I wrote my first book in 2006, a biography of Detroit proto-punk band the MC5 called Sonically Speaking. Anyone who has written a book can tell you that it’s an incredible amount of work. It took me from my then-home of London to Detroit and also Los Angeles (two of the three surviving members were living in L.A. by then). The sheer volume of research, the hours upon hours of recorded interviews that had to be transcribed and then translated into a cohesive, accurate retelling of the band’s history — it was a massive undertaking.
The MC5’s story was a little different to that of most other bands because politics was such a fundamental element — at least at the beginning. After forming in 1964, the MC5 quickly came to be managed by renowned poet, activist, and stoner John Sinclair. Sinclair had an artistic group/commune called Trans Love Energies, based out of a shared house in Ann Arbor. Following the Detroit Race Riots of 1967, though, politics took far more of their focus and the White Panther Party was formed.
To today’s eyes the words “White Panther Party” look suspiciously white supremacist but that wasn’t the case at all.
To today’s eyes the words “White Panther Party” look suspiciously white supremacist but that wasn’t the case at all. Sinclair simply wanted his group to be an ally to the Black Panthers that he admired intensely. But it didn’t stop there, he drew up a manifesto commonly referred to as their ten point program:
1. We want freedom. We want the power for all people to determine our own destinies. 2. We want justice. We want an immediate and total end to all cultural and political repression of the people by the vicious pig power structure and their mad dog lackies the police, courts and military. We want the end of all police and military violence against the people all over the world right now! 3. We want a free world economy based on the free exchange of energy and materials and the end of money. 4. We want free access to all information media and to all technology for all the people. 5. We want a free educational system, utilizing the best procedures and machinery our modern technology can produce, that will teach each man, woman and child on earth exactly what each needs to know to survive and grow into his or her full human potential. 6. We want to free all structures from corporate rule and turn the buildings over to the people at once! 7. We want free time and space for all humans—dissolve all unnatural boundaries! 8. We want the freedom of all prisoners held in federal, state, county or city jails and prisons since the so-called legal system in Amerika makes it impossible for any man to obtain a fair and impartial trial by a jury of his peers. 9. We want the freedom of all people who are held against their will in the conscripted armies of the oppressors throughout the world. 10. We want free land, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free music, free medical care, free education, free media, EVERYTHING FREE FOR EVERYBODY!
Freedom and justice — it all sounds great. These were the well-intentioned ideals of early twenty-somethings, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny. The freedom of all prisoners? ALL? Dennis Thompson, speaking to the author for the book, said:
“I would say that, in essence, the politics were genuine as a thought model, as a thought paradigm. I think it was correct and I think it was genuine. But as far as backing it up, we started drawing the line there. We were getting thrown in jail for obscenity. The cops were out to get us. The FBI were tapping our phone. They had a dossier on the MC5 that was about a foot and a half tall. They were following us around mainly because of our association with the White Panthers… It was a confusing time in America because half of the country wanted Vietnam and the other half said, ‘No, we don’t belong there’.”
These were the well-intentioned ideals of early twenty-somethings, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.
That idea, that the country was split in half, seems remarkably familiar today. And then there was the issue of racism.
“We grew up in a very racist time,” Thompson said. “Blacks were segregated. All these changes were taking place with Martin Luther King. There was the peaceful approach of Martin Luther King, or there was the more aggressive approach of the Blak Panthers. We aligned ourselves and said that change had to take place.”
Bassist Michael Davis agreed that young Americans had a lot to be angry about, so he threw himself into the politics too.
“The whole notion that the government controlled society, and that we could be suppressed at any moment… we were at a point where the people were realizing that the government lied to you. We were in the middle of a war, and there was great debate over what was communism anyway? What was socialism? What is capitalism?”
Based on what we’re seeing on the news, with names like “commie” being flung at the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, these questions have never really been answered. They remain words used to scare “god-fearing Americans.” And it works.
“Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem, or whether you’re going to be the solution!”
As for the MC5, by the second album —1970’s High Time — they had pretty much ditched the politics and were focussing on the music for the rest of their relatively short existence (it was all over by 1972). But the legacy of the MC5 remains one of high energy rock & roll combined with some gloriously radical ideas. They were young and not entirely ready to take on the world but they were full of enthusiasm and a desire to do good.
As their MC, JC Crawford, says at the beginning of the live Kick Out the Jams album, “Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem, or whether you’re going to be the solution!”