Officially, the MC5 "died" in 1972 after singer Rob Tyner left and the band fell apart in a haze of disappointing record sales, internal conflict and drug problems. For the six years before that, the band was a political and musical force. When the police shut down a 1968 performance by cutting off the electricity mid-show, Sinclair wrote in the underground newspaper The Fifth Estate: "Tyner started running it to the people, without benefit of a microphone, about the pigs and how they're trying to cut off our power on all levels, and how we have to go ahead for ourselves and do it however we can, together. The saxophones and gongs and drums came out as Tyner was rapping, and then everyone merged in a non-electric orgy of music and feeling, chanting, dancing around and jumping up and down with glee in the faces of the outraged police bandits."
Sinclair's description makes the band sound more psychedelic than it was. The sentiment may have been utopian, but Kick Out the Jams is a marvel in that few bands have ever sounded as heavy and as kinetic as it did. It could run though garage band versions of R&B songs, or stretch out in freak-outs inspired by free jazz.
"We found energy in R&B we weren't finding in pop music," guitarist Wayne Kramer says. "Later we found it in black gospel music and in the music of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler -- these were our idols. They were playing the equivalent of what I was trying to do with electric guitar. They had chops beyond mine, but what we were striving for was the same thing."
The MC5 is back, or as close to being back as is possible. "We have to be clear that this isn't the MC5," Kramer says. Singer Rob Tyner died in 1991 and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith died in 1994. "It is Davis Kramer Thompson, and that's as close as you can get to the MC5 today." Kramer, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson are touring with guests that include Mark Arm, Evan Dando and Marshall Crenshaw to play the music of the MC5. Mudhoney's Arm shows an obvious debt to the MC5, but Crenshaw and Dando's inclusion puzzles some. "We've been friends for years and he's from Detroit," Kramer says of Crenshaw. "Evan Dando came out of the blue, called and said. 'I have to do this.' His enthusiasm alone got him the gig."
Ironically, the whole DKT/MC5 project began after the band appeared on the verge of being ripped off. "Levi's had inadvertently licensed the MC5 trademark without permission from the band," Kramer says. The company was trying to promote a vintage clothing line by associating it with the MC5, and to do so it licensed art and the trademark from artist Gary Grimshaw, Leni Sinclair and Tyner's widow, Rebecca Derminer, who didn't have the authority to grant the license. "We said, 'Listen, if you want to celebrate the MC5, then why don't you really celebrate it and let's do a show?" Kramer says. "Get the three surviving guys back together and some special guests and we'll do it in a small club in London and make it a free gig. We'll film it, record it, and you can pay for it. They said, 'Great idea.'"
The show took place in April 2003, and the reception surprised Kramer. "The audience would sing along word for word, verse and chorus," he says. "I know these songs fairly well and they knew them better than I did." Enthusiasm for the MC5 extended beyond that London audience. When the band tried to set up a few dates in America, offers for other dates flooded in. "I never in a million years thought this could happen," he says.
Unfortunately, MC5: A True Testimonial, an excellent documentary that Kramer admits captures the band in its heyday, is mired in legal issues and can't be screened. After problems between Kramer and producers Dave Thomas and Laurel Legler came to a head, the remaining members denied them the rights to use the MC5 music. Things have become so ugly that, according to Kramer, "they attempted to reopen my personal bankruptcy in an effort to strip me of my rights to the MC5 music," Kramer says. The move didn't work, but it further distanced the band and the filmmakers. Kramer expresses sadness that the situation ended up as it did. "It's a great story," he says, "five knuckleheads from Detroit who took nothing and made something."