Still kicking out the jams

In their short career, the MC5 drew FBI surveillance and became icons of rock'n'roll rebellion. Now, 33 years on, they are back
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The Independent Culture

To a French teenager with dark, curly, unruly hair, the appearance of the MC5 on the television show Rock en Stock in March 1972 became a defining moment and a harbinger of punk-rock things to come. The Detroit band had aligned themselves with the Black Panthers, and Rob Tyner, the front man, sported what could only be described as a huge Afro as he screamed "Kick Out the Jams".

To a French teenager with dark, curly, unruly hair, the appearance of the MC5 on the television show Rock en Stock in March 1972 became a defining moment and a harbinger of punk-rock things to come. The Detroit band had aligned themselves with the Black Panthers, and Rob Tyner, the front man, sported what could only be described as a huge Afro as he screamed "Kick Out the Jams".

The group's rallying cry and revolutionary call to arms has since been sampled by The KLF on "What Time is Love?" in 1990, and the MC5's French television appearance has appeared on a bootleg entitled Thunder Express. But, 33 years after they collapsed under the combined pressure of the US government and their own self-destructive lifestyle, the three surviving members are back to reclaim their abused legacy. Wayne Kramer, the guitarist, Michael Davis, the bassist, and Dennis Thompson, the drummer, have re-released the bootleg material themselves on a six-CD set, and they've also licensed their classic logo to Levi's Vintage Clothing, which probably explains why you've seen the most unlikely TV presenters, pop stars and models wearing MC5 T-shirts in a desperate bid to look hip.

Not that this bothers Kramer, a man with a mission. "This is a band that went up like a rocket, broke up in 1972, never had a major hit record," he says. "My musician friends say that the MC5 was an important band, but I never knew so many people were into our music. Something's happening here. With the internet, it's become a global culture and word gets around pretty quick."

Much like The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and the Ramones, the MC5 didn't sell many records in their heyday but influenced everyone from the Sex Pistols to Rage Against the Machine via Motorhead. Indeed, when they take the stage at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday, they'll be joined by David Thomas of Père Ubu, Handsome Dick Manitoba from The Dictators, Clash guitarist Mick Jones, Gilby Clarke of Guns'n'Roses and Lisa Kekaula of The Bellrays and Basement Jaxx fame. "We couldn't have a full reunion because Tyner and Fred Smith (the band's second guitarist) have died," says Kramer. "That's why we decided to have a continuing revolving cast of characters, because we're not trying to replace Fred or Rob. We're calling ourselves DKT/MC5; we're just trying to celebrate the music and perform it in the spirit that it was intended."

This reunion of sorts first happened in 2003 at the 100 Club in London with the likes of Lemmy from Motorhead, The Damned's Dave Vanian and Ian Astbury (The Cult front man now in the Doors of the 21st Century) and was documented on a DVD entitled Sonic Revolution: A Celebration of the MC5. During the past 18 months, DKT/MC5 have played live with Evan Dando from the Lemonheads and members of Was (Not Was), Mudhoney and The Hellacopters in the US, Australia and Europe. "It's been great to come back and be honoured by being asked to perform at these huge festivals - we've had sell-out shows all over the world," says Kramer who, after spells in jail, has conquered his drug demons and kept the MC5 flame burning through various solo albums. "I don't think the message has changed. As artists, we have a role to play; we have a contribution to make."

When they first got together in Detroit in 1966, the MC5 were contemporaries of Iggy Pop and The Stooges and just another garage band in love with Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Del Shannon and Motown. It all changed when vocalist Tyner began stretching the envelope. "He was our creative figurehead, a pretty interesting guy, a real artist," says Kramer. "He sang, he played, he could draw, he would design his own clothes. He had this vision of a rock band that would be more than what rock bands had been up to that point. He came up with the Motor City Five name."

By the following year, the unruly quintet had acquired John Sinclair, the local hippie hero, as manager. "He'd done six months for marijuana possession in the Detroit House of Corrections and we played his get-out-of-jail party. He gave us guidance and told us to pay attention to John Coltrane and Sun Ra," says Kramer. The group began stretching out their live performances, incorporating Sun Ra's "Starship" into their set, as documented on their seminal live debut Kick Out the Jams (in a neat nod to radical culture history, DKT/MC5 share the bill with the Sun Ra Arkestra, directed by Marshall Allen, at the Royal Festival Hall).

In 1968, Sinclair also helped the band to devise a 10-point programme, which Kramer now rather dismisses. "It wasn't so much a manifesto or an agenda as wishful thinking," he says. "Our political programme was dope, rock'n'roll and fucking in the streets. Those were the original three points, which later got expanded when we began to pretend we were serious. We started hearing about the Black Panthers and how the revolution was bubbling under, so we started the White Panther party in solidarity."

The MC5 had hitched a ride on a volatile, radical bandwagon, as they soon discovered when they appeared at a protest concert that turned into a riot outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "The US government seemed to feel that this rock'n'roll band was such a threat that they had to come out and film us," Kramer boasts, about the surveillance footage he discovered among the FBI files on the group. "That doesn't get talked about enough. I'm proud of that. We really did disturb somebody. That's an accomplishment. We have absolute empirical evidence. As a citizen, you can petition them after a certain number of years and you can get access to the files and the films. You just have to pay for the processing. That's why we could get it for the DVD."

At the time, though, the mood in the MC5 camp often bordered on paranoia. "It was pretty scary," recalls the guitarist. "It got us court cases and violent confrontrations with the police departments, but the Black Panthers got death squads. If you weren't there, you can't know the depth of paranoia and the fear of what a police car pulling up behind you might mean. It really would put a shudder down your spine. They were pretty evil people, close to fascism. It was cultural oppression; they were using the power of the government to suppress dissent. We wanted the leaders in the offices of power to hear not just the MC5 but to listen to all of us from our generation. They didn't listen to us until it was too late about issues like the Vietnam War. That doesn't mean we weren't a bunch of drug-crazed maniacs as well, because we were unmanageable."

The group should have capitalised on their status as near-outlaws when they released Kick Out the Jams on Elektra in February 1969. "We could take situations like that and turn them into publicity," says Kramer. "We were promoting a revolution of culture, a counter-culture, but Elektra wanted to market us as the nice, little soldiers of the hippie revolution, ready to follow The Doors."

The first time they visited Britain, in July 1970, the MC5 played the Phun City Free Festival in Worthing, a three-day event organised by Mick Farren and the underground publication International Times. "The whole thing was arguably the forerunner of Lollapalooza," says the guitarist. "William Burroughs was there and the festival had a whole political and counter-culture dimension." Within two years, and despite releasing Back in the USA and High Time on Atlantic, the band had become "completely uncontrollable", says Kramer. "We burned everybody down that we tried to do business with in America. We'd miss gigs, we'd be too high to play and we had a really bad reputation."

Sadly, when they took the stage at the Wembley Stadium Rock'n'Roll Show in August 1972, the group made what the guitarist calls "a tactical mistake". He says: "We were going to move our look forward. Smith has this Sonic Smith cartoon superhero character he had invented with a silver cape and everything. I'd cut out all my hair and painted my skin gold and Tyner pushed his Afro out extra big. We were going to break out with our new look. If we had come out with our street clothes, black leather jackets and Levi's, they would have loved us. Sixty-thousand teddy boys took one look at us and the beer cans started coming in. Rob threw one back and, of course, it rained beer cans on us for the rest of the set."

MC5 broke up soon afterward. Davis and Thompson formed short-lived groups with the Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton (respectively called Destroy All Monsters and New Order - years before the Joy Division trio borrowed the sensitive moniker). Tyner went solo, recorded with Eddie & The Hot Rods in 1977 and died in 1991, while Smith married Patti Smith in 1980 and died in 1994.

Kramer, since he cleaned up his act, has been the busiest. "I'm a working stiff," he jokes pointedly. He is also currently locked in a dispute with film-makers Dave Thomas and Laurel Legler, who have made a documentary entitled MC5: A True Testimonial without securing the rights to the group's music. "I'm at war with the film-makers and I'm not going to roll over on it," he says. "I think the music and the story of the MC5 are worth fighting for. The message of the MC5 is that you can make a contribution, you can make a difference. You can start your own band, your own film company, underground newspaper, fanzine. But you have to do it whole-heartedly."

DKT/MC5 and the Sun Ra Arkestra play the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 401 8181; www.rfh.org.uk) on Friday

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