Sonically Speaking

MC5: Sonically Speaking author Brett Callwood is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. He's a soft, gentle and pierced gent who looks like anyone you'd likely find in the pages of Kerrang!, and might well be the sweetest guy you'd ever meet. 

Here's a drive-by history on Callwood: Born in Manchester, England, he has been a metro Detroiter for nearly three years, and his writing has appeared in everything from Alternative Press to Modern Drummer and Fangoria in this country to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Kerrang! in the U.K. 

Callwood lived in London for 10 years before landing in Detroit, a city he was enamored with because of its music and rich musical history, including Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Motown, Negative Approach and the White Stripes. He's also "extremely passionate" about the MC5 and the heady era that produced them. Callwood spent 18 months writing and editing MC5: Sonically Speaking — the only available bio on the band — and that's between the original British version and this updated U.S. edition, just out from Wayne State University Press. The book is as great a read as it is well-researched — and it puts the era's cast of loonies, trailblazers and stars into proper context. More, Gary Grimshaw and Carl Lundgren did the cover, and Leni Sinclair the photos. It's invaluable to any fan of Detroit rock 'n' roll. 

Here's an excerpt. —Brian Smith

With the album getting heavy rotation in Detroit, Elektra organized a tour, so that the band could become equally adored elsewhere in the United States. In December of 1968, they shared a bill for three nights at the Boston Tea Party with the Velvet Underground, a band that shares many qualities with the MC5, few of them musical. The first two nights passed without incident (save for the fact that audiences were seeing two of the most groundbreaking bands ever to hit a stage together), but on the third night, a gang called — oddly enough — the Motherfuckers made themselves horribly visible.

The group, whose full name was the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, was from New York's Lower East Side, and they took the term "radical" to a whole new level. In fact, according to legend, Abbie Hoffman was refused membership to the group because he wasn't radical enough. These guys didn't mess around. To the MC5, who had been a "radical" group for the past couple of years and saw the whole thing as a great way of stirring up some controversy and publicity, the idea of allowing the Motherfuckers to say a few words before their set was little more than an afterthought. What harm could it do? However, these tough New Yorkers had been known to cause huge amounts of damage at their demonstrations, and would usually arrive equipped with knives, chains and anything else that might make people realize they weren't playing. At the Fillmore East in New York, Bill Graham allowed the Motherfuckers to use the venue for free on Wednesday evenings, after they persuaded him that he should support the Lower East Side community. As a result, many people avoided the Fillmore on Wednesday nights.

Founding member Ben Morea had been arrested for knifing a serviceman, and it was in Boston, following the MC5's first set, that a Motherfucker spokesman made a plea for defense funds. He then began ranting about how the Tea Party was ripping off the people, and that music should be free. The power was cut, and club owner Don Law banned the band from ever appearing at the venue again. Law was also part of a group of concert promoters and had considerable influence over venues across the country. The story was far from over, though.

The following Monday, the band arrived in New York and, after visiting the Elektra offices, visited the Motherfuckers' headquarters and agreed to play a free, unannounced show for them at the Fillmore East on Wednesday, their community night.

The band arrived late for the gig, which angered a few, but the show went down well enough with most. However, just after Christmas, when the MC5 returned to New York to play a highly publicized Fillmore show, the Motherfuckers were even more fired up than usual. After disagreements about ticket allocations flared, five hundred or so angry Motherfuckers were pounding on the Fillmore door. Adding fuel to the fire, they had seen the MC5 stepping out of a limo Danny Fields had rented for them. Suddenly, in the eyes of the radicals, the band had gone from friends to traitors. When Rob Tyner told the audience that the MC5 were there for rock 'n' roll, not politics, that only pumped up the Motherfuckers more, and, before long, a riot began. A lot of the band's equipment was destroyed, as was a fair amount of the Fillmore's furnishings.

Dennis Thompson recalls feelings of panic as the hall went mad around him:

"I remember that Wayne almost got stabbed. Jesse [J.C.] Crawford and Wayne and I were surrounded by about 50 to 60 crazed MF's in the seating area of the Fillmore. They were debating with manic, intense zeal about the revolution with Wayne. They were speed-freak crazies. They started shouting, and it felt like it was going to get out of hand, and it did." 

The MC5: Sonically Speaking launch party is Friday, Oct. 1, at the New Way Bar, 23130 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-541-9870; Luder, Man Inc., the Octopus, and Marco Polio & the New Vaccines will perform. There's also a book signing and discussion at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct.10, at the Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park; 248-968-1190; former MC5 manager John Sinclair will also be on hand.

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