritual leader John Sinclair, who was the founder of the White Panther Party and a legend in the Detroit counter-culture, the MC5 mixed together radical politics, black militantism and music, and pre-punk energy and aggressiveness into an explosive Molotov cocktail. Their debut album, Kick Out The Jams became a blueprint followed by bands ranging from Motorhead to The Ramones to Monster Magnet to The Hellacopters, to name a few.

However like many of the "revolutionaries" of the '60s, the MC5 fell apart under the strain of their own excesses. Sinclair was jailed on a marijuana charge and had a nasty falling out with the band, causing them to be shunned by the radicals who once supported them. Elektra Records dropped them after only one album in 1969 and subsequently, Atlantic Records dropped them after two poorly received albums. The members of the band (Michael Davis, Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer, Fred "Sonic" Smith, and Dennis Thompson) succumbed to drug addiction, fought with one another, and ultimately filed for bankruptcy before disbanding in 1972. Over the years, the band was eliminated from music history by a media that never quite understood the band and felt more comfortable identifying with the peace-loving Woodstock set rather than the working-class angst of the MC5.

That is until now. Filmmakers David C. Thomas and Laurel Legler recently finished work on MC5 * A True Testimonial, a documentary that has taken close to seven years to make. The film, directed by Thomas and produced by Legler, attempts to resurrect the ghost of the MC5 and retell the tale of the rise and fall of a very influential band that was almost wiped clean from history. Thomas took time out in between showings at the Chicago and Toronto film festivals to discuss the documentary, the elements that created and destroyed the band, and why the MC5 was almost erased from music history.

What drove you to do this documentary on the MC5 or how did you come up with the idea?
They're the greatest American rock 'n' roll band ever and nobody has done anything on them. That's the simple answer. I had been aware of the band for many, many years -- I was actually old enough to have just missed them -- but my partner and producer Laura Legler, back about 1995, had originally come up with the idea. Basically she said to me, "Do you know of anything that's ever been done on the MC5?" She brought me in initially to do some research just for the possibilities of it and once we started digging around (I had never actually seen any footage of the group), we started finding some things and realized that everything we were seeing bore out their reputation. Along with the fact that we thought the story was really amazing and the guys were really interesting characters. We said: "This has got to be done, it's slipping away from history." People need to know about this group.

It's interesting because they're so unknown. Well not unknown; people know of them, but know so little about them and so little about the music. Yet in Europe they're a well known band. There are a lot of bands that they influenced and you guys were actually able to talk to them: The Hellacopters, Cheap Trick, Monster Magnet, the Melvins. What was the take from a lot of the bands who were involved in the film?
Doors were opened to us, not because we had any reputation (because we don't), but people said, "Oh the MC5! Oh sure. Sure, we'll talk about the MC5. We don't do interviews, but we'll talk about the MC5." Everybody that knows of the MC5 and knows their stuff, they idolize them. Everyone from Dick Manitoba of the Dictators to Marshall Crenshaw to Blue Oyster Cult to Primal Scream. Groups from then and groups from now and everywhere in between, if somebody was aware of the MC5 they were filled with nothing but praise.

How are you balancing out the story? Were you able to talk to some of the people who were on the opposite side of the MC5, such as Jac Holzman (who ran Elektra records at the time the band was signed)?
We did not specifically do that, although that's a good question. We looked into trying to locate Detroit police officers from the period or that kind of thing. We didn't pursue that too far. There's not a lot of adversarial viewpoints in the film. I think people will find though, that there's a lot of contradiction even within the home camp. I sometimes think characters are most interesting in their contradictions. Within the MC5, there was a lot of contradiction; even in the telling of the story they contradict each other. We did not interview Jac Holzman, but we did interview Danny Fields from Elektra, who was more on their side I suppose. In addition, there's also extensive interviews with John Sinclair, John Landau (who produced the second album), and Geoffrey Haslam who was the producer of the third album. We typically set out to tell the story in the first person by the people who did it.

I think you'll find enough contradiction, even within the MC5 themselves. All that downside of things is well represented. We set out to tell as a historically accurate and faithful story as we could. On the one hand, we didn't want to dish dirt, we didn't want this to be some VH-1 Behind the Music thing. At the same time, we didn't want to white wash anything, we didn't want to sidestep any issues. They made some bad choices and that becomes clear in the film. We tried very hard to find a balance.

There seems to be this air where the MC5 is very similar to Abbey Hoffman: you had these guys that were trying to be revolutionary, trying to be ground breaking, and at the same time collapsed under their own excesses. That's kind of a general theme for the '60s. Do you feel there was that air there?
I think that's definitely true. One of the things that everybody told us, John Sinclair included, was that this was first and foremost a rock 'n' roll band. That's what they started as and that's what they did. I think all the other stuff was all sort of part and parcel of the times. What became the White Panther program, it was really an outgrowth of the historic context that they were in. We tell that really well with the film -- that it was the context of Detroit, the anti-war movement, Vietnam, the Detroit Riots, the Chicago '68 convention, the Yippies, the Weather Underground, etc. They were really a product of and an influence on those times. I think what you said -- the collapsing under the weight of their excesses -- is a really good assessment. The idea of revolution, as we look back now it seems a bit far-fetched or outlandish or crazy or idealistic, but within the context of the times it was not far-fetched.

There were people who believed this country was on the verge of armed revolution. It wasn't just people like the MC5, it was people like the Black Panthers and SDF and the Weather Underground and even the White House. Students were killed by the US military on college campuses. Cities were burned down. Citizens were killed by law enforcement agencies in various cities. Black Panther leaders were assassinated or killed in their bed. It was heavy and that was one of the things we wanted to do, there's been sort of a revisionist history where the '60s had been turned into this Peace/Love/Flower Power type of thing (which was true to a certain extent). But there were other sides to that too, which were violent, dangerous, brutal, and crazed. We wanted to make sure that little piece of history didn't disappear or wasn't re-written.

John Sinclair seems a to be a very pivotal person in the band's story, being that when he was arrested and jailed, it kind of marked the beginning of the end for the band financially, artistically, and physically. How much of that downfall was due to him no longer being in the picture or was it an inevitable thing?
I think it was a large part of it. At one point Wayne even said that when John went to jail it was a terrible blow to the band, and an even worse blow to John (of course he laughed). It's really true that John helped to give them a direction. John brought some of that to the band, but the band brought some of that along as well. They sought John out as a manager and as a mentor. John was perceived as a counter-cultural icon/demon in Detroit. By 1967, he was notorious in Detroit and he had already been arrested on two previous marijuana charges and a third happened in 1967 before their relationship with him is even solidified. That's the one that actually leads to his imprisonment; it was tied up in the courts for about two years. The whole time John was managing the band his trial and eventual imprisonment was pending. That really fueled a lot of their efforts.

By the time John is in prison, he was convicted and sentenced in 1969, things were already going south for the MC5 at that point. They signed with Elektra in 1968, recorded the first album in October, and were dropped by Elektra in April of 1969. Then they were immediately picked up by Atlantic and John goes to jail in the summer of 1969. At that point, John was a guiding force for them and he really helped to focus them as a band, as well as focusing a lot of the content. Like a lot of other things that happened in the culture by '69, there was a cultural shift that was going on. The radicalization of American youth reached a peak around '68 and into '69. Beginning around that time it starts to tail off, although there were anti-war demonstrations on a larger scale by 1970, in some ways it's almost as if the wind in the sails gets sucked out around this time. I think what happened to Sinclair and the MC5 was all part and parcel of that. I think they definitely lost impetus by 1969.

At the same time, when John goes to jail there is a huge backlash that happens in Detroit because there's a big split. There's a split between him and the band. The band pulls away from the White Panther Party. They actually fired John as a manager prior to his going to jail. When he goes to jail, John starts writing letters from prison that were being published in CREEM magazine where basically he was saying these guys are punks and they've turned their backs on the revolution. At the same time the band's follow-up to Kick Out the Jams is Back In The USA, which regardless of our subjective opinions of that album, is a completely different album from Kick Out the Jams. The result of that is there's a big backlash against them in Detroit and they lose a large part of their home-base audience because the controversy surrounding their split with John. So that all contributed to it as well.

They never managed to find, they tried to and had some interesting people associated with the band after John was gone, but nobody of John's kind of charismatic, larger-than-life persona to sort of give them that added extra musical dimension. After that, they never really quite get that again.

It's also kind of interesting, because Detroit does play a pivotal role in the band's sound. The mixture of radical politics, black music, and working-class pre-dated punk music. Not only was the MC5 wiped away, but also the Detroit rock scene in the same process. Most people remember Iggy and the Stooges, but people tend to remember Iggy more once he left the Stooges. People forget Alice Cooper came from Detroit. It seems kind of weird that the scene itself also kind of got wiped away.
I think there's a couple of explanations for that. I think one, it's the same thing we've seen subsequently historically, whether it's the Seattle grunge scene or it happened here in Chicago in the mid to late '80s…

You're talking about the industrial scene there?
Sure. The record companies suddenly get wind of this scene and they're down on it like vultures. They're looking to find those other big hit groups that they can make a lot of money off of. A lot of times the other groups that are within a scene, maybe they're not as good as the bands that have broken out of it. The stuff that comes out subsequently is a little bit watered down. I'm not saying that about somebody like Alice Cooper, but some groups like SRC or the Frost that had major label signings on the tails of the MC5's success; it's questionable to me whether they would've gotten major label contracts if there wasn't so much focus on Detroit at that time. I think that was part of it.

There was also the fact that Detroit by 1969-70 was being inundated with what the MC5 and Sinclair referred to as "death drugs." Up until that point there was acid and marijuana, but all of sudden heroin started to come into the picture really heavily. People from that period in Detroit talk about the heroin epidemic that hit Detroit by the early '70s. People were dropping like flies. I think that added to it as well.
But there sure was some great music that came out of there.

Sure. I grew up in '71 so the Detroit Scene was already done by the time I was born. I never knew about it. It's one of those things where unless you dig in and find out, it really got wiped away from the musical landscape.
It was interesting to because even at the time -- the record industry is based primarily on the east and west coast -- there was the fact that this was a "Detroit Scene," it came from the industrial Midwest, and there was a certain amount of condescension within the music industry toward the city even at that time. I grew up primarily in Chicago and St. Louis, and I was starting high school around the time you were born, so all that Detroit stuff was very much a part of my coming up. All the Detroit bands used to tour through the Midwest, though I never saw the MC5, I did see the Stooges on the Raw Power tour.

I think in some ways it was a very Midwest phenomenon. It was louder, darker, dirtier, and maybe more dangerous than the stuff that was happening on either coast with the possible exception of the Velvet Underground. I think there was just this attitude of "these guys can't really be that good, there can't really be a Detroit Scene because it's Detroit and all they do there is make cars." There can't be art or culture. But it was hugely important and hugely influential.

When you take a look at it, the MC5, despite the lack of financial success and the fact that they've been wiped away from the American landscape, you're still talking about what is today one of the more influential bands in music, especially in terms of heavy music or punk. If you remove the MC5, you can change the way Motorhead might have come out, and if you take away both of those, that's half of the good bands coming out of Europe and America. It is weird that you have this band who in their own country are relatively unknown and a million different bands you can name off the top of your head are all influenced by them.
I think historically there's precedent for that in music history. Whether you look at American jazz artists who were ignored in this country and had really good success in Europe. Or people like Gene Vincent, who is largely forgotten in America as an early pioneer of rock 'n' roll or rockabilly, and Eddie Cochran who are really idolized in England and all throughout Europe. I think that sometimes it's that cultural difference that looks at things and somehow embraces something that's alien to their culture.

The other thing too is that the post-John Sinclair MC5 spent a lot of time in Europe. They went back and forth to Europe five or six times and there were some recordings that were released there that were never available through American record companies. I think they were much idolized in England in particular even at that time and they did do extensive touring throughout England and the continent. They came very close to resettling in England at the end of their career.

To go a little further, as you said you subtract Motorhead from the equation. The Ramones were very influenced by the MC5, as were the New York Dolls, as were the Clash, the Damned, and the Sex Pistols. All those different groups that were part of the punk-rock lineage, the left of center music that's below the mainstream radar, all of it was heavily influenced by the MC5, whether it was here or there. There was a lot of cross influencing where the Clash were listening to the Sex Pistols, who were listening to the Dolls, who were listening to Alice Cooper, the MC5, and the Stooges. It all crosses each other somewhere, it's a really rich tapestry. I think the MC5's thread runs through that continuously.

What's most important in the story, the lesson you take away from watching this band go up and come crashing back down?
For me, it's that this was a band of five individuals who tried to do something that was really true to an idealistic vision of art. They did some great things, they did some not great things. And to quote Wayne Kramer, in the end the worst thing that they did was that they lost each other. They lost the connection that had started them in the first place. Some people have already told us that this film and the story of the MC5 as we tell it is an archetype for every rock 'n' roll band. It's the working model of what it is that can make a rock 'n' roll band great and what it is that leads to its own implosion or explosion at the end.


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