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Volume 12, Issue 7
Published June 9th, 2004

Sonic Revolution : The Mc5 Reunites To Kick Out The Jams Once More

By Anastasia Pantsios

THE LEGEND OF DETROIT'S MC5 is as noisy, sprawling and contradictory as the band itself was. During its 1966-1971 run, it recorded three albums of raw, ambitious music that often exceeded the band's ability to execute it effectively. But this band ran on sheer adrenaline. Though considered, along with the Stooges, to be the prototypical punk bank, the MC5 didn't revere musical simplicity; its interests veered, if a bit awkwardly, into soul, funk and jazz. And rather than the nihilist punk outlook, it embraced the '60s stance of forcibly changing the world, becoming known as a radical political force as the musical organ of manager John Sinclair's White Panther party.

When two band members, vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred “Sonic� Smith, died in the early '90s, it seemed unlikely the band would catch reunion fever. The remaining members � guitarist Wayne Kramer, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson � went separate ways, playing in obscure bands. Kramer did a stint in prison for cocaine-dealing but emerged to develop an active solo career with his own record label, MuscleTone, co-owned by himself and wife, Northeast Ohioan Margaret Saadi. The band has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but so far has not been voted in, an event that would be an obvious trigger for a reunion.

But the reunion has happened anyway. Out of respect for Tyner and Smith, the others are calling it DKT/MC5 instead of MC5. It's part tribute show, with noted indie-rock guests joining Thompson, Kramer and Davis for a world tour that's in Cleveland this weekend. In the U.S., former Lemonhead Evan Dando, Mudhoney's Mark Arm and singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw on guitar are the guest musicians. A DVD called Sonic Revolution : A Celebration of the MC5 , out on MuscleTone Image on July 6, features its first reunion show in London last year, behind-the-scenes footage, old MC5 promo films and home movies.

“Levi's had inadvertently licensed the MC5's name through the widow of Rob Tyner and Gary Grimshaw, the artist who did some of the artwork, and Leni Sinclair, the wife of John Sinclair,� explains Kramer, calling from Youngstown, where he and his wife are taking a breather in her hometown before the tour starts.

“They didn't realize that they didn't actually own the rights to the name MC5,� he continues. “So rather than get into a legal battle with this huge corporate giant, we said, ‘Since you want to celebrate the MC5, we'll put together a show where we'll play the music of the MC5 and we'll get some special guests.' They were really open-minded and said, ‘That's a great idea; let's do it.'�

It wasn't quite that simple, though.

“There'd been a lot of pain associated with having been in the MC5,� Kramer says. “We went so high and we crashed so low that, for me, it was almost better to deny that it had ever happened. It was a long process to finally accept that the MC5 was a thing that happened in my youth, and it had ended. I was living a life I couldn't live anymore. When I learned a way to live where drugs and alcohol weren't necessary, it became important to me to go back and establish new relationships with these guys who were my dear friends. We would connect here and there. But we were estranged for a long time.�

Kramer gives Saadi credit for being the impetus behind the reunion.

“To be honest, Margaret came up with all this,� he says. “She's just a genius. Had it been up to me, I probably would have said, ‘It's a big mess, I don't want to bother with it.' But she said, ‘No, this is an opportunity to make something good happen.' She had a vision, and she was able to sell her vision. So we did the show in London and it was a ball. Dennis and Michael and me played our asses off, and the special guests all played great. I guess the word got out from London and people all over the world wanted to hear this music. We've been blessed to be able to come back together with some degree of humility and leave the past in the past and appreciate what we're doing today.�

One battle Kramer is still fighting is with the principles of Future/Now Films, which made an MC5 documentary, A True Testimonial . Kramer says they approached him in the mid-'90s, and though they had no filmmaking experience, he was impressed by their enthusiasm and agreed to help get others involved if there was a role for him as music director. Currently, the film is tied up in legal battles.

“I threw everything I had behind them, but my relationship with the filmmakers went to hell in a handbasket,� he says. “I made a deal with them and they went back on their deal. They have yet to make me an offer to resolve the situation. I held out for a long time to avoid going public with all this because I hoped they would come to their senses. But they have made some terrible mistakes, and it's not my job to fix them. I would love to see the film come out too. It's a wonderful film. It's a great American story. I remain a reasonable man, but I'm also not a doormat. I hold the legacy of the MC5 in high regard. Some things are worth fighting for.�

That legacy, Kramer says, is “a message of self-advocacy and of possibilities.�

“We were just five guys from Detroit that invented a new sound and a new kind of lifestyle,� he says. “We were part of a generation that was about change: you could invent your own underground newspaper, your own dance company or your own film collective. And if you did it with all that you had, you could make something happen, and hopefully in the end, leave the place a little nicer than you found it. I think that's the message of the MC5.�

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