An uncut version of an article that you can find in the October edition of The Current
In late September, 1968, the MC5 signed a major label contract with Elektra Records. The legendary band was based in Ann Arbor at that time, notorious for their ability to rouse up the rebellious spirit of their audiences. “The 5” negotiated Elektra’s promise to also sign their sister band, The Stooges. Both bands would go on to have an immeasurable impact on the future of “rock” music – essentially inventing the high-energy, hyper-defiant offshoot known as “Punk.”
On Devil’s Night, 50 years ago, they “kicked out the jams,” recording their debut album live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. This year, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer has assembled members of Soundgarden, Fugazi, and King’s X to form MC50–an anniversary supergroup touring in to Detroit (October 26 at St Andrews + Oct 27 at the Fillmore).
We spoke with luminaries from the contemporary music scene to estimate their impact and lasting influence.
Kirsten Carey – singer/guitarist who records and performs as Throwaway:
With any truly revolutionary band like the MC5 and the Stooges, there’s a lasting influence that becomes almost sneaky, in a way. For example, I have this deep-seated belief that wearing dark lipstick and eyeliner for a hard rock set is “cool” – I only just realized that it was the Stooges who helped set that precedent!
Even if someone’s not a huge MC5 or Stooges fan up-front, with both bands there’s a huge chain of influence where a contemporary musician that you might be influenced by was probably, in turn, influenced by MC5 or the Stooges. Bowie is a great example of that, and Bowie’s certainly reached outside garage and proto-punk. They’re always there for people to trace back to.
Personally, I’m more influenced by the Stooges than the MC5, probably because Iggy stayed in the spotlight longer, so he sort of just popped up throughout my childhood. I actually first started watching videos of the Stooges because Iggy Pop is mentioned prominently in the novel Trainspotting, which in high school I felt was basically the counter-cultural Bible. I remember watching videos of him then, nearly 40 years later, and thinking, “Whoa, you can DO that?!” To be that wild, that untamable, to give zero f**ks about how people are perceiving you – both in the musical and performative aspects – that’s always going to be radical and inspiring.
Both bands really helped set the precedent rock music that you can CHALLENGE the audience, that you don’t have to play nice, that you can be loud, that you can be weird. And a ton of bands have followed up on that friction. It’s still something bands explore today – What’s the merit of challenging the audience? Where’s the line? You look at videos of the MC5, and sometimes a lot of the audience is just standing there, stiff and confused. How insane and wonderful is that?!
And I think it’s downright incredible that Elektra signed both bands – there’s a nearly-zero percent probability that a major label would take that kind of chance today. It’s even riskier for major labels to make that kind of a gamble now. I think it’s important that “fringe bands” like the MC5 and the Stooges are given the opportunity to make their way into mainstream consciousness, so that people can be confronted by the new ideas in their music, their message, and their demeanor. “What the hell? Why are these men wearing lipstick and eye makeup?! Can men do that?” The answer, of course, was YES. It’s healthy for pop culture to be challenged like that. Of course, it’s best when the label in question isn’t trying to, say, censor the record against the band’s wishes.
Brent Barrington (bassist):
The Stooges, Iggy and The MC5 are crucial to rock mythology. If it seems like their influence is waning, it might be because they’re so effectively canonized and so often imitated! Their influence is effectively inestimable; if you played “Kick Out The Jams” for someone for the first time, it’d probably sound familiar if they’ve ever listened to any punk or garage rock. It’s similar to how anyone influenced by Star Wars is equally influenced by Kurosawa, Flash Gordon, and John Carter of Mars; whether they’ve experienced these things firsthand or not, they can recognize the same patterns elsewhere in culture.
The MC5 are a band that I think about a lot in terms of their political posturing. Their radical left wing politics were central to their presentation, but in a really welcoming and empowering way. They were heavy as a truck, louder than hell, partied hard, and made you question your culture after it went down. All things that plenty of musicians can aspire to…
I think if you view the move to sign to Elektra in the context of the time, it was just how things were done — records didn’t exist without record companies. The concept of selling out because you’d signed to a major didn’t really exist until capitol-P Punk happened. From what I’ve read about it they were signed because someone at Elektra saw dollar signs when they saw The Stooges/MC5, which obviously didn’t pan out for them in the short term. But that’s only because even the buttoned up suits could tell there was some magic and danger associated with them — that they were doing something wild and new!
I think the record companies were only half foolish in thinking they could sell their music; with the MC5, they made the best decision in putting out their live record as their first release, and then totally squandered that by trying to make them studio-slick and overproducing the second record. We can imagine a universe where they’d have made even better music if the bands went completely wild in the studio, but then again it’s possible they needed to bristle against the constraints of the existing structures to make what turned out to be pretty revolutionary art.
And anyway, judging by the number of reissues and re-releases, it looks like the record companies all got hefty paydays in the end! haha
Joel Parkkila (singer/guitarist):
I believe that The Stooges and The MC5’s influence has only grown throughout the years if you know where to look and how to spot it. Now, that doesn’t mean that the greatest parts of these bands is what’s being borrowed/portrayed but I believe that a lot of music today has at least hints. Over the years, genres get mixed, watered down, split up and “invented” so again, sometimes it can be hard to find the inspiration that could or could not be there. There are way more bands than ever. To me, that can only mean that way more people are creating music based on music of the past than ever before. Hopefully more musicians draw from The Stooges and The MC5 rather than their disciples.
It seems to me that Elektra really had no impact on their integrity and the members all did whatever they wanted until they could no longer function as groups and were then subsequently dropped. Doesn’t seem to me like they were tamed down or packaged in any way to sell records that affected who they were/are at heart. I believe that is a major reason as to why they were so great!
Thanks a lot for including us in this!
Brennan Andes (bassist):
As you piece together the history, meet and work with people who were there, you realize they weren’t joking around about the fact that they rocked.
It’s heavy… when you realize you’re personally connected to people that were a part of it… they shared some of the tricks and traits of the biz, and what it means to peoples lives, including our own… they are actually passing the tradition on to us, that’s when it gets heavy. Gary Quackenbush and all those old timers, the sound guys and union dudes that we see now, share historical facts from a first person perspective. It’s an oral tradition, the beginnings of rock n roll.
Hiawatha (Bailey) lived with Michael Davis & many young rockers were hanging out there.
Ross Huff (trumpet): The influence of the music is the influence of pure energy. I didn’t start to get in to it until playing gigs with David Swain, Hiawatha, John Sinclair. The energy…!!
Brennan: “David Bowie was influenced by Iggy Pop… think of who was influenced by Bowie? who else was influenced…
People got their news from newspapers and there was only one phone for everyone in the house. There was less of everything. This music was some in the know, underground FUN.
The fact that I met Ron Asheton at his house on Lakeview, you don’t realize the importance… you hear people from Alice Cooper’s band talking about how he influenced them… you just thought he was a nice bro that had barbecue, neighborhood dude. That’s Ann Arbor for ya. That’s some mind boggling stuff. His car is still there.
If we don’t get the young kids on board it will be just a piece of history. Scott Morgan was over on Sunday. You meet people that were in Lou Reed’s band, some of the greatest, and friends with the greatest musicians of the 20th century… and they all were influenced.”
Hiawatha Bailey: “When (the MC5) got signed to Elektra… back then a band that was struggling like that paying rent, when they got signed it was a whole new ball game; they had tons of cash. First thing the record company did was give them a huge advance so they went out and got all new equipment. But then with the rest of the money they bought drugs. All the different guys were strung out in all directions. Rob was the only guy in the band who wasn’t doing drugs. Getting signed on that early with that much money and not having proper directive management was detrimental. It was beneficial because they got their music out around the world.
Michael Davis released a book, autobiography entitled “I brought down the MC5” and he talks about the good and the bad during the whole career of the band. Davis went to Lexington for sales. Dennis Thompson and Wayne are the only two still alive.
They represented the sound of the Motor City, living in the industrialized economy, they brought that kind of focus in with their music, the revolutionary aspect of it, music speaking for the party politics. It was more than just going to a concert, you would be getting political education. There would be a communication minister, Jean Plamondon, she would tell everyone about what was going on that affected our community, “It takes 60 seconds to decide whether you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution,” It would drive you to a frenzy.
Handbills were passed out that would further educate people. It became a lifestyle, not just music… And in terms of influencing other bands… a lot of bands would love to have that kind of influence. People changed their lifestyle based on the music and the politics that it was representing.
The reason why those guys ended up in jail is because the Feds felt threatened by the music and the politics. Amongst some of the chapters of the White Panther Party was just rhetoric but the government took that stuff seriously. Nixon sent out a statement from the oval office about wanting something done about the people on 1510 & 1520 Hill Street. They weren’t trumped up drug charges, but they were accelerated by the federal government’s want to bring down members of the alternative culture.
MC5 were very effective at turning people on to the music, and through the music turning people on to the politics.”
Dustin Krcatovich – Writer at FLOOD Magazine, Co-founder/show booker/record label guy at IMPERMANENT and Music nostalgia expertat Riot Fest:
Both bands obviously had an impact on how punk sounded and acted, at least in terms of directness and simplicity. That’s well-trodden territory. The reason that their influence stretches further, though— to krautrock, to techno, to noise, and so on — is that they combine that directness and lack of pretension with unabashedly arty impulses. The MC5, and more especially the Stooges, had the midwest magic… no other area in the country has the natural knack for combining practical working-class getdown with the highest-falutin’ atonal art music. The Stooges started as a psychedelic noise band; The MC5 covered Sun Ra. That they approached these impulses like garage bands, though, created the tension that made them interesting.
A friend of mine recently said the Stooges were basically the same as the Seeds, and even though I like the Seeds fine, I almost jumped over the fucking table to smack him. Virtually no rock band in the late 1960s was seriously taking in Harry Partch, The Once Festival composers (Ann Arbor’s real greatest contribution to music history… look it up!), Coltrane/Sun Ra/Albert Ayler, and then grafting all that onto a ‘Louie Louie’/’96 Tears’ framework.
THIS, as far as I’m concerned, is why both bands are important, and why their influence is more keenly, deeply felt in the work of people like Suicide or Wolf Eyes than it is in that of whatever lame “garage”/”psych” band is dropping their names this week.
And I’m not down to congratulate Elektra on their foresight; in fact, I think it’s a misnomer to qualify Elektra as being particularly bold or risky for signing either the MC5 or the Stooges. The MC5 had a HUGE amount of hype around them after barnstorming the ’68 Democratic Convention, to where they were on the cover of Rolling Stone before they even had a record out! It didn’t even matter if they were any good… a major label was GOING to sign them, if only to cash in quick. Yes, you could argue that they were risky because they were politically dangerous, but Elektra dropped them like a hot potato the second they caused substantial trouble, so I’m not that impressed with their risk-taking.
The Stooges, meanwhile, were an afterthought, who Elektra signed for a song. It didn’t matter if the record failed, they were just a loss leader to make the label look hip to teenage nihilists and reprobates for whom the Doors were too cheery. One must remember that most major labels at that time were run by (as Zappa famously put it “cigar-chomping old guys” who would put out anything that made money; in that regard, the MC5 and The Stooges were basically the late 1960s version of ‘Surfin’ Bird’ (or, as Lester Bangs might have it, the New Troggs). It was all novelty, and approached with the utmost cynicism, rather than a leap of artistic faith.
Not that that’s a problem: most art that actually pushes at boundaries is viewed as low, novelty, beneath contempt in its time (…”termite art”, to borrow a term from the artist and critic Manny Farber… he’d have called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band “white elephant art”)! It’s only after decades of being told by hipper people, or those easily swayed by same, that those bands were cool that public perception has shifted otherwise.
Lest I be misconstrued: Fun House is the greatest rock & roll record ever made, and Kick Out The Jams and the Stooges’ first record ain’t no slouches themselves. I just think it’s a mistake to put them up on a pedestal, and doubly so to salute a big record label for putting them out. That takes these records away from where they should, and indeed need to, be: DOWN ON THE STREET. In other words: they were influential because they were trash, and appealed to people who liked trash. Yeah, both bands contain multitudes and all that, but nobody would have gotten around to noticing as much if they hadn’t first been salvaged for posterity by garbage pickers, who are much more heroic in their efforts than Danny Fields or Jac Holzman.
Chris Taylor – rock guitarist/singer & founder of Fuzz Fest:
All credit (for MC5/Stooges getting signed) goes to (A&R legend) Danny Fields–Elektra’s ‘freak in residence.’ There were other bands in Michigan pushing the limits, Bog Seger, Rationals, The Up. This area was really receptive to that gung-ho/give-it-all-you-got kinda rock ‘n’ roll. And there were other bands that were pretty crazy but it might have been more of an act; Iggy was unhinged–and you believed it! The MC5, I love how confrontational they were–O wish there was a band like the MC5 now, motivating young people and speaking out politically like they did. I can’t imagine a world without those (first two MC5/Stooges) records!
I wish there was a band like the MC5 around today, in terms of the lengths they went to make political statements and motivate young people. They were the wildest! Both bands! You wouldn’t have the Ramones, the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols….or even bands like Grand Funk. They were all heavily influenced by the MC5–with the way they could just hype up a crowd! Even if someone doesn’t realize that they’re influenced by Iggy Pop?–they are!!
Christine Gilha, lead singer from Cig Butts:
The Stooges and the MC5 bridged the gap from obscure local hippies to legendary musicians in the years that followed their deal with Elektra Records. The late 60’s were a time of rising social awareness in young people and these bands demonstrated that lyrically in their music but also in the ethos of their craft. Their music was counterculture and so were their attitudes. They were on the front lines of a rising tide of social change and their music wasn’t afraid to tell you that. Their music and lifestyle told a story and was a call to action. They followed no rules for what music “should” sound like and what social issues “should” be challenged. This is their lasting legacy. This philosophy inspires musicians across genres to focus not only on perfecting their musicianship, but also to readily express their views and build a community of fans that are ready to ingest their music and participate in their politics.
Southeastern Michigan is still a hot bed of social awareness and talented musicians. While the big labels on the coasts seem to have taken little notice, music with passion is still alive and well here. This is not a place that people are drawn to in order to make it big, but rather a place that really big sounds and ideas tend to emerge from.
I would add that Cig Butts has been directly influenced by the MC5 in two ways. First, we’ve had a couple musical mentors that grew up in and around the scene at that time who have influenced us quite a bit. They have been very encouraging and draw parallels between what was going on then in this area and what is happening now — politically, artistically, musically. It’s an honor to hear that from older generations, and always great fun to hear of tales of the old Grande Ballroom and West Park concerts in Ann Arbor. Another connection to note would be playing in the old MC5/White Panther Party’s house on Hill St. in Ann Arbor. Now days it’s a student co-op and is renowned for hosting Lutherfest every summer which features a thrall of local bands and is about as close as it gets to a 1970 house show.
I have also had the privilege of meeting and chatting with Leni Sinclair on a few occasions. She was married to John Sinclair throughout the MC5 days and photographed the most iconic moments of the Ann Arbor/ Detroit music scene during that period. Like I said earlier, this is a place that big stuff comes from, and is less of a destination to make it big. This is a big reason why the music scene here seems to be more cooperative than competitive which fosters even greater art!
8pm – Friday – Oct 26
St Andrew’s Hall $35
431 E Congress St, Detroit, MI 48226
8pm – Saturday – Oct 27
2115 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201