When I was 12 my brother had a copy of The Book Of Rock Lists. He was reading it at the dinner table one night and this late-60's band I'd never heard of called the MC5 kept coming up. My parents burst out laughing upon hearing their name. My mom had been a reporter at the Detroit Free Press from 1964 to 1973, and once covered a rally at which the MC5 played. All she and my dad can remember about them is that they were loud.
My interest was piqued by the stories in Rock Lists (plastering a department store's windows with record company stationery that says "Fuck You" because they won't sell your record? Priceless), but in the mid-80s you couldn't find the MC5's records anywhere. It's funny how today almost every significant-but-overlooked-in-its-time record has been reissued and is now widely available, but in 1985 MC5 records, Big Star records...hell, even most of James Brown's records...were utterly unattainable. The only MC5 record I could find was the cassette-only compilation Babes In Arms. Even though it was comprised entirely of outtakes and rare tracks, it was an ideal introduction. When I first put it on I turned the volume down on my tape player, fearful of what I assumed would be the most violent sounds imaginable. What I heard was actually more shocking: the plangent sounds of the mostly-acoustic "Shakin' Street." By the time the violence of "Skunk" and "Kick Out The Jams" arrived, I was ready. But not prepared. Because it didn't sound like what they were doing was possible.
The liner notes talked about Albert Ayler, the Who, Sun Ra, Chuck Berry, and the White Panther Party. I knew who the Black Panthers were, but the White Panthers? Turns out they were a bunch of self-involved stoners playing revolution in their backyard, accurately characterized by the Black Panthers as "psychedelic clowns." I didn't know who Albert Ayler or Sun Ra were either, and I wouldn't find out about them for a few more years. But the MC5 prepared me well for their work; hearing Ayler and Ra for the first time was more the fulfillment of an expectation than a surprise.
The MC5 seemed to revel in every possible contradiction of their situation (self-styled "revolutionaries" on a major label; writing their most politically astute songs after disassociating themselves from political activism) . For their trouble, their house and van were firebombed, the Detroit police constantly harrassed them, and the FBI spied on them. Oh yeah, and their manager John Sinclair was thrown in jail, but only because he was smart enough to sell pot to the same undercover officer twice.
In the mid-1980s it didn't seem like anything could be more anachronistic than the MC5. Kick Out The Jams, and all it's attendent revolutionary fervor, sounded like something from the Bizarro world, the exact opposite of everything that was currently happening, musically and politically. The mid-80s bands most inspired by the 5 (Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du, Replacements, etc. etc.), while brilliant at times, seemed to be more about exclusion than inclusion, and were, for the most part, politically apathetic (the Minutemen excepted). Fortunately, it would only be a few short years until the ascendence of Public Enemy and NWA, among many others (NWA even had their own run-ins with the FBI, being trailed/harrassed by them on tour and illegally detained by federal agents in a hotel room in, coincidentally enough, Detroit).
The other day I finally got to see the documentary MC5: A True Testimonial. It felt like I was being dragged through some strange past I'd never actually lived, but knew intimately. Everything in the film felt deeply familiar, but not in the comforting sense of the word. For instance, during the film's opening shots of the Grande Ballroom my immediate reaction was, "Yep, there's the Grande, I remember that," despite the fact that it closed when I was six months old.
The film itself isn't particularly well-made; the videotaped interviews weren't transferred to film, the editing is clumsy in spots, and too much is missing. For instance, the band members have often spoken of the influence of the New Music on the MC5, frequently citing John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra as inspirations, but no mention of this is made in the film (aside from accounts of a show where they shared the bill with Chuck Berry and Sun Ra). This is hardly tangential, as John Sinclair was the Detroit correspondent for Down Beat; vocalist Rob Tyner adopted his surname as an homage to pianist McCoy Tyner; and as guitarist Wayne Kramer said, "We really wanted to grow up and be John Coltrane." Just as distressingly, the Motown empire doesn't even merit a mention. No musician in Detroit at that time was untouched by Motown; as Wayne Kramer pointed out, "We all wanted to grow up and be the Motown recording band. Those were our idols. Even later in the MC5, we still did Motown covers 'cause that was the most stretched-out music happening in pop."
Compared to the Clash's Westway To The World or the Sex Pistols film The Filth And The Fury, A True Testimonial falls a bit short. But it contains something embarrassingly lacking in the other two films: a complete, uninterrupted live performance of a song. Despite its flaws, one charge that can't be levelled against this film (and that can easily be levelled against the Clash and Pistols films) is that it doesn't give ample evidence of why we should care.
And despite its flaws, I couldn't take my eyes off this film. Two hours of heretofore unseen MC5 footage is like a secret being revealed after 20 years of hearing hints. And part of the familiarity of the footage is that it lives up to everything I'd been imagining since I first heard the MC5.