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Music

Revisiting The MC5 concert shortly before the notorious 1968 Chicago riots

The Motor City Five, or The MC5 as they are most commonly known, were one of the most important bands of the counterculture. Their Michigan brothers in arms and labelmates, The Stooges, are often mentioned before The MC5 in terms of importance because of their pioneering proto-punk and visceral live energy. However, The MC5 were equals to The Stooges in almost every aspect, bar Iggy Pop’s subversive and often violent onstage antics. 

One would argue that The MC5 were a lot more in tune with the energy of the era than The Stooges. The brilliance of The Stooges was that no one had ever heard anything like their sinister thunder before and they were almost like psychotic, extremist outsiders. The MC5, meanwhile, provided a bridge between the rest of countercultural rock and The Stooges.

Angry, unrelenting, and prone to a hypnotic freakout or two, The MC5 were the embodiment of countercultural fury, and for anyone thinking that the hippies were just a set of frail dropouts, The MC5 were there to prove them wrong. One would even argue that their music is perhaps more powerful than that of The Stooges — drenched in politics and shrouded in unbeatable energy. The Stooges were nihilistic and detached, whereas The MC5 were very present. 

If you listen to ‘Come Together’ today, the song still packs a rather weighty punch. Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson made music for the hippies who weren’t willing to be walked all over by their perceived oppressors. This was hippiedom at it’s most defiant. Apocalyptic and rebellious, for those that thought the end of days were round the corner, this is sure as hell was what it would have sounded like.

Formed in Lincoln Park, Michigan, in 1964, the band were inextricably linked to Detroit’s leftwing political scene. Famously, the band performed at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which became synonymous with the brutal attacks of the police against the thousands of protestors in attendance. 

If you wanted a taste of how the city was at breaking point, the year before, 1967, had witnessed the total destruction of The Detroit Riots. Furthermore, April 1968 saw the assassination of Martin Luther King and, in June, that of Robert F. Kennedy, which saw racial tensions and that between the counterculture and the law reach heights that were hitherto unseen. 

The MC5 were hugely influenced by the works of activists Fred Hampton and Huey Newton, and notoriously their manager, the poet John Sinclair, was the founder of the ‘White Panthers’, a militantly anti-racist socialist group who were the counterparts of The Black Panthers. Sinclair’s group were formed after a suggestion by Newton, and before long, The MC5 became representatives. 

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Interestingly, in September 1968, Sinclair was arrested for his involvement in the bombing of a CIA branch in Ann Arbor, the home of The Stooges. However, before he felt the wrath of the law, he had overseen The MC5’s performance at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. The band were booked by one of the most prominent countercultural figures of the era, Abbie Hoffman, who was staging a ‘Festival of Life’. The festival attracted 100,000 people to Chicago for five days of peaceful protest and music, aimed to attract more young people to their cause. 

Things did not go to plan, though. Hoffman’s plans for an organised music festival were scuppered by the fact he failed to secure permits for the bands, leaving The MC5 as the only band on the bill. They played to a few thousand for less than an hour.

In a 2008 interview on the 40th anniversary of the riots with The Huffington Post, guitarist Wayne Kramer recalled: “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.”

He explained: “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.”

Before too long, after the band’s set, the day would disintegrate into widespread rioting. Incensed by their treatment at the hands of the police, and all of the political scandals that had led up to the day, there was no real surprise that it happened. The MC5 could sense it coming, and their raucous music provided the perfect precursor to the events that would unfold, giving way to the protracted court case of the ‘Chicago Eight’. But that’s a story for another day.

Watch footage of the rioting set to The MC5’s ‘Kick Out The Jams’ below.