The MC5 were unbelievably intense live. They were also very, very loud (but not as loud as Blue Cheer). Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Ted Nugent and Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer offer testimony to Jay Babcock.
Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)
“Loudness was a big part of the concept,” says MC5 manager/chief theorist John Sinclair. “Our concept, as I remember, was that if you gave yourself up to the music, then the loudness wouldn’t just go through your EARS, it would go through your entire body. And if you were to immerse yourself in the sound, it wouldn’t hurt you: it would just THRILL you…
“But you could never get loud enough with those damn sound systems! It was always tough for us. You didn’t use the amplification on the amps in those days: you just amplified the singer. You didn’t mic the drums, you didn’t mic the guitar cabinets. Club owners, show promoters, teen center directors? They HATED it. The authorities hated it. They couldn’t understand why it had to be so loud. They would pull the power, threaten not to pay.”
Eventually the MC5 gained a following that allowed them to play larger local venues where they could do their thing better. Louder.
“The MC5 was the first band in Detroit to get their hands on the new line of Vox amps from England, these Super-Beetle amplifiers,” remembers Wayne Kramer, one of the MC5’s two guitarists. “They were real 100-watts amplifiers: true power. They had these gigantic speaker cabinets with four twelve-inch speakers and two metal high-frequency horns in them. No one had ever heard anything this loud before. We ratcheted the level up, we raised the bar considerably. This was when the MC5 was leaving the scale of a club band, a teen dance band, a local community center gig band, and going up to the next level, where we were playing the Grande Ballroom. That was the first place we could play them loud enough to get enough to get a good tone and didn’t clear the room. So the next step was the Marshall amplifiers, and they were, I don’t know how you quantify it, but they were twice as loud. You had twice as much speaker all of a sudden, and an even more powerful amplifier, so you’re pushing twice as much air.”
“The technology for amplifiers was progressing faster than for the sound systems,” says Sinclair. “So you go from Super Beetles to Sunns to Marshalls. The guitars would get louder and louder, heh heh heh. The singer would always be struggling to be heard in that mess.”
“There was no such thing as monitors, so we never heard ourselves sing—ever,” says Kramer. “Venues didn’t provide PA’s in those days. And the PA system would lag so far behind the guitar amplification system that it was ridiculous. So, you had to carry your own PA. We built three or four PA systems! We had some money coming in, and we’d meet a friend of a friend who was an electronics genius. And what he’d say is, ‘What you guys need is 12 of these XL-77 amplifiers’ and we’d give the guy a pile of money and he’d come back with this big monstrosity that would catch on fire. Oh well, that wouldn’t work. And then the next guy would come along and say, ‘No what you need is these new Crown amplifiers.’ Okay, let’s try those.
What was the point of all this? Why the need to be so loud?
“I think it was just a thing of, I need MORE: the teenage fascination with power,” says Kramer. “This was a chance to make sure that everybody in the area had to listen to ME. It’s all about ME and MY guitar playing. I even had a guy who came down and hooked up some high-frequency industrial metal horns to go on top of my amp to make it even more brutally loud.”
“Ah, feedback,” says Sinclair. “I loved feedback. Ohhhh man, that was part of the MC5’s stock in trade. Feeeeedback. Yes! Loud! Penetrating! Well, you know, the social milieu then, everything was so numb. So you wanted to feel something. And the loudness was part of it. That would make you FEEL. I think I can characterize part of our outlook that way. Ha ha ha. We were trying to shake people up. The goal was to make them feel something, to make ‘em enter a new world. Ha! And drop some acid if possible. Heheh.”
It was a point of pride for the MC5 that they were louder than every band local band they played with… Bob Seger, the Stooges, and, of course, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.
“We kicked their asses, hundreds of times,” says Sinclair, gleefully. “We did! We loved it. They would come up pale.”
“As far as street fuck you-ness goes, they definitely had us,” admits Nugent. “There was an energy to the 5 that was nothing short of mesmerizing. It was their uninhibitedness and the fact that they focused on the sheer unadulterated middle finger quality of all their music. Where the Amboy Dukes, we wanted to make rhythm and blues songs. Really emulated the Young Rascals and Stax and Volt and Motown and James Brown and Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett. So we were playing those kind of things. Even though the MC5 came from the same genre, really, cuz they would play It’s A Man’s World by James Brown and they’d play Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and those kind of songs, but they’d already figured out how to just do it unlike the original black artists. They just did it like white idiots. So they were whiter than we were.”
“We’d got even louder because we started using two amplifiers on each instrument, and that was the point where it was too much,” says Kramer. “But that was the point where I knew… Well, let me tell you how I knew. Blue Cheer had come to Detroit to play at the Grande Ballroom. And they used two hundred-watt Marshalls on their guitar, two hundred-watt Marshalls on their bass. It was TOO loud. I was out in the audience, and the place was kinda empty. It was kinda exacerbated by the fact that they weren’t very good. They really just droned on. There was no dynamic to it, it just droned, but it droned at a level that was like a 747 in your face.”
“The MC5 didn’t reach the levels of volume we did,” recalls Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer. “I really don’t know in decibels how loud we were, [but] we were louder than anyone we ever played with, not that that is necessarily a good thing. We were going for… Just the overwhelming pushing of air. If the speakers blew your hair around, it was loud enough. Hey we were kids, we thought that was cool.”
“Blue Cheer were incredibly loud,” says Sinclair, “louder than we were, but not as…gratifying. They weren’t as interesting musically, I didn’t think. But, loudness was a huge part of their aesthetic. It was pretty much what they had to offer. Ha! Nice people, though.”
“Just because something is loud doesn’t mean that it’s powerful,” says Kramer. “Intensity doesn’t come from volume. Intensity comes from focus, from the application of dynamic. So I knew when I heard Blue Cheer have two 100-hundred watt Marshalls that it was too loud. And we had two guitar players in our band, so we [had to have been] twice as loud as they were. I remember when we played in Boston once, this was at the point where we were into our two 100-watt Marshalls-each and I had people that I knew coming around who really wanted to listen to the band but they had to go stand outdoors! That’s too loud. We went through a phase when we were too loud. Too fuckin’ loud. Cleared the room. Caused people pain.”
Sinclair: “If you stood there and tried to listened to it with your ears, it would hurt. It would be ‘too loud.’ I lost some top end standing there in front of the MC5 there for a couple of years every night. But I still hear pretty good, for an old person.
“I don’t want to hear nothing that loud now, though! Ha ha ha. Not anymore.”