MC5 Film – Kramer Pulls Plug!
The greatest rock n roll film in the history of the world, ‘MC5: A True Testimonial’, has hit trouble once again. The following article was written by Susan Whitall of The Detroit News & distributed via FN Films mailing list.
On Halloween night 2003 Zenta New Year to Detroit hippies Chicago filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler screened their years-in-the-making documentary ‘MC5: A True Testimonial’ at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It had been 35 years ago to the day that the legendary Detroit band had recorded its anthem ‘Kick Out the Jams’ in a live concert at the Grande Ballroom on Detroits near west side. At the screening, young fans whod never seen the MC5 live but idolized them were mixed in with graying boomers who openly sobbed at scenes of the Grande then, with a thousand kids milling around and the Five in full throttle; and the Grande now, empty and derelict. But after RCA/BMG was set to release the film on DVD on May 4, with a short theatrical run immediately before that, suddenly last week the film was abruptly stopped by the MC5s publishing company, Warner Chappell, on behalf of Wayne Kramer, a surviving member of the group.
For those close to the MC5, its a haunting reminder of the bands traumatic break up in 1972, when Rolling Stone ran a story on them called ‘Shattered Dreams in the Motor City.’
How did a 35-year-old dream of peace, love and eternal rock stardom shatter yet again? In patchouli-scented, all for one and one for all 60s mode, all five members of the MC5 were given writing credit for all of their songs. Thus any one of them can refuse permission for a license. The history of the MC5 was a tumultuous one, from the first fistfight in Lincoln Park between lead singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith to the last brawl, at Tyners home, when he refused to accompany the group on a 1972 tour of England. The drama is what makes the MC5s story such a compelling film.
Back in the mid-60s, the young MC5 wore matching shirts and played VFW halls like any other Beatles-era band. It was only after they became the house band at Russ Gibbs Grande Ballroom in 1968 that the MC5 careered into the hearts of Detroit youth with music and a persona that was loud, funny and inspirational on a level mere party bands werent.
Their appeal is something Detroit-area baby boomers struggle to explain, which is why ‘MC5: A True Testimonial’ resonates with audiences. It manages to tell the bands story and simultaneously explain the 60s to those who either dont remember, or who werent there. Kramer says he doesnt like the term ‘legend,’ but the MC5 long ago passed into that realm. In 1968, they took a macho, hometown pride in blowing super groups such as Cream off the Grandes stage, and developed such a strong following that Elektra Records snapped them up that year.
It was their song ‘Kick Out the Jams,’ with its profane language, and their links with 60s revolutionary politics, John Sinclair and the White Panthers, that helped the group become infamous.
That Kramer has blocked the films release hasnt pleased the survivors of the two MC5 members whove died: lead singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. ‘I said to Laurel and David all along, their journey has so paralleled that of the MC5,’ says Tyners widow Becky. ‘Now were at the break up of the MC5. The bully tactics, the pressure. Its almost cosmic.’ That is the one thing that Kramer and Tyner agree on. ‘Trouble seems to follow the MC5,’ Kramer said by phone from his Los Angeles office. He and his manager wife Margaret are making plans for a July release of his own film, ‘Sonic Revolution,’ which documents the London reunion of the surviving members of the MC5.
Kramer also plans a tour with his surviving MC5 mates Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis, as ‘DKT/MC5’. The use of the name ‘MC5’ with two of the ‘5’ dead has family members unhappy. Jackson Smith, the Detroit-based musician son of Fred and Patti Smith, is also disappointed that the release of ‘A True Testimonial’ is being held up. ‘It’s a travesty that it would be blocked,’ Smith says. ‘It’s a great document of the band, it’s a great document of life, and it’s a great document of things ... far and beyond the band.’ Smith, who is in the Detroit band Back in Spades, is also irritated that the DKT/MC5 Web site makes no mention of his father, Fred Smith, or Rob Tyner. When a fan posted on waynekramer.com hoping that Back in Spades would open for the DKT/MC5 tour, Smith felt that was his chance to speak out.
‘I posted to make it clear that there was no chance Back in Spades would be involved,’ Smith says. He also alluded vaguely to bad blood between his family and Kramer. His post was deleted by Margaret Kramer, who posted that she would allow no ‘personal attacks’ on the forum.
Famed Grande Ballroom poster artist Gary Grimshaw, who recently moved back to Detroit from San Francisco, is ‘disturbed’ by Kramers opposition to the film. Grimshaw did the cover graphics for the ‘True Testimonial’ film, as well as for Kramers film. ‘I had no idea when I did that for him that there was going to be any problem, that Wayne would set it up as the only authorized MC5 movie as opposed to A True Testimonial. If Id known, I dont think I would have done the cover for him.’
For their part, after a six-year odyssey, filmmakers Thomas and Legler are upset at having to cancel the April showings and May DVD release of their film, which would have included a Detroit premiere late in the month.
The two had painstakingly accumulated old footage of the MC5 playing live. The clips came from many sources, including the attics of fans, and show the band playing at the Grande, at Wayne States Tartar Field, a Belle Isle Love-In and many other places, including government surveillance film, in brilliant color, of the MC5 playing a protest rally at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.
Asked on Tuesday about the films status, Thomas and Legler were only able to issue a lawyer-vetted statement: ‘Exhibition and distribution of the film is currently on hold. Negotiations are delicate and we cannot comment further.’ But in an earlier conversation Legler sobbed when she spoke to a reporter. As for Warner-Chappell Publishing, which technically has not issued a license for the film to use the MC5s songs, Pat Woods, senior director of licensing, did not return a reporters call.
Although he now calls the film ‘unlicensed’ and a ‘bootleg,’ Kramer is virtually the narrator of ‘A True Testimonial,’ driving a gold Pontiac GTO through the streets of downtown Detroit in the beginning of the movie, and around Lincoln Park as he describes how the band was formed in the parking lot of the Route 66 restaurant.
But Kramer prefers to talk about ‘Sonic Revolution’ and the proposed tour of DKT/MC5, which would use a rotating series of lead singers, including Marshall Crenshaw and Evan Dando of the Lemonheads.
Asked about the ‘True Testimonial’ documentary, he says, ‘I don’t comment about unlicensed, bootleg films.’
One of the groups most appealing qualities is that they always had a sort of irreverence about their politics.
In ‘A True Testimonial,’ Kramer talks about having a romantic encounter, then looking outside a window at the groups Wayne State-area house to see the MC5 van being firebombed. ‘Now that was fun,’ Kramer exults, in the film. Among the most disappointed fans of the ‘True Testimonial’ film are younger people who have heard all the legends about the MC5. Brian Bowe, 31, the Michigan-based editor of Creem magazine, sometimes posts on Internet forums as ‘MC5rules’. ‘The fact that its not coming out is disappointing for people like me, who are huge fans but never got to see the MC5 play live,’ says Bowe. ‘Their showmanship and the way the band moved was such an important part of the presentation, and thats a part of the story you dont get from listening to records.’ Guitarist Kramer often mentions ‘the message of the MC5’ and how he wants it to get out to younger generations. Will the younger generations think the MC5s message one of peace, love and raw power through high decibel rock, or is it that ultimately, nobody can get along?
‘I dont know what the younger generation would say,’ Kramer says. ‘I dont have all the answers. I dont have any answers.’
As for the legal wrangling over the film going away: ‘I cant predict the future,’ Kramer says. ‘If I could, wed both go out to Hollywood Park (race track) and wed clean up.’
About The MC5
Members: The MC5, first known as the Motor City Five in the mid-'60's, featured lead singer Robin Tyner, guitarists Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson.
Career: Started out playing teen dances and VFW halls in and around their native Lincoln Park. Segued from playing cover tunes and dance music to a raucous, fuel-injected sound that came to epitomize the high energy Detroit rock 'n' roll sound of the '60s.
Scene: The MC5 were the house band at the legendary Grande Ballroom on Grand
River Avenue, and honed their live act there. It began with emcee J.C. Crawford whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his call of "Are you ready to testify?" after which the band would open up with Kramer singing "Rambling Rose."
Signature song: "Kick Out the Jams," with its use of a common expletive, got
the group banned from Hudson's, innumerable radio stations and high school dances.
Politics: After joining forces with manager John Sinclair, the MC5 got caught up in the revolutionary mix of music and leftist politics that permeated the Bohemian Cass Corridor scene at the time. The band lived communally with the White Panthers for a long time but eventually moved away so it could concentrate more on music and less on politics.
Break up: The band splintered after a contentious Grande Ballroom show on New Year's Eve 1972. Smith went on to found Sonic's Rendezvous Band in Detroit;
Kramer, Davis and Thompson also pursued music separately, Thompson with the Detroit-based Motor City Bad Boys.
Susan Whitall – tMx 14 – 03/04
(This article originally appeared in the The Detroit News - Wednesday, March 31, 2004)