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MC5 – A True Testimonial

MC5 – A True Testimonial

It took a while, longer than it should have, but Detroit’s MC5 has finally been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many musicologists would agree it was probably long overdue. It came after six failed ballot appearances, but for many the band simply could not be ignored and were honored with The Award for Musical Excellence. This isn’t a trophy just for participating. They won a spot without the vote and cannot be nominated again. They’re in! Sadly, with the 2024 deaths of guitarist Wayne Kramer and drummer John Thompson, along with their one-time manager John Sinclair, there are no surviving members of the band. That’s the way the Hall of Fame dice sometimes roll. The Dave Clark Five were inducted in 2008, reportedly bumped so the hall could induct Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five the previous year. Like the “other five”, some members of the DC5 had passed on with lead vocalist Mike Smith, the one member most anxious to be inducted, dying two weeks before the ceremony.

MC5 around the time of their debut album

When Iggy Pop was inducted back in 2010, while speaking about how the word “cool” could be subjective, he made it a point stressing to the crowd that “The MC5 are cool!” An acquired taste? Maybe. They were loud and “in your face”, but that’s Detroit. If you see someone from New York City arguing with someone from the Motor City, put your money on the latter. The guy from New York is all mouth. The guy from Michigan will leave you hurting!

MC5 debut album

So, who were the MC5? They were around for about five years, until New Year’s Eve 1972 when the band found itself playing to about 250 people at the Grande Ballroom (splitting a mere $500 for the gig). Wayne Kramer had enough, quit in the middle of the set, and headed to a drug house. As he put it, the band didn’t end…it disintegrated. But what might be the definitive history of the band, which gave me a new appreciation of the MC5, is in a documentary that’s apparently sitting on a shelf while music clearances and other legalities that have plagued its release are still being ironed out.

The film, “MC5 – A True Testimonial”, was produced by Dave Thomas and Laurel Legler for Future ./ Now Films back in 2002 and was actually seen at some festivals winning critical acclaim. Then issues with music rights, copyrights, who was supposed to do what and a bunch of lawyers trying to sift through it all put the general release in limbo. The film made headlines in the Detroit Free Press when there was some hope it could finally see general release, and there was even a very limited distribution on DVD, but unfortunately it never got the attention it richly deserved. You can still see it, but you’ll have to really hunt for it, and I’m happy I did.

Wayne Kramer riding in his GTO in the documentary

The film opens in the decayed carcass of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom with the ghosts of past performances. Grande was ground zero for much of that city’s rock scene and where the band saw its greatest highs and tragic end. It shows the city’s working-class roots and its deep connection to the automotive industry. Wayne Kramer is seen behind the wheel of his classic GTO stating the roar of an engine is the “sound of liberation”, and that kind of freedom was what the MC5 was all about. On his way to important early sites in the band’s development he jokes that even though officially the MC stood for Motor City it could also be interpreted as “morally corrupt”, “marijuana cigarette” and some too graphic to be included here. Visits to VFW halls, roller rinks, and high school gyms show the breeding ground for the band’s genesis, including a bar where a parking lot fight introduced some of the members to each other.
Keeping in mind that digital video equipment was a dream when the band was at its peak, we are fortunate to see early film performances, some crudely shot at various gigs, but still showing one of the most exciting acts ever to hit a stage. The clothes are outdated, the gear on stage minimal, and hair styles and Rockette style kicks that are almost comical, but the energy of the performance reaches out to even the most skeptical audience members. The band’s popularity was born out of explosive live performances, and when the band issued its debut album in February 1969 they made it a point to not only gamble with a live recording from the Grande but to drop in the famous “F bomb” leading into their signature song “Kick Out the Jams”. That didn’t exactly endear them to AM radio programmers, or Detroit’s giant Hudson’s Department Store that banned the album. The band did rerecord the intro to “Kick out the jams brothers and sisters!” but the damage was done.

The band members are all interviewed separately in studios, by campfires, living rooms, and any number of places…but never together which shows the frustration and animosity they shared. As Kramer puts it, they saw the MC5 as “one person, a collective thought” and when that started to show the strain the writing was on the wall. They had some high-powered folks behind them, too. Jon Landau, who later worked with Bruce Springsteen and a number of top artists, was an early advocate, as was promoter Russ Gibb who promoted the Grande shows, and the infamous John Sinclair. The guy behind the White Panther Party, Sinclair pushed them into a heavy political direction playing gigs that the band later said worked against them. Sinclair had his own problems with jail time and was eventually relieved of his management duties.

“MC5 – A True Testimonial” combines vintage performances with newsreel footage that take you back to a very tense time in American history along with the interviews that spin the tale of a band struggling to break free from its Rust Belt roots. There are battles with police, politicians, the FBI, parents, and each other with a heavy dose of anger, compassion, levity, tragedy and even danger and don’t forget the ominous influence of drugs. Some of the most poignant moments come from the archival interviews with band members who had passed and later visiting their graves. The documentary deserved a far wider audience and with the band enshrined in the Hall of Fame that may finally be possible. If you get a chance to see this film, I strongly encourage you to do so. You may not have been a fan of the band, and may not be after, but once you see it you’ll have to agree.

“The MC5 are cool!”

Mike Olszewski

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