Proto-punk combined with free-jazz explorations. Kick out the jams indeed
The MC5 released a mere three albums, before imploding in a haze of booze, drugs and dysfunction. Just the way rock ‘n’ roll bands ought to. But in their short existence as one of the 1960’s and early ‘70s most raucous, uncompromising rock groups ever, it’s little wonder that their tenure would prove to be as short-lived as it was.
Originating from Detroit, in the state of Michigan, the MC5’s stubborn approach to their craft would ultimately pave the way for what would later be labelled as ‘punk music.’
As their guitarist Wayne Kramer recalled: “Our fans were the shop rats and factory kids, and they connected with the energy and the release in the MC5’s live shows. But our band was generally despised outside of the industrial Midwest… The West Coast was another story altogether. For the hippies we were a big problem. Bands like The Grateful Dead, Big Brother And The Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver, The Youngbloods, et al, represented mass-marketed peace-and-flower-power crap.”
So while the MC5 were fairly dismissive of what they saw as a generation of white middle-class kids enjoying the fruits of the great American dream, Wayne Kramer (guitar, piano), Rob Tyner (lead vocals), Michael Davis (bass), and Dennis Thompson (drums) were slogging it out in the industrial slums of some of America’s poorest cities and towns. Little wonder then that they were cynical when it came to ‘flower-power.’
The Big Bang – The Best Of The MC5 is perhaps the only collection anyone will ever need of the Detroit quintet, covering all their albums from their 1968 debut Kick Out The Jams, Back In The USA (1970), and High Time (1971), along with a few essential rarities in between.
Beginning with early singles “I Can Only Give You Everything,” “Looking At You,” and “I Just Don’t Know,” already the group’s blistering fire-power was firmly in place – all amped-up with no-where to go. Four tracks from the live Kick Out The Jams are included here, the revolution-rousing “Rambling Rose,” “Kick Out The Jams” (including the song’s infamous introduction), the absolutely strident Who-inspired “Come Together,” and “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa),” another noisy, riff-incinerating number.
It was around this time, thanks to the group’s overt political views and counter-cultural virtues that would ultimately draw them to the attention of the FBI, who began covertly filming their live shows and following their every move. That the band were being managed by John Sinclair, head of The White Panther movement, an organisation which in itself was heavily in league with The Black Panthers, another non-conservative outfit dedicated to civil rights and the liberation of African Americans, likely had something to do with it.
Now signed to Atlantic, the band would record their first studio album proper, the proto-punk Back In The USA. Seven of that LP’s eleven songs are represented on this release, from the swinging goodtime rock of “Tonight,” to their highly charged cover of Chuck Berry’s “Back In The USA,” each tune is overloaded with individuality and persona.
“Teenage Lust” and “High School” lend themselves to ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, while “Call Me Animal” and “Human Being Lawnmower” point to future rebel DIY acts such as The Stooges and Sex Pistols. The latter track in particular sounds like Chuck Berry playing a buzzsaw.
But it’s not all about noise and mayhem. “Sister Anne” and “Miss X” (both from High Time) are intelligent, well-crafted ditties that reveal the group’s more tender side. Other tunes such as “Over And Over” and “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)” show how the MC5 were musically stretching out and willing to take some risks in the process (as if they hadn’t been taking enough risks already).
Final track, the previously unreleased “Thunder Express” is another Berry-inspired composition and was recorded live for TV, and remains one of the last surviving recordings of the original line-up.
By 1971, the MC5 were starting to fracture as a cohesive unit. As Kramer remembers: “The MC5 were inconsistent. On a great night, we were cosmic. But on a bad night, we were a train wreck.” Lack of commercial appeal, personal problems, combined with pharmaceutical intake, all played their part in the band’s downfall. Although just like The Sex Pistols several years later, the MC5 came with a self-destruct mechanism, meaning that from the outset they were never destined for longevity.
According to Kramer: “We loved Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. We didn’t see any other rock bands trying to work them in. “Skunk” pointed to the future of what the MC5 would sound like. The problem was that the MC5 didn’t have a future.”
True. But it was a glorious and promising future while it lasted.