Artist Spotlight: The MC5 – A Testimonial

Brothers and Sisters! I want to see a sea of hands out there!
Lemme see a sea of hands! I want everyone to kick up some noise!
I want to hear some revolution out there, Brothers,
I want to hear a little revolution!
Brothers and Sisters, 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!
You must choose Brothers, you must choose…It takes five seconds – five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet;
It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it;
Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify?
Are you ready!
I give you a testimonial:
THE MC5!

So begins the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, a slab of proto-punk/pre-metal/rock/funk/jazz(!). A modest success in its time, this album has only grown in influence as the years have passed (at least up until rock died sometime in the early aughts, but that’s an entirely different article). But to the uninitiated, who are these guys? Where did they come from? Why are they a capital-i “Important Rock Band”? How come their legacy far outstrips their actual achievements? Will I ever stop with these questions and start writing actual content?

To answer questions 1 and 2, they were a bunch of guys (founding members Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer, and Fred “Sonic” Smith, rhythm section Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis joined a bit later) from mid/late 60s Detroit who had a taste for bare bones rock along with more esoteric interests in musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra, which would have been radical enough for the time, but they also hooked up with svengali/nutjob John Sinclair and the White Panther Party to put a revolutionary political polish on the whole affair, a policy of, as Wayne Kramer called it “gut level politics – guns, dope, rock and roll, and fvcking in the streets.” Sinclair himself has a more tongue-in-cheek view of things: “you can’t approach the White Panthers without a sense of humour; on one hand, we were serious political revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the government….on the the other hand, we were on acid.”

Of course, no matter the politics, it doesn’t matter if the music doesn’t move you. More important than the gut level politics was the gut level rock and roll the Five brought in spades. Given their rep as wild, jazz-loving, dope-smoking revolutionaries, one would expect something perhaps a little mellower than what actually resulted; their first single, a cover of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” isn’t particularly remarkable – it doesn’t wildly veer from the original, and has that mid-60s Nuggets-style garage vibe.

Still, it got the ball rolling. The MC5 made enough of a rep gigging regularly (or incessantly, depending on the source) around Detroit to gain an invite to the Festival of Life protesting the 1968 Democratic National Convention; it was a rare, if accidental, display of true revolutionary spirit – of all the bands booked, only the Five showed up, and played for 8 hours in circumstances that were at best chaotic and at worst downright life threatening – Wayne Kramer recounts using his guitar to mimic the sounds of the police helicopters hovering overhead. Deciding that not having your skull busted open by Chicago cops was the better part of valor, the MC5 got out of Lincoln Park before the police closed it off and began brutalizing the protestors. On that day, in Dennis Thompson’s eyes, “the revolution lost.”

“Black to Comm” was played in the set, and you can see their progression from a rote British Invasion cover to their jazz-influenced expansion of a short, bluesy song. Whatever they did was enough for Norman Mailer to describe them as a “holocaust of decibels, the electro-mechanical climax of the age.”

One of the ironic things of the MC5’s reputation as True Revolutionaries being burnished by their performance at the 1968 DNC is that while John Sinclair and the White Panthers felt that way – in Iggy Pop’s words, they were “a nice bunch of guys to have around to blow up the CIA recruiting office” (which a White Panther member actually attemped in Ann Arbor), the Five themselves were “sexist bastards,” a group of car-loving gearheads who spouted “revolutionary rhetoric, but it was just men fvck, and any women who complain are counterrevolutionary.”

They released their debut album, Kick Out the Jams, recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom over Devil’s Night/Halloween 1968, in February 1969 on Elektra Records. Aside from Brother JC Crawford’s incendiary introduction above, it contained a dearth of political commentary – essentially, one song, a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor City is Burning” was explicitly, or even implicitly, political. The much-covered title track is more of a “chicks dig musicians” screed than a political call to arms. The same with “Come Together” – this song isn’t about the people uniting against The Man, it’s about “the dance from which all dances come”; if you aren’t clear on what that means, the lines about “nipples stiffen” and “let me put the tongue to it” should enlighten you as to exactly what they’re singing about.

Still, it ain’t about the lyrics or the revolution…it’s about the MUSIC, you dig? And considering at the time of recording, the Beatles’ White Album and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet were still unreleased, this music is almost ridiculously forward-looking. Given the hippie/folkie peace and love vibe, a twin-guitar attack blasting out “Ramblin’ Rose” or the distorted tension/release of “Come Together” must have been mind-blowing.

Listening to the entire album, you can hear what makes them special – Thompson and Davis create an amazingly elastic groove, which gives the music a dangerous feel, that everything might fall apart at any time; but it doesn’t. Meanwhile, Tyner howls over Smith and Kramer, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in counterpoint – all things that may seem pedestrian now but in 1968, as Ted Nugent described it, “The MC5? Oh. My. God.” The entire recording crackles with energy. One can see why Danny Fields that the Five were “not a band, it’s a way of life.” It is, in the words of Mark Deming, “an album that refuses to be played quietly.”

Early returns were promising, with the album reaching #30 on the Billboard charts; however, the famous imperative to “kick out the jams mother fvckers” and another usage of the m.f. bomb in the linter notes caused regional retailer Hudson’s to refuse to carry the album. In what can be grossly understated as a “misstep” the Five purchased a full-page ad in an alternative newsweekly that said, simply, “Fvck Hudson’s” and included their record label’s imprint, resulting in Hudson’s dropping other Elektra recordings and consequently Elektra deciding they didn’t need this shit and dropping the MC5. In addition, most of the band had moved from acid to heroin.

Their 2nd album Back in the USA was surprisingly backward-looking. Produced by future discoverer of Bruce Springsteen Jon Landau, it features a cleaner, trebly sound and old-school rock and roll as opposed to the raw, energetic proto-metal of Kick Out the Jams. “Teenage Lust” is a typical example; it isn’t bad, but it definitely lacks anything particularly outstanding about it.

The only song that sounds like it could have appeared on Jams is the wonderfully titled “Human Being Lawnmower.”

Back in the USA was roundly considered a flop. Which left the Five in dire straits – Wayne Kramer described it as being on their “last breath; if we didn’t make a good record it was over.” In 1971 they released the excellent High Time, a studio album that split the difference between the previous two – the production was cleaner but not too slick, the songs were expansive but not overly indulgent (only 2 of the 8 songs were under 5 minutes but the longest was“Sister Anne” at 7:23, and the tale of a rather unconventional nun by no means overstays its welcome. Most importantly, while the band’s R&B influences clearly show, they still are pushing the musical envelope.

Dennis Thompson feels like this is the album where “all the ingredients gelled” for the Five. Sadly, few others agreed and this album was also disappointing, and poor sales and drug use ended the MC5’s career. Thompson felt like they were close, but as always in the music business, someone is right behind you if you falter; Thompson has said “Grand Funk took our spot. Had [we] not made some of the…mistakes…we would have been bigger than Grand Funk.” Kramer feels that the powers that be had it out for the Five – “we preached REAL revolution….that’s bad.” Whatever the reasons, after 5-ish years and 3 albums, the 5 were no more, destined to be more famous by those they inspired than for what they did themselves.