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MC5



The Motor City Five were head-crushingly loud, intensely self-destructive, boisterously fun, and so politically controversial the FBI tapped their phones. They are also widely credited with inspiring two of the most important rock innovations of the '70s, punk and metal. In short, they were one of the greatest rock bands that ever lived. They are also one of the most representative groups of their era, epitomizing the explosive energy and conflict of America during the Vietnam era.

The mid-'60s social landscape of Detroit was crucial to the formation of the MC5 and an essential part of everything the band did musically. The band's three most famous members, singer Rob Tyner and guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith, were also the principal architects of the band, sons of Detroit auto workers who joined together in high school to play music inspired by the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, James Brown, free jazz, and the blues, seeking to become a rock and roll success in the hopes of avoiding the fates of their fathers. By late 1965, the group had added permanent bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson and landed a gig at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, where they spent the next two years building a devoted local following with their frenzied, high-energy, high-stakes style of live performance.

Sometime in 1967, the band hooked up with their notorious manager, political agitator John Sinclair, founder of radical White Panther party, an ancillary group to the Black Panther party (endorsed by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton). The band quickly became the mouthpiece for the party's views, calling for social revolution and the freedom of all oppressed peoples and pointed working the American flag into their rock and roll imagery. Consequently all the band members began to have regular legal problems. Later on Kramer learned through the Freedom of Information Act that the group's radical rhetoric had piqued the interest of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and other federal bureaucrats, who instituted a program of systematic harassment that involved tapping the band's phones and tailing its members.

In the midst of all this turmoil, the MC5 were playing some of the most exciting rock and roll ever known to man. In 1967 the group signed to Elektra and a year later recorded their seminal debut album, Kick Out the Jams, live at the Grande Ballroom, promptly stirring up new controversy thanks to their refusal to censor Tyner's legendary exhortation to "Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" on the title track. The album's incendiary mixture of politics, blues, feedback, and adrenaline catapulted it into the Top 40, but Elektra dropped the band. In 1969, Sinclair was apprehended with two joints in his pocket and arrested for narcotics possession; since it was his third conviction he was sentenced to ten years in jail -- thus sparking the "Free John Sinclair" movement, which culminated in a spectacular benefit concert in Ann Arbor in 1971 that led the Michigan Supreme Court to overturn Sinclair's sentence three days later.

Without their manager and mentor, the MC5 began to lose their way, soon abandoning the precepts of the White Panther party and falling deep into the throes of drug addiction. They did record a second great album, Back in the U.S.A., in 1970, this time on Atlantic. It was almost a full 180 from the ferocious live energy of their debut; a studio album with a thoroughly different, edgier kind of energy that reads almost as a dissertation on the history of rock and roll up to that point. A little-heard but solid third album, High Times, appeared in 1971 even as the band was on the verge of total collapse. The MC5 played their final show on December 31 of that year at the Grande Ballroom.

Instead of declining in stature, the MC5 grew larger after their demise, as hundreds of musicians and critics acknowledged the scope of their influence. Drummer Thompson disappeared from view after the band's breakup, but all the other members continued to make music. Bassist Davis joined the Detroit cult band Destroy All Monsters (which has recently been revived) with former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. Guitarist Smith formed a Detroit cult band of his own, Sonic's Rendezvous Band with Asheton's brother and fellow ex-Stooge, drummer Scott, and Rationals guitarist/vocalist Scott Morgan. He later married Patti Smith and played on her 1986 album Dream of Life. He died of heart failure in 1994. Vocalist Tyner also died of heart failure in 1991, just after releasing a solo album. He spent much of his post-MC5 career fronting The Rob Tyner Band.

Wayne Kramer's post-MC5 years were extraordinarily turbulent, involving serious heroin addiction and a few years spent in jail for dealing cocaine, but today he is the most active and visible of the group's living members. In 1995, he released his first solo album, The Hard Stuff (Epitaph), serving notice to the world that he was still able to summon the furious soul-punk power of the MC5 days. He's released a number of records since and even founded his own label, Muscle Tone Records, on which he released his 2002 album Adult World.

In 1983, just a few years out of jail, Kramer assembled the cassette-only collection Babes in Arms for the great punk label ROIR from his own private tapes. It was one of the most popular ROIR releases ever and sold out in a heartbeat, but it has since been remastered for CD and is available domestically once again. The release features rare B-sides, rehearsal tapes, and outtakes from each of the band's three proper albums. Spanning the years 1966-1971, it's a great introduction to the incredible rock and roll phenomenon that was the MC5.

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