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Rob Tyner: How MC5’s Frontman Led A Rock’n’Roll Revolution
Gijsbert Hanekroot
In Depth

Rob Tyner: How MC5’s Frontman Led A Rock’n’Roll Revolution

Punk before punk was invented, MC5’s singer, Rob Tyner, laid down the anti-establishment blueprint for all future rock’n’roll rebels to follow.

Back

It is 1968. America is burning. The Vietnam War is a flashpoint. Student protests are brutally put down. The Summer Of Love’s ideal of peace and understanding is in tatters. Bobby Kennedy, Presidential hopeful and younger brother of the late JFK, has been assassinated. Dr Martin Luther King, dignified and brilliant civil-rights leader, has been assassinated. Soul icon James Brown takes the stage in Boston and performs a televised show in an attempt to keep his fans indoors. In Detroit, another singer is stirring: instead of preventing an uprising, however, MC5’s frontman, Rob Tyner, is about to incite one.

Riots had ripped through Detroit the previous year. It remains a tinderbox. There is work in Motor City, but also horrendous racism, secretly strengthened by the manipulation of public resources to reinforce ingrained inequality. Like his idol James Brown, Tyner has something to say. Unlike James Brown, who is urging his fans to stay in school, to work hard and not to vent their frustration in the streets, Tyner’s message is somewhat less measured and emollient: “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”

The shout represents all the anger, confusion, desperation for freedom and explosive energy of 1968; it’s exponent, one of the greatest rock’n’roll singers of the era. Tyner never developed into the widely-loved figure his local rival, Iggy Pop, became. Nor did he rival James Brown. But MC5’s figurehead had something vital to say, and nobody could deliver it like he could.

Time for Tyner: birth of a rock revolutionary

The influence of Black jazz music on white rock’n’roll is still not fully acknowledged. Lou Reed said that, as a young man, he’d hum the angular melodies of Ornette Coleman; Eric Clapton was not the only musician who wondered if you had to take heroin to become as brilliant as Charlie Parker (as if).

The young man born Rob W Derminer, on 12 December 1944, was another rock pioneer who first heard freedom in jazz. He loved John Coltrane, the saxophonist who blew his entire life into a brass tube in search of liberation from earthly toil. So when Derminer was looking for a musical alter ego, a name that suggested liberation and identification with the 60s’ more out-there sounds, he took the surname of McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s dazzling piano player. The renamed Rob Tyner then joined a Detroit band full of talent and attitude, but short of a direction: Motor City 5. He auditioned to be its bass player, but was too strong a personality to be responsible for a background rumble. Get out front, Brother Rob Tyner. Grab that microphone, tell the world how you feel.

Until then, there’d never been a band like MC5. Loud. Political. Sexy. Raging. Uncompromised. Kinda pretty; nasty, too. Hippie, but not flaccid. They were full of purpose, yet eventually riven by squabbling, as revolutionary movements are, and, contrarily, their lyrics sometimes revealed teenage longing. MC5 didn’t just want to make a mark on rock’n’roll, they wanted to change it radically. Hell, they wanted to change the world.

They failed on both counts… gloriously. Vaingloriously. But they came close on the first mission: punk could never have happened without their fury, and it drew lessons from their pyrotechnic ascent and dismal plummet to Earth as men out of time – their moment both four years gone and four years yet to arrive. MC5 were brilliant but doomed, an archetypal rock’n’roll story. And out front, singing as hard as any hard rock singer ever did – yet really singing, and writing lyrics that expressed all the joy and frustration of being young in the late 60s – was a guy in hippie threads and a backcombed white-man’s Afro. He couldn’t be Coltrane, he was too leftfield to be James Brown, but he sure was somebody: Rob Tyner.

Rebrand the band: MC5 declare war

Though photos depict a static, unsmiling figure in the era’s regulation round spectacles, and he was well-read and philosophical, in the mid-60s Tyner was a driven man, transforming MC5 into contenders. He spewed out lyrics that took in everything from politics to sex. The band built a set that was pure rock’n’roll, yet utterly contemporary. Was it proto-metal? Garage rock? It wasn’t psychedelic; there was little room for whimsy in 60s Detroit. But there was cosmic thinking, influenced by out-there jazz giant Sun Ra.

Tyner gave the band fresh identities. Their next-level axeman, Wayne Kramer, was Wayne Kambes before Tyner rebranded him with his harder-edged name. Fred Smith landed the coolest moniker a rhythm guitarist ever had: “Sonic”. Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson battered the drum skins. Tyner could have had a stellar career in marketing, but as a ball of pent-up energy “always about to burst”, according to Kramer, he had to rock.

Live, MC5 were something else. Fred “Sonic” Smith laid chords like a wall. Bassist Mike Davis kept the band locked to the flaming grooves Dennis Thompson threw out, all tumbling sticks and righteous rhythm. Wayne Kramer was flash and noise, playing behind his neck and doing soul dances while spraying the toughest licks of the era. Tyner had to be a killer performer to front that fury. It was noise, but noise with a purpose, straight out of the spiritual-jazz playbook but pressed into a context the kids could understand. Even without Tyner’s lyrics, it had a reason to exist: MC5’s power was a war on blandness, a declaration of defiance. With Tyner selling the songs, all movement, hormones and energy, it meant even more. If you understood it, you were part of the solution. If you didn’t, you were with The Man.

A riot on plastic: dispensing with the soft edges

The band gigged across Detroit through 1966-1967, and their rock’n’roll-plus approach won a following. Every suburban street had a band rehearsing in a garage, inspired by The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, and tiny record labels sprung up to document them. MC5 cut their debut single in 1967, a version of Them’s I Can Only Give You Everything. The sound was there, but the original yet less-original B-side, I Just Don’t Know, bore floppy remnants of British Invasion rock. Their next single, 1968’s dramatic Looking At You/Borderline, dispensed with any remaining soft edges.

MC5 were managed by radical freak John Sinclair (though he rejected the word “manager” as a bourgeois concept) and became the “house band” for his leftist political movement, the White Panther Party. They were the only band to show up at a Vietnam War protest at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and were on stage for eight hours before baton-wielding police brutally busted up the demonstration. As if the group hadn’t witnessed enough violence, at some gigs there was gun play on stage, with Tyner getting “shot” as part of the show.

They were exceptional but not alone. Another Detroit band was slaying crowds with hard rock: The Stooges. When Elektra records sniffed around after an East Coast tour during which, it is said, MC5 blew even Cream off stage, they generously recommended The Stooges to the label, too. Both were signed. Though Elektra had a reputation for nurturing the new rock counterculture, neither band became stars, and MC5 tested their relationship with the company to destruction.

‘Kick Out The Jams’: an immortal call to arms

MC5’s debut album, 1969’s Kick Out The Jams, was captured live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. It was relentlessly noisy, a document of their revolution in sound. It also caught Tyner in incendiary form, praising the Black Panthers on John Lee Hooker’s Motor City Is Burning and introducing the title track with the immortal “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” Some pressings censored the last word to “brothers and sisters”, but controversy could not be sidestepped.

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The record spent almost half a year on the US album chart, never rising above No.30, a sure sign of a word-of-mouth cult classic. But when the Detroit-based department-store chain Hudson’s refused to stock the album, claiming it was obscene, MC5 retaliated. The group placed an ad in an underground mag calling for a boycott of the store with a two-word phrase, the first of which began with the letter “F” while the second was “Hudson’s”. Elektra’s logo appeared on the ad. Hudson’s blacklisted Elektra’s product, so the label dropped the band.

‘Back In The USA’: a short, sharp anti-establishment shock

The group signed to Atlantic and put together their most accessible album, 1970’s Back In The USA. It barely charted. There were complaints that producer Jon Landau had quelled their storm. Some fans wondered how covers of Little Richard (Tutti Frutti) and Chuck Berry (the title track) related to the revolution, forgetting its predecessor had included Ramblin’ Rose, first sung by rock’n’roll firebrand Jerry Lee Lewis. But the record’s short, sharp shock attack was eventually reassessed. By the mid-70s it was considered a classic boasting some of the best MC5 songs. Tyner’s work was especially brilliant. He was still anti-establishment on The American Ruse and the graphic, almost hysterical anti-Vietnam War song The Human Being Lawnmower, and delivered the less-political Teenage Lust and Tonight with total conviction.

‘High Time’: low times

Back In The USA should have revitalised the group, but endless gigging wore down a band that could only give you everything. Their star was starting to fade. Some members’ drug use grew harder. They fell out with John Sinclair. A third album, High Time, appeared in 1971. For the first time, material was credited to individual members, not MC5 as a collective – a sure sign of fragmentation. Brass, evidently inspired by Archie Shepp’s Mama Too Tight album, adorned some tracks, which did not always work. The most direct song was Future/Now, penned and brilliantly delivered by Tyner.

The group made a curious visit to the UK, gigging with Syd Barrett’s short-lived band Stars and playing the London Rock And Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in August 1972, where they did not go down well on a bill that included Bill Haley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. A crowd of ageing Teddy Boys was hostile to the US hard-rock revolutionaries. Here was a band about the future playing a festival of the past. Their high time was over. MC5 played a farewell gig at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on New Year’s Eve, and the goodbye was permanent.

Future/now: life after MC5

Most of the band did not thrive in rock’n’roll thereafter. Kramer and Davis went to the same jail on drug charges. Dennis Thompson kept playing but didn’t find a band that made a serious impact. Rob Tyner occasionally worked with a new band he called MC5, but preferred a quiet family life in Detroit. Fred Smith fared best: the guitarist formed several bands, and married and worked with Patti Smith. But by the mid-70s, rock began to change. After years of prog, AOR and glam excess, a leaner, meaner rock’n’roll emerged: punk.

Sex Pistols fell out spectacularly with EMI and A&M, echoing MC5’s relationship with Elektra. The Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, present at the London Rock And Roll Show, had absorbed the band’s chaotic lessons. Punk precursors Dr Feelgood had also been at the show, backing Brit-rocker Heinz, and perhaps admired MC5’s direct approach. The Feelgoods in turn influenced local proto-punks Eddie And The Hot Rods.

The Hot Rods declared their love for MC5, and their label, Island, contacted Tyner, who met these enthusiastic kids and played them songs he’d written. The result was a 1977 single, Till The Night Is Gone (Let’s Rock), credited to Robin Tyner And The Hot Rods. It was decent if slightly “budget-sounding”, and Tyner was as distinctive as ever, but it was no chart contender. Tyner also guested at a couple of Hot Rods gigs. A solo CD, Blood Brothers, appeared in 1990. There was talk of an MC5 reunion, but it didn’t happen in time for Tyner, who died of a heart attack on 17 September 1991.

Ascension: Rob Tyner’s influence and legacy

Rob Tyner never achieved the fame he was due. But fame was not his spur. He sought artistic liberty, not superstardom. He wanted to speak for the kids demanding justice, equality and freedom, not to become factory fodder or victims of unwinnable wars. He needed to say something as America burned. But five people cannot defeat the system. The world didn’t change because of MC5, but rock’n’roll did. The group proved you could use music to make people think and create chaos for creativity’s sake. Rock really could say something. And nobody said it with more conviction than Rob Tyner.

Check out our best MC5 songs to hear just why Rob Tyner remains rock’s ultimate revolutionary.

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