Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Continuing Saga of the MC-5

I first encountered the MC-5 in Detroit, two weeks after missing them in Lincoln Park, where they were the only rock band to brave Mayor Daley's blue vibrations. That means more to me than to those who regard Chicago--or did until the force of contravening sentiment became overwhelming--as a newyorkradicalplot to subvert the head-change revolution (you know, the one that's being led by Laura Nyro and Sly and the Family Stone) but it did not really predispose me to the band. The grass I had smoked with my host, a hip entrepreneur from the neighborhood around Wayne State, just may have.

I was in Detroit because I had work to do and figured there'd be nothing there to distract me, so I was disconcerted to run into a bohemian community with the same strident sense of destiny that always pisses me off in San Francisco. Everything is happening here, everyone told me--great dope, a great paper, great groups. Yeh yeh, I said, now can I go back to my motel and write? Finally, I agreed to attend a rock concert in some church--Unitarian, naturally, with all the turned-on-cleric jive about community relevance and the anguish of modern man. I was just stoned enough not to let it down me.

The warm-up was the Popcorn Blizzard (good), the Psychedelic Stooges (awful), and some blather about a religion called Zenta (weird). I was introduced to John Sinclair, who struck me as very hairy but made one memorable claim; the 5, he boasted, did not just play the "psychedelic Top 10." I escaped to the weekend coffee house in the church annex during the Stooges, but even at that distance they managed to give me a psychedelic headache. I was not in the mood for more energy music as I waited for the 5 in my pew.

I suppose everyone knows about the ritual by now. The band comes on, zaps out a high-kilowatt number called "Rambling Rose," and then Rob Tyner bursts onto the stage and screams, "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" As an example of Motor City togetherness, I had been told a wonderful story about one dance in Flint or Pontiac or some woeful place where the police warned the band that they were, well, empowered to deem this ritual obscene, and when Tyner bounded out screaming "Kick out the jams" the entire audience of local teens had screamed back, "Motherfuckers!" But even though I was prepared, Tyner's entrance was a certified cheap thrill. He really is galvanic. The band played for perhaps an hour, all that amplification contained within those hallowed and resonant walls, and when it ended I had a post-psychedelic headache, which is to say I didn't know whether I was deaf or still high and also didn't care. It had occurred to me, once or twice, that their improvisations were less than inspired, but that was an improvement: at most concerts I can't think about anything else.

After that I took Detroit more seriously as a scene--I had liked the people from the start--but I never got to the Grande Ballroom and I never saw the 5 again. Nor did I expect to. Sinclair had come onstage during the evening and explained how the honkies had prevented the 5 from making that trip to California, then rapped on about prospective record deals and other auguries of the Motor City apocalypse. He seemed like just another no-tit Tiresias to me, although I was impressed that he was political at all. Especially in the wake of Chicago, cultural revolution bullshit over the loudspeakers sounded a lot better than John Lennon "Revolution" bullshit over the car radio. In fact, it still does. Nevertheless, I was dubious. Oh well--when I visited San Francisco in the summer of 1966, I was dubious about Jefferson Airplane.

Two months later most of the rock writers I knew were talking about the MC-5. Elektra Records, the contractee, had flown several of them out there, and in the next few months the 5, without a record or a major tour, attracted unprecedented publicity. This was partly because the Detroit community--Detroit, for God's sake--took everyone by surprise. But it was also because the 5 happened to bring together two obsessive writerly fantasies of those months, combining "revolutionary" politics ("Fuck Mayor Daley") with old-time rock and roll (the neoclassic movement signalled by the Band). By intensifying the beat and the noise to its ultimate high-energy glorification--and telling you that was what they were doing, just in case you missed it--they wielded all the anarchic power that rock had theoretically embodied from the beginning. They seemed to prove that Elvis was a revolutionary after all.

The topper for me was the cover story in Rolling Stone, adulatory to the point of sheer credulousness and very long. In general, Rolling Stone is reluctant to pass the ball to any city but San Francisco. The two big scene stories (on Texas and Japan) have both been in the nature of Rolling Stone exclusives on the fabulous, but decidedly hinter, hinterlands. The MC-5 piece, although it concentrated heavily on the group, did give a sense that there was something unique about Detroit, that all of that lower-middle-class fury could never have come together in the Paris of the West. If Jann Wenner was jumping, I figured it must be a bandwagon.

The 5 then became involved in the famous fracas between Bill Graham and the Motherfuckers. I missed the concert because I was ill, but my reports were encouraging politically--the 5 had not automatically taken the Motherfuckers' side, but had insisted that seats be reserved for street people--and mixed musically. And then the reaction set in. I began to hear complaints about hype, phony revolution, etc. Rolling Stone's Lester Bangs panned the album--"ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious"; "primitive two-chord structures"; "heard all this before"; "Question Mark and the Mysterians." An FM honcho in San Francisco dubbed them "Detroit's answer to Blue Cheer." They drew 200 to a free concert in the Haight and were booed in Seattle.

Way up, way down. The old manic-depressive roller coaster is endemic to rock, which scarfs up hip like it was going out of style, mostly because it always is. It's useless to complain because the pattern is built into the way the music reaches its audience; to try to stand above it is tantamount to not plugging in your amplifiers because you hate Con Ed. The great rock stars, especially Dylan, have specialized in beating the boredom which automatically follows public excitement, and their strategies have always provided aesthetic pleasure. (The creation of a compelling public image presents a formal problem comparable to structuring a novel. The demands of the hit single are much narrower, like a sonnet.) A tactic which seems almost prerequisite is the na´ve front. Only Frank Zappa gets away with openly courting publicity, and he does so by making fun of the whole mechanism, which limits what he can achieve within his music--that is, he cannot write a straightforward song. The Byrds' "So You Want to be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?" was more interesting than any Mothers satire because it was a hit record by real rock 'n' roll stars.

Because Sinclair understands the importance of image and media exposure, and doesn't hide it, his group is stigmatized as hype-hungry. For the average rock fan, it is groovy to change people's heads, but greedy to want to--and wanting to is what being political means. Reaching people--with the accompanying wealth and fame--precedes art. The 5 are Detroit's answer to Blue Cheer. Blue Cheer was (and is, I guess) three putative bike freaks with one idea: they played louder than any band you ever heard. With a healthy push from Mercury on a not-bad single they parlayed this idea into a good six months of minor superstardom, thus engendering the permanent resentment of all self-styled rock cognoscenti. I dug them, at least in person--on a phonograph they didn't control the volume. Sure anybody could play loud, theoretically, but no one else did, and their loudness meshed nicely with their all-around offensiveness. Annie Fisher once complained that Blue Cheer was the logical extension of a 1958 hop band. Exactly--only that's a compliment. And it really can be extended to the 5, who bring up-to-date all the prole defiance and un-stylish violence of the J.D.Os and, unlike Blue Cheer, seem to have an inkling of what that might mean.

The 5 are also better musically. Their beat is different, with more drive in the bass line. Sinclair is always comparing it to New Thing jazz, and he's right. The MC-5 relate to Crosby, Stills & Nash just the way Albert Ayler relates to Miles Davis. If you crave articulation and subtlety, you won't like Ayler or the 5, but if you like to listen with your body sometimes then they just won't give up on you. Ayler recently recorded an LP called New Grass which features actual songs from a chorus called the Soul Singers. Their conjunction with Ayler's free-form sax recalls the honky tenor breaks that filled early r&b, makes you wonder whether New Thing is really so recent after all. Maybe the purpose of that seemingly aimless noise is to reunite us with what is physical in music. A lot of bands begin with the same message--as in the early propaganda for the Spoonful, then the Airplane--but they always get sidetracked. I think the 5 will keep on trucking.

About a month ago, with the album in the national Top 50 and the single in the 60s (it reached number two in Detroit, never overtaking Tommy Roe's "Dizzy"), Elektra terminated the MC-5's contract. Despite the chart success, the two versions of "Kick Out the Jams" had been causing trouble. On the single and the freebie lp it began, "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters," but on most of the albums it was, "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers." Bad words also sullied in Sinclair's liner notes. These perfidies were duly noted in Bill Gavin's influential industry newsletter and there were boycotts by radio stations and record outlets. Elektra president Jac Holzman tried to withdraw the "motherfucker" album. The 5 got mad, Danny Fields, the house freak who had brought them to the label was fired, and Holzman uttered a brief manifesto in Rolling Stone: "Elektra is not the tool of anyone's revolution. We feel that the revolution will be won by poetics and not by politics--that poetics will change the structure of the world." Why is it that such sentiments always sound suspicious, somehow, when they originate with corporation presidents? After all the structures are changed will Elektra replace the Comintern? Plant an acorn, Jac.

When he let the 5 go, however, Holzman did not allude to any of this. He listed only three complaints: 1) the unauthorized use of the Elektra name, logo, and budget in an ad which told people to "Fuck Hudson's," an Ann Arbor record store which refused to carry the album; 2) a statement by guitarist Wayne Kramer in Rolling Stone that he didn't "give a fuck" if retailers who sold the album were busted for obscenity; 3) unspecified "unprofessional conduct," which according to Danny Fields, who now works for the band, means stealing equipment from Elektra's Los Angeles studio. The group has apologized for the ad. Kramer seems like a loving guy, which combined with Rolling Stone's reputation for accuracy inclines me to believe him when he pleads innocent. As for the stealing, Fields says they wouldn't and Holzman doesn't even claim they did. Who knows? The real point, I think, is that all their supposed offenses can be construed as manifestations of a simple political philosophy: "Screw the straights." Holzman doesn't like that, and his decision to believe who he believes is political no matter how he rationalizes.

It is sad how much anxiety the continual use of the word "revolution" by a rock group arouses, even among people with long hair. From the Jac Holzman-John Lennon-Jann Wenner-Lucien Truscott side, where most of the core rock audience can be found, this anxiety is compounded of varying proportions of avarice, fear, sensible skepticism, and pure, overflowing agape. (In Allen Ginsberg, agape predominates; in the Bee Gees, say, I suspect it is just the opposite.) For reasons I like to think are mostly skepticism--aborted revolutions endanger the mother, too, and in this case the mother is not the whole society but the alternative culture--I share some of that anxiety myself. But I am sure the 5 can do more good than harm, and I think it is ugly to want to stop them. That applies on the other side to those leftists who claim the 5 are counter-revolutionary because they have signed with a record company and don't give away their lucre. (I don't have the books in front of me, but I doubt that the group has made much money yet--overhead is so high that only top groups get very rich. Some radicals reserve all their concupiscence for matters of finance.) Puritanism and ressentiment are not going to change the fact that the means of reaching people are in the hands of your enemy. It may be that filtering your message through the corporations inevitably perverts it. But it may also be that unless a portion of the system itself can be coopted, the message will never get out at all.

Anxiety on the part of the so-called honkies--policemen, accountants, and other lost--is more justifiable. No matter where the cultural revolution comes from it is always tinged with elitism--anyone who doesn't want his head changed is left out. I'm more or less with the 5, but I also respect the caution of my relatives in Queens who'll be happy just to retire the Excedrin bottle. I wonder, too, whether all that cult-revolt will liberate the other half of the race.

None of this anxiety and business hassling has stopped the 5; in fact, they have regrouped spectacularly. There is a new contract with Atlantic Records, an excellent sales label with special expertise (best for a long time, now second only to Buddah) at selling singles. The 5 really want a hit single, which is encouraging politically; it means they want to extend their revolution beyond the FM band of your portable Sony. Even if you call it professional ambition, it is that willingness to dabble in business, to risk success, that elevates the 5 above the often misanthropic "armed love" of much of the cult-revolt faction. They may be violent, but they like people. Rob Tyner is almost as good a performer as Ed Sanders in much the same mold, only unlike Sanders his relationship to rock is natural, so he never camps. And the music itself moved as much as I remembered, better--because I could see it, I guess--than the record.

While Kramer repaired a guitar string, Tyner rapped. "Some people call us a revolutionary hype, but that's okay. We're proud of it." Someone began to vamp on "At the Hop" and soon the band was singing: "We're a hype, we're a hype, we're a hype, we're a hype, we're a hype."

If it's a good hype, what's wrong with that?

Village Voice, June 5, 1969