What happened when the MC5 upstaged Cream?

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Answered by: Michael, An Expert in the Punk History Category
Eric Clapton brought Cream to Detroit in June 1967 for three shows at the Grande Ballroom. These were humid Michigan nights, and Detroit in the words of one rock critic was then “the boogie capital of the whole world.” Cream should have been lauded, but it didn’t happen that way.

The Grande Ballroom had been converted from a jazz dance hall to a rock venue just over a year before, by Russ Gibb, a high school teacher and radio personality who envisioned a Detroit counterpart to San Francisco’s Fillmore Theater. It was a bastion of countercultural energy, a sort of Midwest hippy Mecca.

But when Clapton brought Cream there in ’67, he found out that Detroit hippies were nothing like what you’d find in swinging London, or the groovy Haight-Ashbury district in San Fran. These Detroit hippies were hard, mean, and politically charged.

For the first of those Cream shows, on June 9th, a local act, the MC5 opened. The MC5 weren’t all that well known at the time, having hardly toured out of Michigan. They were managed by the notorious Detroit white-panther, and left wing organizer John Sinclair.

Though many rock acts of the time were vaguely political, from the urging of Sinclair the MC5 were specifically political, radically political even. Sinclair recruited them to play any leftist political events that he organized or was involved in. Many of these events would end in police action, and often there were riots. Through these events, the MC5 gained an association with violent demonstrations of radical, inflammatory politics.

So while Bob Dylan still played disillusioned cowboy hipster, singing his ironic lyrics with their insidious satirical politics, or while Joan Baez was spinning melodies of hippy-dippy idealism, the MC5 demanded reaction from their audiences as forceful, direct agitators. Their album Kick out the Jams begins with the call to arms “The time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution.”

Cream was a bona-fide, international rock act. They had a pedigree. They were the “cream of the crop” of London blues—that’s their namesake. The MC5 were Detroit troublemakers. They played blues too, but they were erratic in their musicianship. All the same they made Cream obsolete.

On that June night, at the Grande Ballroom, the MC5 took the stage. They played “Kick Out the Jams.” They burned an American flag on stage (a nearly treasonous thing to do in those days). They raised their own pot leaf adorned flag, reading “KREEP” in red letters, in its place. They brought the crowed to a near riotous fervor. Cream followed but they couldn’t keep up. They couldn’t match the aggressiveness or intensity of the MC5. The MC5 upstaged Cream. Eric Clapton wasn’t happy.

In the 2002 Documentary, MC5: a True Testimonial, there’s a clip where Rob Tyner with his bobbing afro gives his take on the show and on Eric Clapton’s apparent displeasure: “Well f*** that man. This was Michigan! They're lucky we didn't kill em.”

This was the changing of the guard. When the MC5 upstaged Cream in Detroit that June, punk music was on its way.

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