MC5 in turmoil yet again
The Detroit News
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
MC5 in turmoil yet again
Long-awaited film on Detroit band halted on eve of its release
By Susan Whitall / The Detroit News
On Halloween night 2003 Zenta New Year to Detroit hippies Chicago
filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler screened their
documentary ³MC5: A True Testimonial² at the Detroit Institute of
It had been 35 years ago to the day that the legendary Detroit band
recorded its anthem ³Kick Out the Jams² in a live concert at the
Ballroom on Detroit¹s near west side.
At the screening, young fans who¹d never seen the MC5 live but
were mixed in with graying boomers who openly sobbed at scenes of the
then, with a thousand kids milling around and the Five in full
the Grande now, empty and derelict.
But after RCA/BMG was set to release the film on DVD on May 4, with a
theatrical run immediately before that, suddenly last week the film
abruptly stopped by the MC5¹s publishing company, Warner Chappell, on
of Wayne Kramer, a surviving member of the group.
For those close to the MC5, it¹s a haunting reminder of the band¹s
breakup in 1972, when Rolling Stone ran a story on them called
Dreams in the Motor City.²
How did a 35-year-old dream of peace, love and eternal rock stardom
yet again? In patchouli-scented, all for one and one for all ¹60s
five members of the MC5 were given writing credit for all of their
Thus any one of them can refuse permission for a license.
The history of the MC5 was a tumultuous one, from the first fistfight
Lincoln Park between lead singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred ³Sonic²
to the last brawl, at Tyner¹s home, when he refused to accompany the
on a 1972 tour of England. The drama is what makes the MC5¹s story
Back in the mid-¹60s, the young MC5 wore matching shirts and played
halls like any other Beatles-era band.
It was only after they became the house band at Russ Gibb¹s Grande
in 1968 that the MC5 careened into the hearts of Detroit youth with
and a persona that was loud, funny and inspirational on a level mere
Their appeal is something Detroit-area baby boomers struggle to
which is why ³MC5: A True Testimonial² resonates with audiences. It
to tell the band¹s story and simultaneously explain the ¹60s to those
either don¹t remember, or who weren¹t there.
Kramer says he doesn¹t like the term ³legend,² but the MC5 long ago
into that realm. In 1968, they took a macho, hometown pride in blowing
supergroups such as Cream off the Grande¹s stage, and developed such a
strong following that Elektra Records snapped them up that year.
It was their song ³Kick Out the Jams,² with its profane language, and
links with ¹60s revolutionary politics, John Sinclair and the White
Panthers, that helped the group become infamous.
That Kramer has blocked the film¹s release hasn¹t pleased the
the two MC5 members who¹ve died: lead singer Rob Tyner and guitarist
³I said to Laurel and David all along, their journey has so
of the MC5,² says Tyner¹s widow Becky. ³Now we¹re at the breakup of
The bully tactics, the pressure. It¹s almost cosmic.²
That is the one thing that Kramer and Tyner agree on. ³Trouble seems
follow the MC5,² Kramer said by phone from his Los Angeles office. He
his manager wife Margaret are making plans for a July release of his
film, ³Sonic Revolution,² which documents the London reunion of the
surviving members of the MC5.
Kramer also plans a tour with his surviving MC5 mates Dennis Thompson
Michael Davis, as ³DKT/MC5.²
The use of the name ³MC5,² with two of the ³5² dead, has family
Jackson Smith, the Detroit-based musician son of Fred and Patti
also disappointed that release of ³A True Testimonial² is being held
³It¹s a travesty that it would be blocked,² Smith says. ³It¹s a great
document of the band, it¹s a great document of life, and it¹s a great
document of things ... far and beyond the band.²
Smith, who is in the Detroit band Back in Spades, is also irritated
DKT/MC5 Web site makes no mention of his father, Fred Smith, or Rob
When a fan posted on waynekramer.com hoping that Back in Spades would
for the DKT/MC5 tour, Smith felt that was his chance to speak out.
³I posted to make it clear that there was no chance Back in Spades
involved,² Smith says. He also alluded vaguely to bad blood between
family and Kramer. His post was deleted by Margaret Kramer, who
she would allow no ³personal attacks² on the forum.
Famed Grande Ballroom poster artist Gary Grimshaw, who recently moved
to Detroit from San Francisco, is ³disturbed² by Kramer¹s opposition
film. Grimshaw did the cover graphics for the ³True Testimonial²
well as for Kramer¹s film.
³I had no idea when I did that for him that there was going to be any
problem, that Wayne would set it up as the only authorized MC5 movie
opposed to A True Testimonial.¹ If I¹d known, I don¹t think I would
done the cover for him.²
For their part, after a six-year odyssey, filmmakers Thomas and
upset at having to cancel the April showings and May DVD release of
film, which would have included a Detroit premiere late in the month.
The two had painstakingly accumulated old footage of the MC5 playing
The clips came from many sources, including the attics of fans, and
band playing at the Grande, at Wayne State¹s Tartar Field, a Belle
Love-In and many other places, including government surveillance
brilliant color, of the MC5 playing a protest rally at the Democratic
Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Asked on Tuesday about the film¹s status, Thomas and Legler were only
to issue a lawyer-vetted statement: ³Exhibition and distribution of
is currently on hold. Negotiations are delicate and we cannot comment
But in an earlier conversation Legler sobbed when she spoke to a
As for Warner-Chappell Publishing, which technically has not issued a
license for the film to use the MC5¹s songs, Pat Woods, senior
licensing, did not return a reporter¹s call.
Although he now calls the film ³unlicensed² and a ³bootleg,² Kramer is
virtually the narrator of ³A True Testimonial,² driving a gold
through the streets of downtown Detroit in the beginning of the
around Lincoln Park as he describes how the band was formed in the
lot of the Route 66 restaurant.
But Kramer prefers to talk about ³Sonic Revolution² and the proposed
DKT/MC5, which would use a rotating series of lead singers, including
Marshall Crenshaw and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads.
Asked about the ³True Testimonial² documentary, he says, ³I don¹t
about unlicensed, bootleg films.²
One of the group¹s most appealing qualities is that they always had a
of irreverence about their politics.
In ³A True Testimonial,² Kramer talks about having a romantic
then looking outside a window at the group¹s Wayne State-area house
the MC5 van being firebombed.
³Now that was fun,² Kramer exults, in the film.
Among the most disappointed fans of the ³True Testimonial² film are
people who have heard all the legends about the MC5.
Brian Bowe, 31, the Michigan-based editor of Creem magazine,
on Internet forums as ³MC5rules.²
³The fact that it¹s not coming out is disappointing for people like
are huge fans but never got to see the MC5 play live,² says Bowe.
showmanship and the way the band moved was such an important part of
presentation, and that¹s a part of the story you don¹t get from
records.² Guitarist Kramer often mentions ³the message of the MC5²
he wants it to get out to younger generations. Will the younger
think the MC5¹s message one of peace, love and raw power through high
decibel rock, or is it that ultimately, nobody can get along?
³I don¹t know what the younger generation would say,² Kramer says. ³I
have all the answers. I don¹t have any answers.²
As for the legal wrangling over the film going away: ³I can¹t predict
future,² Kramer says. ³If I could, we¹d both go out to Hollywood Park
track) and we¹d clean up.²
You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or at
Surviving members of the MC5 are, from left, Wayne Kramer, Dennis
and Michael Davis. Press copies of "MC5 A True Testimonial," right,
sent out before distribution of the film was stopped.
About the MC5
Members: The MC5, first known as the Motor City Five in the mid-'60's,
featured lead singer Robin Tyner, guitarists Fred "Sonic" Smith and
Kramer, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson.
Career: Started out playing teen dances and VFW halls in and around
native Lincoln Park. Segued from playing cover tunes and dance music
raucous, fuel-injected sound that came to epitomize the high energy
rock 'n' roll sound of the '60s.
Scene: The MC5 were the house band at the legendary Grande Ballroom
River Avenue, and honed their live act there. It began with emcee J.C.
Crawford whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his call of "Are you
testify?" after which the band would open up with Kramer singing
Signature song: "Kick Out the Jams," with its use of a common
the group banned from Hudson's, innumerable radio stations and high
Politics: After joining forces with manager John Sinclair, the MC5 got
caught up in the revolutionary mix of music and leftist politics that
permeated the Bohemian Cass Corridor scene at the time. The band lived
communally with the White Panthers for a long time but eventually
so it could concentrate more on music and less on politics.
Breakup: The band splintered after a contentious Grande Ballroom show
Year's Eve 1972. Smith went on to found Sonic's Rendezvous Band in
Kramer, Davis and Thompson also pursued music separately, Thompson
Detroit-based Motor City Bad Boys.
- Not to excuse what appears to be Kramer's last-second effort to squeeze some extra cash out of the filmmaker, but does it strike anyone as weird that filming/editing/etc happened without nailing down the licensing stuff beforehand? It may be the lawyer in me speaking, but that seems whacky.