The MC5 Performs at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, Right Before All Hell Breaks Loose

With some rare excep­tions (Sid and Nan­cyI’m Not There, maybe Walk the Line and Cadil­lac Records), biopics usu­al­ly stum­ble bad­ly when they try to recre­ate the per­son­al­i­ties and atmos­pheres of famous musi­cians. For this rea­son I am grate­ful that no stu­dio has yet attempt­ed a nar­ra­tive of one of my favorite bands, the not-quite-famous MC5. On the oth­er hand, it’s hard to believe there’s no script in devel­op­ment some­where. If there’s one band whose story—and music—deserves a wider audi­ence, it’s this one. Sad­ly, gui­tarist Wayne Kramer has sup­pressed a very well-reviewed doc­u­men­tary that might do them as much jus­tice as any film can.

Formed in Lin­coln Park Michi­gan in 1964, the “Motor City 5” became syn­ony­mous with Detroit’s left­ist polit­i­cal scene. They were also some of the most uncom­pro­mis­ing garage rock­ers to emerge from the era, along with pro­to-punks The Stooges, with whom they often per­formed.

By the time of the infa­mous 1968 Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion in Chica­go—well-known for the bru­tal attacks of police against thou­sands of aggriev­ed protesters—the MC5 had become heav­i­ly influ­enced by Fred Hamp­ton and Huey New­ton. Under their man­ag­er John Sin­clair, they became promi­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the “White Pan­thers,” an anti-racist ana­logue of the Black Pan­thers formed on a sug­ges­tion of Newton’s.

In Sep­tem­ber of 1968, Sin­clair would be indict­ed for tak­ing part in the bomb­ing a CIA office in Ann Arbor. But exact­ly one month pri­or, he presided over the MC5’s appear­ance at the riotous Chica­go Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion. The band was booked as part of Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to stage a “Fes­ti­val of Life,” bring­ing 100,000 young peo­ple to the city “for five days of peace, love, and music,” writes the site Chica­go ’68, to “redi­rect youth cul­ture and music toward polit­i­cal ends.” Fit­ting­ly, per­haps, the MC5 was the only band that showed up after Hoff­man and his Yip­pies failed to secure the per­mits. They played for less than an hour to a crowd of a few thou­sand. Kramer remem­bered the day in a 2008 inter­view:

There was no stage, there was no flatbed truck, there was no sound sys­tem, there were no por­ta-toi­lets, there was no elec­tric­i­ty. We had to run an elec­tri­cal cord from the hot dog stand to pow­er our gear. We played on the ground in the mid­dle of Lin­coln Park in Chica­go with the crowd all around us sit­ting on the ground, in the back stand­ing. I’m going to guess there were maybe 3,000 young peo­ple there. And it was very tense. The Chica­go police had been very aggres­sive and very intim­i­dat­ing all day, and even though it was a rock con­cert and we were the only band to play, it didn’t feel like a rock con­cert. There was a dark cloud over the day because we knew the like­li­hood of peo­ple being hurt was great.

The only film we seem to have of the event is silent sur­veil­lance footage at the top of the post. Fur­ther down, see clips of the riot­ing that ensued, with the band’s hit “Kick Out the Jams” played over it. And just below, see a video of them play­ing the song over a back­drop of riot footage. They released their debut album, Kick Out the Jams , the fol­low­ing year. It was an uneven col­lec­tion of per­for­mances, but “when they got it right,” says Michael Hann, “they sim­ply got it com­plete­ly right.” It was cer­tain­ly their phi­los­o­phy to go all in. As Kramer described it, “You have to come ear­ly, and you have to stay late. The song doesn’t say, ‘Slide out the jams.” It doesn’t say, ‘Stroll out the jams.” It says, ‘Kick out the jams!’”

What I find fas­ci­nat­ing about the emer­gence of the MC5 at this time in his­to­ry is how great of a con­trast they pre­sent­ed to the weary blues of the Rolling Stones, who became grim­ly linked in ’69 at Alta­mont with the cyn­i­cal end of flower pow­er. Despite their asso­ci­a­tion with the vio­lent spec­ta­cle of the DNC riots—another sign of the hip­pie apocalypse—the MC5 became the sound­track for peo­ple pow­er, and in a way bridged the R&B, garage rock, psy­che­delia, punk, and met­al of the grit­ty 1970s to come. But addic­tion, polit­i­cal repres­sion, and cen­sor­ship killed the band a few years lat­er. Lead singer Rob Tyn­er died in 1991, and gui­tarist Fred “Son­ic” Smith, who mar­ried Pat­ti Smith, passed away in 1994.

Kramer has car­ried on, and still tours (and gives lec­tures). When he revis­it­ed the DNC in 2008 for an unof­fi­cial per­for­mance and anti-war protest, he reflect­ed on the pol­i­tics of the day. “It will be help­ful not to have to bat­tle as hard as we have with the Bush admin­is­tra­tion,” he told The Huff­in­g­ton Post, “but Barack Oba­ma can­not save us. It’s real­ly a mat­ter of peo­ple them­selves tak­ing action in their own neigh­bor­hoods, at their own jobs, in their own homes, with their own friends, their own co-work­ers, to move us into the future, a more just world.” The peo­ple pow­er the MC5 rep­re­sent­ed lives on even into this grim era, and the band itself will always live in leg­end, if not—for good or ill—in cin­e­ma.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Web Com­ic Revis­its the Artists & Writ­ers at the Bloody ’68 Con­ven­tion: Jean Genet, William S. Bur­roughs & More

Hear the First Live Per­for­mance of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sug­ar:” Record­ed at the Fate­ful Alta­mont Free Con­cert in 1969

A Gallery of Visu­al­ly Arrest­ing Posters from the May 1968 Paris Upris­ing

New Jim Jar­musch Doc­u­men­tary on Iggy Pop & The Stooges Now Stream­ing Free on Ama­zon Prime

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • AJ says:

    Great read! The MC5 are under­rat­ed in the grand scheme of Rock and roll.
    The so called Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to wake up.
    They influ­enced count­less bands that have already been induct­ed.
    With­out the MC5 would there be punk?

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