Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet
Blowing Fuses Left and Right: The Legendary Detroit Rock Interviews
Directed by Gil Margulis
O-Rama / MVD Visual
180 minutes, 1988 / 2013
It was 1988, and print fanzines were kind of petering out, and the Internet was still a gleam in the eye. It was more a time of cable access coming into the realm of fan possibilities. New Jersey native and future tech-wiz Gil Margulis knew that. Being a big fan of the sound that had come out of the nascent punk scene of the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, he grabbed his camcorder and with a birthday present plane ticket from his parents for his 19th birthday, he set out to find out more.
What he came away with was phenomenal, including extensive interviews with Ron Aston, Rob Tyner, and Dennis Thompson, three legends from the Detroit music scene of the late 1960s that are presented here. There were others (an extended version of this DVD exists with more interviews), which would be culled into a documentary directed by Margulis called Back on Shaking Street. Now he’s released the original, full interview tapes.
There is a recent documentary I reviewed about the Grande Ballroom called Louder than Love, and missing were interviews with Ashton and Tyner, as they both had passed on a while back (both of heart attacks), so it was good to hear their take on it all, even from nearly 30 years ago.
There is no doubt that the bands that Ashton, Tyner and Thompson represent are part of the pantheon of what was to become not just punk rock, but heavy rock and metal in general. No one presented rock and roll the way they had before, be it the fuzz and noise of the Stooges, or the sheer weight and pounding of the MC5. For its time, it truly was musical anarchy.
Back in the days of camcorders, which generally weighed about 7 pounds (bought mine in ’85), it seemed like an amazing tool: a video you can make yourself was proto-Social Media. Looking back after years of High Definition and wear-and-tear on the breakdown of the magnetic tape in the VHS, the quality is kinda… iffy by today’s standards. But oh, what gloriousness has been captured by the little folks who previously could only view what was presented rather than creating what you want to see.
The DVD is broken up into four parts. The first is just over a minute long of Margulis standing in front of his Westfield, New Jersey high school, where the MC5 played in 1969 (around the time he was born), talking about how the music that came from that city changed his life. He isn’t the only one, as even Henry Rollins has oft discussed the turning point of hearing the Stooges and MC5. For some, I know it’s Alice Cooper; others, the garage madness of the Amboy Dukes. But the Stooges and the MC5 were a different, rougher breed that relied on power more than shock theatrics or psychedelia (without my meaning to disparage either of those bands).
Ron Ashton, who died in 2009, was the guitarist of both the Stooges and noise-punk pioneers Destroy All Monsters. Thing is, Ashton had a reputation for being, well, cantankerous and standoffish. But for Margulis, that didn’t seem to be an issue. With the camera set up in the kitchen of Ron’s mother, a few Coors and ciggybutts, Ashton frankly tells his story of the Stooges, straightforward and very relaxed. You can hear his mom in the background, and someone named Bob answering a phone, but Margulis askes some decent (but not overly deep) questions about the Stooges history.
In describing the early Stooges, their volume was infamous, and that is where the title of this DVD comes from, as Ashton comments that when the Stooges played early on, they were “blowing fuses left and right.”
Destroy All Monsters doesn’t come up until nearly the end of the interview. After being finished with the basic Q&As, we are taken to and shown the front of the house where the band rented to first practice for the summer before their gigging started. After a few minutes there, we are next taken to the house of the Stooges first manager. The importance? It is where the Stooges played their very first gig, in the front living room of that (then) tiny house, which is now a business. We don’t see the insides to these two places, but hey, that is really okay. It is a treasure to hear the Stooges story from Ashton, as it tends to come from either Iggy Pop or James Williamson, the band’s second guitarist who joined after the band was established. This segment last for 40:19. Hell, it’s almost worth it just to hear him use the phrase grok.
The next segment is a lengthy 1:13:00 with Rob Tyner, the vocalist of the MC5, who changed the world with his now infamous battle cry, “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” Margulis’s camera is set up in his home, and he is also very straightforward and quite charming, as he sips his mug and talks about what Detroit was like when he was growing up, where your choices were the factory, the military or college, and how he was determined to do none of those.
One of the interesting topics he covers is how competitive the Grande was, especially to the British touring bands, rather than a communal “flower power” mindset. Tyner tells about how Cream found it rough to play with them, and reported them as “Insolent” to Grande owner Russ Gibbs. But Tyner says, matter of factly (but with a gleam), “This is Detroit and they’re lucky we didn’t shoot ‘em.”
Tyner especially starts to perk up when he talks about political philosophy, discussing Reganism, violence, and especially his bitter feelings towards the MC5’s association with political poet John Sinclair, who managed the band. According to Tyner, the way Sinclair described himself was as “Pharaoh of the Hippies,” as he drained the money from the MC5 to further his own Maoist and “White Panther Party” rhetoric and movement. One of Tyner’s major regrets was the association of the MC5 with politics, which he believes brought down the band in the long run.
Thanks to some more comprehensive questions from Margulis, Tyner elaborates a lot of what he thinks of the then-flourishing punk movement (NME sent him to England to write a story about the British scene), the differences of Detroit then and now both musically and communally, and his work with the band Vertical Pillows.
However, he never mentions a single other member of MC5 by name. It’s also interesting to hear Tyner talk about the future, and his fear about where the world is going when he’s old. He further mentions that he could die at any moment, thoughtful considering he died just three years after this interview at only 46 years, in 1991.
Last up is the MC5’s drummer, Dennis Thompson, for 45:12. Thompson sits in a room in mirror sunglasses (which he takes off early on, thankfully), Hawaiian shirt, smoking a series of cigarettes, and for some reason has an assault rifle behind him next to a window. Thompson was also the key for Margulis to contact and set up the rest of the interviews.
While he starts of a bit on the pretentious side (“today’s music sucks because they don’t have fast cars; now it’s all four cylinder”), when he gets down to it, he really strips it down, explaining how the band was not the political vanguard, it was all hype, and other than being against the Vietnam war, they were apolitical. Their manager, John Sinclair, however, was not, and knew how to manipulate the media. All the MC5 wanted, he posits, was to be a great rock and roll band. And that, he further states, was ruined in part by Jon Landau: the MC5 were the first band he produced, and Thompson states he didn’t know what he was doing, so the record – and band – suffered for it.
In the second half of the interview, Thompson starts plays schoolteacher to Margulis by holding a globe and explains how people are now mediated and revolutions from the ‘60s were buried and controlled, which also affected the legacy of the MC5. He challenges Margulis with “you have to go back to look at bands that are dead and gone because they had something to say, and you don’t hear that nowadays.”
The last third of the interview is the most interesting (it’s all worth watching, but this especially), when Thompson goes on an absolute political rant about governments, capitalism, terrorism and the world under Reagan. Wow.
Honestly, it took me a while to get to this DVD, being 3 hours long, but now that I’ve watched it, it was a good time spent. It gave me a bit more of a background of the Detroit scene of that time, which really was a unique macro-ecology/-economy of thought and sound, which has since spread this message beyond the barrier of the time in which it took place.