MC5: A True Testimonial

by The Seth Man, 16/09/2002ce

Am I ready to testify?
Am I ready?
Are you kidding? I’ve BEEN ready for fucking years…

And so are Future/Now Films, who have just completed their visual documentary on the Detroit rock’n’roll group, The MC5. After four years of intensive work and unreasonable budgets, it’s finally a reality. So a salute to the people who conceived, assembled and executed this superb documentary: David C. Thomas (director); Laurel M. Legler (producer); Howard Thompson and Jim Roehm (executive producers) -- to you and your entire crew, THANK YOU for 2 kick ass hours of rock’n’roll that flashed by ALL too quickly. You did all of us rock’n’roll maniacs of the universe one big, fat solid and no mistake!

I also extend my sincere thanks and one righteously pumped proto-metal fist in the air to both Dorian and Julian Cope, whose extended invite in sending me there to represent Head Heritage to check it out on their behalf was very generous, to say the least. Rock!

I was impressed, excited and moved by “MC5: A True Testimonial” on EVERY level. But before I derail my other myriad thoughts about the film and The MC5 both, I gotta first say that as much as “MC5: A True Testimonial” is an invaluable rock’n’roll history lesson, it’s also a film about people and their lives and how they and the world in which they lived changed FOREVER over the course of seven very eventful years. This angle came to me during an early interview segment with Sigrid Dobat and Becky Tyner. And as they were recounting their own personal stories, I suddenly realized that this story of The MC5 was going to be extremely big and tragic and one that’ll burst your heart if you have any feelings at all because “MC5: A True Testimonial” brings those five young men known as Rob Tyner, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Wayne Kramer, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson back down to earth as human beings who once performed in a rock’n’roll group called The MC5. And for the majority of the time, swirling around them was practically every Mongolian Cluster Fuck possible: divorce, drug addiction, alcohol, family deaths, FBI surveillance, record company hassles, being blackballed by concert promoters, harassed by the cops, harassed by “fellow” revolutionaries, arrests, rip-offs, attacks and threats. I’m sure I’m even missing a few things, but just HALF that list would kill off the majority of ANY bands past, present or future outright.

It could be said that The MC5 truly did it ALL in the span of seven years and the same could also be said of their evolution, sonicly speaking: First rising above from the ranks of endless suburban American garage bands…finding their rock’n’roll legs with the usual English Invasion cues…then onto experimenting with feedback and fuzztones…then drugs and avant-garde jazz and freakouts…then stripping back to their rock’n’roll roots only to then expand upon their entire legacy while pushing forward into experimentation simultaneously…only to THEN come back full circle in a Willie “Boom Boom” Alexander-era Velvets style scenario by late 1972, as they were winding down to a halt with just their 2 guitarists as “MC2” plus British rhythm section performing Chuck Berry covers in Scandinavia…Like I said: they did it all.

“MC5: A True Testimonial” kicks off with winding shots of the interior of the now-abandoned Grande Ballroom, Detroit and it was eerie to contemplate HOW many times The MC5 musta played there between 1966 until 1972. It then went right back to the beginning, to the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park: where it all began. Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis were all recently interviewed, and the feeling I got from the onset was how RIGHT it all was. It flowed like a motherfucker, and not just because it’s a plum of a storyline (although it is) but because Future Now Films are perfectionists and their love for the MC5 is obvious throughout and reflected an intense level of research combined with a great respect for its subject. You’ve probably seen as many “rockumentaries” as I have, so you know how it always winds up being 10 seconds of great live footage thrown in under a hyperbolizing, hackneyed narration that always reaches its height when somebody in the band gets busted/gets hooked on a nasty drug habit/etc with the immortal 4-word line, “Then…suddenly…tragedy struck” as it then cuts quickly to a commercial. Not here, though -- AND the history of The MC5 was tragedy itself. “A True Testimonial” IS just like the title says -- It is a heart and soul testimonial of the people who were there, telling it like it is and it’s sometimes hard to take: like when the recently interviewed Dennis Thompson looks into the camera and says, “I have dreams of my band five out of every seven nights.” Or during recollections of the Detroit riots of 1967 (Riots? Looked more like a fucking WAR to me.) as Sigrid Dobat and Becky Tyner reminisced about how they looked out the window to see a tank roll up and point its turret directly at their Trans-Love commune. Fuuuck…I mean, most of The MC5 weren’t even out of their teens at this time and dealt with THIS? But did they give up? Naw -- it only made them stronger.

The joy factor picked up decidedly when the heavy/psychedelic period really kicked in for The MC5 during the summer of 1968. It was revealed that Kramer had an acid trip where he had a vision “to be spangly” and Michael Davis confirmed it with the hilarious quote, “We were pretty much out of our minds.” The MC5 opened for Cream three times at the Grande Ballroom, and it was this band that the term “Kick out the jams, Motherfuckers!” was first hooting at by The MC5, probably when yet another half and hour blooz plod-athon like “Spoonful” was imminent. Then staggering footage from the Grande Ballroom from the time of the recording of “Kick Out The Jams” in mid-autumn, 1968, just after they were signed to Elektra. It was just INCREDIBLE and file this whole blazing period under: “Barbaric Fuck Rock.” Brother J.C. Crawford steps up to the microphone in that ever so familiar voice to introduce the band and then RIGHT into “Ramblin’ Rose” with Wayne Kramer on vocals. This was obviously from the same set as the amazing promo clip John & Leni Sinclair directed for the song “Kick Out The Jams”: a fast-motion blur of energy, flash, bombast and exhilarating rock’n’roll as The MC5 proved that they were one of the most physical bands, ever: bending, twirling and spinning around, totally all shook up and ready for anything, a representative display of what Rob Tyner probably meant when once wrote, “Thunder in the night forever!”

Footage of The MC5 playing outdoor in Lincoln Park, Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention was truly weird to behold for several reasons: the site of this performance was not even 2 miles away from the very cinema we were all sitting in, ‘Lincoln Park’ was also the name of the Detroit suburb The MC5 emerged out of and lastly, because this excellent quality footage had been shot by an FBI surveillance team! The performance was amazing to watch, and the shot of Dennis Thompson shirtless (of course) and in leopard print pants was a fucking proto-glam moment that made me re-think The MC5’s visual impact (which always changed yet remained entirely cool.) The cover of a declassified set FBI files on the MC5 were shown over an interview segment with John Sinclair as he discussed The White Panthers and the politics involved around The MC5 in one of the deepest voices I’ve ever heard. Then Danny Fields was interviewed and his insights were witty, urbane and delivered in an amazingly gravelly, near-campy voice. Like I cared: he could’ve been singing his entire interview in a high-pitched falsetto because this was the man who got The MC5, The Stooges and Nico all signed to Elektra AND embarrassed his own record company when his intuitive scouting brought David Peel & The Lower East Side to the label and landed them the surprise hit album, “Have A Marijuana”!

The MC5 celluloid detectives at Future Now came as close as fuck all to finding their Holy Grail: The Phun City reels which ex-Radio Caroline mainman Ronan O’Reilly shot on multiple state of the art television cameras with the intent to broadcast it from airplanes circling London as the first pirate TV station! Unfortunately, the reels remained elusive, but when that Super 8 footage they secured appeared onscreen, I truly did gasp -- I have seen many, many photographs from this show and even heard that sub-“Metallic K.O.” CD making the rounds, but to actually SEE it in action was totally E-lektrik! But then again, ALL the live footage was amazing: The version of “Black To Comm” broadcast originally on the Detroit local TV station WTVS-TV in October 1967, the outdoor performance right by a Michigan freeway and much, much more was all kicking my ass round the theatre.
There was a hilarious story concerning their appearance at the 1972 Rock’n’Roll Revival concert at Wembley. You know that silver spacesuit “Sonic” Smith is wearing on the inside of “High Time”? Well, he WORE it onstage AND Kramer painted his face gold for the gig! And if that isn’t amazing enough, this only drew ire from a crowd composed largely of Teddy Boys who promptly responded not with applause, but with a hail of tossed lager cans! I tell you, it never stops…

But at the very end, I was right on the verge of tears during Wayne Kramer’s interview when he echoed what he said in the last pages of “Please Kill Me.” About how the worst thing they did in their career was when they lost each other. Aww fuck, man: I’m in a theatre with no one I know and no pals either and now I gotta cry? Luckily, the tone did cheer with footage of the old Hudson’s building being torn down cross cut with a shot of Dennis Thompson shooting his machine gun into the camera. I mean, who’s gonna remember Hudson’s for anything from now on except how that hidebound department store relates to The MC5 story?
So you know what: the end WAS uplifting, after all, because it celebrated a band that celebrated everything that made them so desperately joyous a proposition in the first place. And in the final analysis, I think that’s what they wanted to do: to uplift the spirit. And even if The MC5 were “just a rock’n’roll band” their music alone would’ve more than sufficed. But they were more: SO much more.

Now go and buy some merchandise from the good people at Future Now Films so they can keep going until distribution is theirs (and therefore allow them to proceed to put the stuff they couldn’t fit into the movie at the end of the DVD) at: www.futurenowfilms.com because they deserve help with their project, which is still running some very high costs. So buy a set of postcards and send ‘em to your pals. Or buy a T-shirt for your girlfriend. Plaster your fridge with “KOTJ-MF” stickers! You know it makes sense. They deserve your support for not only a task successfully achieved, but for visually presenting this incredible story into being for you, me and everybody else in the future who’ll EVER ask the question: ‘What’s The MC5 all about, anyway?”
I have a feeling they’ll know very soon…and once they do, they will never, ever forget it.
I know I won’t.