Posted March 14, 2003

The Barman's Rant
Occasional thoughts on Real Rock Action


The surviving three members of the MC5 reformed at London’s 100 Club last week for what was, as far as we know, a one-off show. Just a few hundred lucky ticket-holders were invited - but the reverberations have been heard around the world.

You only had to sneak a peek at Wayne Kramer’s website’s bulletin board to see the depth of the feeling provoked.

It’s not so much that people were saying the band shouldn’t have reformed or the remaining members didn’t deserve a payday after all these years. It’s just that the event was sponsored by Levi’s jeans, and a fair whack of the ticket-holders were people from the rag trade.

The dichotomy of one-time Champions of the Revolution That Never Eventuated jumping into bed with corporate sponsorship was too much for some. A sprinkling of commentary from the Kramer board:

These guys have had tough lives and who could begrudge them making a living from the past? On the other hand, putting yourself out there as public figures and espousing a certain morality opens you up to this type of criticism when you turn 180 degrees and bend over for the MAN. …Brother Wayne, brother Michael, brother Dennis... I'm ashamed of you and for you. Fuck Levi's! You guys should know better. – "Bob D"

I had the good fortune to be hired by a famous corporate music rag to photograph the Rob Tyner Tribute in Detroit after Rob's death. Then they were the MC4 complete with Fred. Anyway... I got everyone together, including Rob's wife Becky, for a portrait, but it didn't happen. Why???? Because Wayne refused to be photographed with the rest. Fred was visably dissapointed. This is what Wayne REALLY thought of the 5. Now I'm sure Fred and Rob are rolling in their graves. Wayne??? He's rolling in the bucks. - "Snap"

For what its worth my take on this is that anything that brings renewed attention to one of the great bands of alltime,including the great contributions of Fred "Sonic" Smith and Robin Tyner as well as Wayne,Michael and Dennis is OK with me.Is this arrangemnt with Levis,whatever it is somewhat ironic....sure 'nuff-Did Hudson's sell Levis?,I'm sure they did.I hope the surviving band members/heirs make some well deserved coin out of these arrangements.They certainly have paid their dues and deserve some recognition and reward for what they have given the world and the music I have enjoyed so much.So if Justin Timberlake shows up on the cover of magazines in his way cool MC5 shirt and it shows up on sitcom actresses and nubile fans of Britney Spears suddenly develop a taste for MC5 music(help me help me I think I'm gonna bust I need a healthy outlet for my teenage lust)-its OK with me.Sure its ironic and bizarre but pretty funny also.KOTJMF!!

...I'm amazed by the intensity of negative opinions about this.Why exactly is this "very wrong"?Your favorite band finally may get a chance to make some money after years of being screwed and gets some well deserved publicity..
- "Chris G"

What makes things worse is that it seems that no tickets were publicly available - just snotty music journo’s, industry types who think they're hip. MC5 playing to the music industry then. I might have caught the wrong end of the stick, but this is all very wrong.
– "Matt Beesley"

Let' s hope there are NO more MC5 gigs and people can cherish their very real memories, forged from truly experiencing the fierce intensity of one of the world's greatest bands. We don't need any faux DVD, surround stereo mixes with coupon inserts to purchase $500 Levi jean jackets. Let them cash their checks and be done with this fiasco. – "D.D. Banter"

My point is that during their career, the MC5 moved a fucking l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g way from their Sinclair-inspired revolutionary roots. Your view of the "real" MC5 depends entirely on your opinion of them as revolutionaries or just a great band that wanted to be successful. Perhaps the truth is somewhere inbetween.

(The last comment is mine. Your Barman entered the fray after "D.D." went into abusive hyperdrive over the fact that someone else had an opinion. This is normally a job for the bouncers, but there’s never one around when you need them.)

Even Britain’s self-righteous leftie rag, The Guardian, got in on the act, interviewing Brother Wayne one-on-one at a media conference, oversighted by a Levi’s flack:

"Our stance said 'by any means necessary'," reasons Kramer. "Levi's was smart enough to see a connection between the music of the MC5 and the audience today." In a way, he is right. We live in the age of Avril Lavigne: the audience today expects its angsty rebellion to be pre-packaged and stage-managed by huge corporations. For the first time since the late ‘60s, the MC5 are perfectly in tune with the times.

Declaration of interest: The Bar tried the Kramer camp to get our London correspondent in on the event. Our request fell on deaf ears. We’ll live with that. But more conspicuously missing from the guest list were David C. Thomas and wife Laurel, the Chicago-based makers of the "MC5 - A Testimonial", the film in which Five survivors Wayne Kramer, Mike Davis and Dennis Thompson participated.

The film’s makers were also asked by an advertising agency if it was OK to use excerpts from their work for point-of-sale video screens in clothing stores. They were summarily told to fuck off. No such permission was asked for the theft of generous amounts of text from Future Now Films’ web site for use in a media release to publicise the 100 Club show. That's why I have no compulsion using the Gary Grimshaw poster for the show on this page, with attribution, although I'm also giving the sponsor a bit more exposure.

But maybe the most telling fact is that the poster and T-shirt bear a logo that omits the dope leaf. As the someone who has had dealings with the band members wryly observed: "Once again, it's as if the ‘Brothers and Sisters’ version rather than the ‘Motherfuckers’ version has been agreed upon".

Corporate largesse as a means unto an end has been a constant source of angst ever since Big Business bought into music. But you reap what you sow. The fact that next generation rabble rousers like Midnight Oil ended up on CBS (despite hating multi-nationals and anyone who used fossil fuels – like makers of flat black plastic albums) could never pass without comment. Similarly, no-one would now be whinging if the Five hadn’t, at one stage, espoused the evils of commercialism.

Yes, the band is entitled to a payday. But their legacy also belongs, in part, to their fans and any way you cut the cloth, this is a potential public relations disaster. Many fans feel cheated - and we all know it’s a cardinal sin in any aspect of public life to shit in your own nest. Wayne Kramer always hinted at doing a reunion of the surviving members. Perhaps he underestimated the reaction to it happening via an injection of capital from a sponsor that, on the face it, has very little to do with the music.

Even allowing for the fact that he was inside the Big House and mightily pissed-off at feeling abandoned, onetime manager John Sinclair famously bemoaned that he wanted to make the band bigger than Mao and they "only wanted to be bigger than the Beatles". Which brings me back to my own comment on the Kramer Bulletin Board.

My personal jury’s still out. I’m going to mull over this for days. I'm at best ambilvalent and I can’t say I don’t have deep concerns. The whole thing makes me queasy because I think there's more in this for Levi's than the Five. And that sucks. Now, I couldn’t honestly say I wouldn’t go along and gawk, in the highly unlikely event of the Kramer-led Jeans Machine coming to Australia (which was something mooted back in the dying days of the Five, supposedly). But couldn't it have been done a different way?

I am pragmatic about commercialism in its many shapes and forms. For example, I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about Iggy and the Stooges tunes appearing in a TV ad for shoes. Ditto, Radio Birdman’s "New Race" in a US commercial for a car (although it might have been nice if they’d obtained permission first!) On the other hand, I did recently rail on a 60s punk mailing against the Soft Cock, er, Hard Rock Cafe's sponsorship of Little Steven's syndicated radio show, though that was probably partly motivated by the fact I can't stand Bruce Springboard and Hard Rocks are such shitty places to eat. Bottom line is that ideologues on any issue are usually blinkered, although we all fall into that catergory at some stage of life.

But I guess the revulsion a lot of people expressed through when that wanker Justin Timberlake appeared in the American media wearing an MC5 T-shirt (as if he knew who they were) makes so much more sense now. Anyone wanna bet that wasn't a piece of staged spin (as in "product placement")?

FOOTNOTE March 16, 2003: My personal jury came back in over the weekend. This does suck. A very good source outlined how this whole deal came together: Levi's approached Gary Grimshaw, who gave permission to use his artwork for T-shirts. Levi started the corporate wheels in motion, gearing up for production, including MC5 product in catalogues for their "Sonic Revolution" spring line. Brother Wayne allegedly tried to "shake down" Levi's for cash. They suggested a reunion. The surviving band members said "show us the money". Levi's did.

In short, Levi's have USED the MC5, not the other way round.

My colleague John McPharlin was never on the fence:

If a company wants to support a tour or pay for a recording session, that's fine by me (no, it doesn't matter to me what the company is selling - cigarettes, drugs, weapons of mass destruction - if audiences are dumb enough to blindly buy whatever the sponsor is selling, just 'coz their favourite band is sporting the corporate logo, then they deserve to be taken for all they've got); if a company wants to tell a band what to say and the band lets it (as was happening in the Guardian interview), then the band has simply exchanged one puppeteer for another.

Personally I always thought the rad stance was almost entirely Sinclair pushing his own agenda and the band just went along with it in the hope of getting famous, so no untoward surprises there for anyone who's been paying attention; if a company wants to have the band as its own private lap dog, allowing it to play only to audiences chosen by the company and excluding the band's own fans if they don't fit the desired marketing demographic, then I have to say that the band is sucking a litte too much corporate dick for my liking.

Let's face it, Levis are not aiming at the band's fans, they're aiming at all the potential Levis wearers who have never bought an MC5 record, but would buy dog shit on a stick if Rolling Stone told them it was cool and assured them that everybody else was buying it too. Levis are just another large, faceless corporation pretending to be hip and thinking they can buy some cred off the peg like, well, a pair of jeans. One size fits all? No, I don't think so. Shame on the band for playing along with it.

Sure I'd go to see the MC3 if they came here; I'd buy a new album, if it was any good; but I can never, ever again see them as anything other than another commercial pop outfit, ready to sing and dance to the tune of whoever is stuffing the cash into their garter belts, an early model boy band just as manufactured as the current blow dried models of today. Sure they deserved some sort of pay off for the years in the trenches, but not at such an obvious loss of dignity and control of their own destinies. Clearly there can be no more talk of revolution while they're on the corporate payroll, but even after they've served their master's purposes there'll be no going back either and no more credibility for attacks on capitalism or claims to a revolutionary stance, then or now (and if they aired such pretensions in my presence, I would definitely say something rude and uncharitable to them in response).

Didn't Joe Strummer once sing about the evils of "turning rebellion into money"? He could have been singing specifically about this incident. Joe kept turning down the commercial offers right up until his death - now there's someone with credibility! Oops, had more words in me than I thought. I'll shut up now.

The final word goes to someone who's in a similar state to Fred Smith and Rob Tyner - dead. I'm indebted to cuz of Melbourne-based magazine Creepshow for the following excerpt from an interview which you'll find in full here:

"I always felt that the 'so called' counter culture would be absorbed into the mainstream American capitalist, I mean it never really ventured that far outside of it certainly not in the music business. I mean Jefferson Airplane were working totally from a capitalist point of view, I know that say in the case of the MC5 and the White Panther party that Rob Tyner used to sing in the MC5 (he's a friend of mine) and he told me about all the money that the band brought in, that was ripped off from them. So as far I could ever see that's all it ever amounted to was that people you didnŐt know could be making long distance phone calls on money that you made, by playing gigs..."