In the pressure cooker climate of the 60s, Detroit groups, like MC5, were pushing back the boundaries of rock 'n' roll, experimenting with an array of avant garde ideas, and collaborating with the free jazz of Sun Ra and Art Ensemble Of Chicago. This article originally appeared in The Wire 136 (June 1995).
Flashback to a hot July night in 1968. On the stage of a small club called Hullabaloo in the Ann Arbor district of Michigan, Detroit's MC5 have just begun another set of their incendiary and revolutionary rock 'n' roll. But already trouble is brewing. By the time the group have finished the opening song, a version of "Borderline", seven squad cars belonging to the Ann Arbor PD, and at least two more full of detectives and Narcotics Bureau officials have suddenly swarmed into view outside the club.
Already the club owners have been informed that unless the 'noise' is turned down then the police will be forced to turn off the power. When the group fail to comply, the police pull the plugs, and both the group and the enraged audience start yelling "Power! Power! Power!. Without the benefit of a microphone, vocalist Rob Tyner informs the crowd that the police are trying to cut off their power at all levels. While Tyner harangues the audience to come together to resist the machinations of the Amerikan police state, saxophones, gongs, bells and drums are handed round, and the group and audience merge in an emotionally charged orgy of chanting and dancing in front of the by now fuming authorities.
One enraged officer approaches the group's tenor sax blowing manager, John Sinclair, and hands him a ticket for having "a noise band". Sinclair tears the ticket up in the policeman's face and goes on playing his saxophone.
Such ugly scenes were almost commonplace in the lives and work of MC5 who, along with Iggy Pop And The Stooges, were the most visible manifestations of Detroit's 60s rock underground (which also included the likes of Alice Cooper, The Amboy Dukes, The Rationals, The Up and The Scott Richard Case). As a movement, the Detroit scene was every bit as vital, but nowhere near as feted, as the West Coast scene involving The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and a host of others. The Detroit groups combined their own brand of high energy rock music (its roots firmly entwined around such idols as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Yardbirds and The Who, as well as Detroit's own musical heritage: Mitch Ryder, Bob Seeger, Tamla Motown and emigré blues players like John Lee Hooker) with the musical, political and quasi-mystical philosophies of the free jazz players of the time. By doing so, they produced an intensity of sound and attitude, both on record and in performance, that few of their San Fransisco-based contempories were able to match.
The Detroit 'freak' scene was also different in that the groups it spawned wanted nothing to do with the peace-and-love platitudes that were blooming on the West Coast. But the media attention at the time was fully focused on the blessed-out happenings in Haight Ashbury. And the antics of the Woodstock Generation were considered more 'important' and attractive than the intense political and creative struggles that were taking place in the Motor City. Perhaps environment played a part in forging the Detroit groups' confrontational aesthetic, as well as the media's return to it. After all, California was the land of the beautiful people, while Detroit was a blue collar industrial city, most notable for pumping out automobiles, pollution and racial tension.
The majority of the Detroit groups played regularly at the city's Grand Ballroom, a venue that attracted many big West Coast names, but more importantly, provided a base for MC5 and The Stooges to experiment with new instrumental techniques and performance ideas.
"We discovered there was a way you could set amplifiers by really cranking them up to make a sound that was unlike anything anybody had ever made with an electric guitar before," MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer explained to me recently while he was on a brief visit to London, Kramer was in town promoting his new solo album The Hard Stuff(Epitaph), but we'd met primarily to talk about the music he was making 25 years earlier alongside his follow MC5 members: Tyner, bass player Michael Davis drummer Dennis Thompson and second guitarist Fred 'Sonic' Smith.
"Originally electric guitars were just a way to make the rhythm guitarist in a band sound loud enough to be heard over the other instruments, but as we experimented more by raising the volume higher we could get more tone and more distortion. It was a harmonic kind of distortion, a musical idea, and it dovetailed perfectly into what was happening with the free jazz thing.
"I don't just play the electric guitar, I play the electric amplifier too, this also becomes part of the instrument and at the time it was a whole new idea in how to approach making music. When we started hearing what John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and Archie Shepp were doing with their music, this whole 'sheets of sound' approach was the next logical step in my concept of where I'm taking my music".
In conventional music hagiographies, MC5 have been shoehorned into a tradition of white all-American hard rock that stretches back to earlier Detroit groups led by Mitch Ryder and Bon Seeger and all the way forward to Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But Kramer's comments regarding the impact of free jazz on the group's approach hint at another history, one that has remained largely hidden for the last 25 years.
John Sinclair was a pivotal figure in terms of rationalising Kramer's ideas of fusing rock and R&B with free jazz and the revolutionary politics that were fermenting America's Black Power movement. A politically active beat poet who also wrote a regular column about free jazz for Down Beat magazine, Sinclair instructed the group that their volatile mix of high energy rock and improvisation was the true way forward, a chance to get the message across, that it was the people and not the corporate 'Amerika' that really had the power. The members of MC5 were only too happy to take this on board and with Sinclair they formed the White Panther Party (an alternative to the more militant Black Panthers) and drew up a ten point programme that included a clause which read, "Rock 'n' Roll, dope and fucking in the streets."
Under the White Panther banner, the group would appear on stage toting automatic rifles along with their guitars, the amplifiers draped with inverted stars and stripes flags which they would later use as political props for the night's entertainment.
"We were going to burn a flag", says Kramer, "and then while the feedback was droning on we'd have an assassin come out and shoot Rob Tyner with a blank gun. What happened was the promoter found out we were going to burn the flag and he told us that if we did we would never play there again. We decided to rip the flag instead and, at the last minute, the blank gun didn't fire so nobody knew what was supposed to have happened.
The climax that happened at virtually every MC5 show, however, was a musical rather than visual assault on the senses, which took the form of an escalating spiral of sonic improvisation entitled "Black to Comm". The title was lifted from the shorthand phrase for the instruction 'black wire to common ground' which appeared on the back of Wayne Kramer's Vox Super Beatle amplifier. This almost Dadaesque found title, together with its sublimal Black Power message, made it ideal for the feel of the song. "Black to Comm" failed to make an appearance on Kick Out The Jams, Back In The USA or High Time, the three official albums the group recorded for Elektra and Atlantic, but it has recently surfaced on a CD of live material entitled Power Trip (Alive) which has been compiled from the tape archives of John Sinclair.
"It was too far out for Elektra or Atlantic," laughs Kramer. "We
were stretching them out just to release songs which they couldn't
understand. "Black to Comm." had a lot of feedback involved in it
and we had trouble with the technology in those days. Engineers
used to hate to see us coming because we wanted to get that sound
on the session and the only way we could get it was to play loud.
They'd say, 'Man, it's distorting, it's feeding back!' and I'd
reply, 'I want it to feed back."
The group and its music were plagued with the same kind of distrust and contempt that free jazz pioneers such as Sun Ra and Albert Ayler had experienced before them. In fact, "Black to Comm" might be MC5's equivalent of Ayler's 1964 Spiritial Unity, a session recorded for Bernard Stollman's notoriously off-beat ESP-Disc label that had sent the engineer screaming from the room. John Sinclair was familiar with this legend and in an early attempt to get the group a label deal, he had approached Stollman suggesting that MC5 were just the act he was looking for to break ESP into the rock market.
"Unfortunately they had absolutely no money", says Kramer when I ask him how close his group had come to signing with ESP-Disc. "To record Sun Ra and his Arkestra live that's great, but to record a band like the MC5 properly was going to take a budget, and ESP didn't have a budget. Looking back, though it would have been good to do it."
Although MC5 never recorded for ESP-Disc, a taste of what might have been produced can be heard on their first single "Looking At You", which they released independently on Sinclair's A-Square label. The sleeve was designed by graphic artist Gary Grimshaw, and depicted John Coltrane looking down at a live shot of the group from within a clump of marijuana leaves. It is shockingly different from the version that was eventually released on their 1970 Atlantic album Back In The USA. On that record, producer John Landau turned a raw slab of improvised power with a vein of pure pop running through it into a meaningless, pre-Springsteen, stadium rock arm waver.
"The band was way more experimental than those legitimate records reveal," says Kramer. "We had our show, but on Sunday afternoon we would get together and play one piece that might last 30 minutes and just experiment with a more textural thing."
It was these experiments that brought the group into contact with the region's free jazz community. "A couple of my neighbours were Don Moye and Joseph Jarman who evolved into the Art Ensemble Of Chicago," says Kramer. "We were all there working on these ideas, we would be doing a gig and they would come and play alongside us. I knew Don was a good drummer and at one point I said to him he ought to get into a rock band. He said, 'No Wayne, that isn't what I want to do.. That was one of those moments of clarity for me, to see that here was a guy who could play rock but he had another thing he was reaching out for, and the Art Ensemble certainly went on to stretch the limits."
In concert, NC5 always attempted to stretch their own limits by incorporating cover versions of free jazz compositions. These included Archie Shepp's "Hambone" (with words by Tyner and retitled "Ice Pick Slim"), John Coltrane's "Tunji", Pharoah Sanders "Upper Egypt And Lower Egypt" , and Sun Ra's "Starship", a version of which found its way onto Kick Out The Jams, the group's 1969 debut album for Elektra. (The group also used to do a version of John Lee Hooker's "I'm Bad Like Jesse James", but retitled "I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver" in tribute to the jailed Black Panther leader).
On 18 June 1967, Sun Ra And His Myth Science Arkestra joined forces with The MC5 at Detroit's Community Arts Auditorium for a show that still burns in the memory of Wayne Kramer.
"It was touch and go for a while," he laughs. "I mean the audience could understand improvisation when it was us because we were white rock 'n' roll guys and we only do this weird stuff at the end. But here was Sun Ra and his band made up of black guys who are wearing these bizarre costumes, and saying they're from outer space. There was a minute when we thought a riot might break out, but eventually the Detroit audience figured out what was going on and they became educated to Sun Ra.
"This is the thing about music, these ideas are accessible, it's not rocket science. It's not so much about the notes, the chords or the song being played, it's the interaction between the players and that's what the vibe people get off on when they're listening to it."
Such ideas were usually ignored by the major record companies of the day, and after MC5 were sacked from Elektra (for including the label's logo as part of a defamatory local newspaper advertisement against a major record chain that refused to stock copies of Kick Out The Jams) they signed with Atlantic, which assigned producer John Landau to shape them into a saleable rock group.
A newly produced CD called The American Ruse (Total Energy) includes the group's pre-production rehearsal tapes of the tracks that would finally appear on Back In The USA. Recorded prior to Landau's involvement, these demonstrate that the group's idea of how the record should sound dovetailed more with their earlier experiments into open-ended improvisation that Landau's and Atlantic's ideas of a tightly-packed, commercial pop group. When the album failed to sell, the group were left to their own devices to record one more album for Atlantic, which was released with little promotion under the title High Time (which has been reissued by Rhino).
"The power started to surface again on High Time" suggests Kramer. We were able to combine the energy of the band to discover what our strengths were without interference from people who were trying to make us fit into the star making machine."
When Atlantic broke the group's contract, they left for a tour of Europe where they would eventually break up. A live album to be titled Live On Saturn was discussed but never recorded, and several improvised tracks were recorded by Kramer, Smith and Tyner for the soundtrack of an underground movie called Gold (they can be heard on the Babes In Arms compilation, released by the New York cassette label, ROIR).
"We were just told there was a train sequence and that we had come up with something. We put together the sound and lyrics not knowing what is was," explains Kramer.
MC5 fell apart in 1972 and the various members either drifted into obscurity or attempted new projects. Kramer formed a power trio called Kramer's Kreemers which plodded on until l976 when he was jailed for possession of cocaine. Fred 'Sonic' Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson tried to salvage the MC5 spirit by forming Ascension (possibly named after the John Coltrane album) before splitting up seven months later. Smith then went on to form and lead his Sonics Rendezvous Band with ex-members of The Rationals and The Up.
Meanwhile, the group's ex-manager John Sinclair had been released from prison (after serving part of a ten year sentence for possessing two marijuana joints) and was organizing a series of Ann Arbor Blues And Jazz festivals which Kramer still remembers with affection.
"They were just incredible with absolutely no fear or paranoia
present. They were relaxed, experimental and challenging. There
were about three police officers outside and inside there were
about 15,000 people grooving to this really varied programme of
Ann Arbor was also the home base for The Stooges, who tinkered with the tools of improvisation before launching themselves fully into a career of rabid rock 'n' roll performances.
The Stooges' early musical experiments were more avant garde than punk rock, with Iggy incorporating such household objects as a vacuum cleaner and a blender into an intense wall of feedback that one observer described as sounding like "an airplane was landing in the room.. (Homemade instruments were also incorporated to flesh out the overall sound. The 'Jim-a-phone' involved pushing feedback through a funnel device which was raised and lowered to achieve the best effect. There was also a cheap Hawaiian guitar which Iggy and guitarist Ron Asheton would take turns in plucking to produce a simulated sitar drone, while drummer Scott Asheton pounded away at a set of oil drums with a ball hammer.
"On the front of these drums were written Indian symbols for love and regeneration," Iggy would later tell Anne Wehrer, co-author of his autobiography, I Need More. Then we proceeded to play this thunderous, racy music which would drone on and on, varying the themes. It was entirely instrumental at this time, like jazz gone wild. It was very North African, a very tribal sound and very electronic."
Such experiments arose partly out of The Stooges' interest in a diverse and surprising bag of musicians and musical styles. These included Harry Partch, Cab Galloway, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, John Cage, Robert Ashley, plus music from North Africa, Bali, Scotland and Ireland which Iggy had picked up on while he was a member of the local Gamelan Society!
While MC5 were kicking out in front of the Grande Ballroom crowd and Iggy Pop was smearing the contents of an industrial-sized jar of peanut butter into the hair and upturned faces of his adoring public, the young Mike Kelley was looking on with awe and making mental notes in the hope that one day he could find his way into this magic kingdom. By the time he got round to doing anything about it the Detroit scene of old had broken apart and those responsible for creating it were either disillusioned or languishing in prison. Undaunted, in 1974 Kelley formed an 'anti-rock' group called Destroy All Monsters with Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and a female singer called Niagara.
"Our main intention is to be engaged in an activity that provides an instantaneous and powerful cleansing noise", stated Kelley in an early manifest. "We are not interested in making music.
What Destroy All Monsters were interested in creating were sound sculptures of deafening volume and strangeness, as if The Stooges' early vacuum cleaner improvisations had been hooked up to suck in the influence of such creative spirits as Can, Faust, Syd Barrett, Silver Apples, John Cage and Sun Ra, together with vast splurges of musique concr`te, minimalism, free jazz, psychedelia and garage rock. Strange costumes were designed and worn, tapes were made and collected, and from deep within the sprawling chaos of Kelley's basement the last gasp of Detroit's improvised rock heritage was rattled out with nobody to hear it.
This version of Destroy All Monsters broke up in 1976, when Kelley and Shaw moved to California in search of Fine Arts careers. Kelley would be the most successful, finding some kind of fame in the rock world he despised by supplying his friends Sonic Youth with one of his artworks entitled Ah...Youth!, which the group used for the cover of their 1992 Dirty album.
In 1977, Niagara reformed Destroy All Monsters with Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and MC5 bass guitarist Michael Davis. Together they explored a more fashionable punk rock sound, with the emphasis on guitar solos and punchy songs.
"The band's direction progressed into the kind of band we were originally in revolt over," bemoaned original member Cary Loren in a press release that accompanied the 1994 release of Ecstatic Peace"/Father Yod of a boxed set of the group's early (1974-76) recordings. "It was a sad demise."
Wayne Kramer, however, is more optimistic about the ability of improvisation to further extend the parameters of rock-based musics, and the role it plays in what he is trying to achieve as an ex-Detroit musician who is living and working in the 90s.
"I look at my job as being to extent rock from and beyond itself. I pattern what I'm trying to do from what takes place at really great free jazz concert, where you see and hear something magical take place between the players on stage and you wonder to yourself, 'How did they do that?' I don't see why I can't do that with my music."