As far as I know Chicago, the band, is the only prominent rock band from the city of Chicago, which is otherwise known as a cradle of electric downhome blues, on its Southside and its West Side. On the other hand, Detroit, although it had its own blues musicians, was not a blues town but is well-known as a rock city and gave birth to a number of important bands such as The Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad and the MC5. There is even Bob Seger. Not all of them originated in the inner city of Detroit, in fact they came from the satellite cities and communities around Detroit, such as Flint and Ann Arbor, but for all practical purposes these bands can be called motor city bands.
The cliché has it that the industrialised Detroit ambience gave rise to a particular brand of high energy, uncomplicated rock and roll for the people. Grand Funk Railroad represents the truly dumb end of this spectrum, especially on their first couple of albums as power trio with somewhat pretensions revolutionary and anti-establishment rhetoric, mixed in with the paeans to good times, fast women and a tearaway lifestyle. The Stooges also sound pretty dumb and basic and had a sex god type as front man. The MC5 were the revolutionaries who belonged to something called the White Panther Party, played truly furious rock and roll and were not only influenced by revolutionary politics but also free jazz and, apparently John Lee Hooker and classic Fifties rock'n'roll.
The NME liked the MC5 and wrote about them as doomed outlaw rockers who tried their hardest to be bad ass and perfect pop and were ahead of their time, or not quite of their time. The MC5, along with the Stooges, were seen as forerunners of the punk wave that swept through the British rock establishment from 1976 onward.
By that time the MC5 were long gone as functioning unit. Wayne Kramer was leading his own band, Fred 'Sonic' Smith hooked up with Patti Smith, and who knows what the rest were doing. The Detroit unit released 3 albums and exited.
The second album, Back In The USA (1970), is deemed to be masterpiece of concise rock that not only spoke to teenage concerns but also made serious political points with a rock and roll beat and truly invigorating guitar fire-power. Jon Landau, one of the early rock critics and by all accounts a very conservative one at that in terms of what he regarded as perfect rock, and later Bruce Springsteen's manager, produced this album and made a short, sharp Fifties style pop record of it. Previously, on Kick Out The Jams, the debut, the MC5 had played to their strengths of brute rock power and advocating the revolution that was expected to sweep the nation. It was kind of in yer face and too basic and confrontational to make either the record company or the public happy.
Apparently the perfect pop album did not make it either. The MC5 could not or would not write perfect pop hit singles and were probably too notorious for their pop moment to make the commercial breakthrough.
In the late Seventies the MC5 was an influence but the records were not all that available and I was pleasantly surprised when I found Living In The USA at Ragtime Records, and at a bargain price as well. I snapped it up. It had a great black and white cover photograph of a sweaty, post gig band. It must be one of the classic rock album covers of all time. I did not listen to any of the record before I bought it, partly because I thought it a bit infra dig to listen to a bargain price record and partly because I was buying it purely on the recommendation of the NME. It was simply a record one had to own, an essential part of the well-bred record collection.
My anticipation was rewarded with great joy and happiness. From the opening cut "Tutti Frutti" to the last cut "Back In The USA", this was indeed an album of high energy, powerful rock, and rock that had something to say and said it well.
"Tutti Frutti" sets the mark for the obscure language of rock'n'roll that sounded like gibberish to adults and yet required no translation to have meaning to the teenage audience. "Back In The USA" was an ironic song, whether sung by Chuck Berry, its composer, or by Rob Tyner. Either way it was sung by an outcast from the perfect American society it describes and that obviously does not exist anywhere outside of some tourist brochure. The America eulogised in this song is most likely the America the White Panther Party was geared to destroy.
In the middle there are songs of teenage lust and of rock band member lust (something of a theme) and there is a tender ballad "Let Me Try", somewhat at odds with the general tenor of the songs, and a couple of punchy, funny political diatribes, such as "The American Ruse" and "The Human Being Lawn Mower." Not only are the songs snappy, they are also short and to the point.
A fascinating thing about the general information on the band, given on the record sleeves, is the very specific reference (Kick Out The Jams) to Fred 'Sonic' Smith playing a Mosrite guitar and Wayne Kramer playing a Fender guitar. Who knows whether it is Telecaster or Stratocaster? The only other Mosrite guitar player I know of is Johnny Ramone; perhaps Fred Smith influenced him. Which other bands ever took the trouble of telling you exactly what brand of guitar you hear on their records, unless it was an endorsed product?
On Back in The USA we are specifically informed which solos Kramer plays and which Smith plays. The only other album I know of where this information is available, is on Bachman-Turner Overdrive\s Not Fragile, a band that also featured two lead guitarists.
The other thing is the seriously large puffball hairdo Rob Tyner sports. Even more than the long hair of the other guys in the band, this kind of outrageous hairstyle must have shrieked rebel and flouter of social convention. Plus it is pretty awesome. I always wonder how such a magnificent hairdo stays in such pristine condition but I guess it was specially puffed up for the photo shoot.
Back In The USA is a brilliant album that deserves to ranked up there with the usual top ten suspects on best rock album lists.
It was some time later that I finally bought Kick Out The Jams (1968) and it was a relative disappointment after the brilliantly concise pop rock of the second album.
The notorious aspect of the debut album is the war cry of "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers" just before the band launch into the title track of the album. Sadly, my record had the sanitised version where the words "brother and sisters" have been crudely patched in to replace "motherfuckers", as the latter was apparently highly offensive to middle class America and in particular a chain of Detroit department stores that not only refused to stock this record but eventually refused to stock any record by Elektra Records, the record company with which the MC5 had a short-lived business relationship. Apparently Jac Holzman could kind of deal with the radical politics but the offensively vulgar language. At least not commercially. This was in days before gangster rap.
Anyhow, the music was a lot rougher and more brutal than on Back In The USA and a lot less pop friendly. This was the MC5 amping it up, riffing it up and rocking the house with sheer noise and balls. The energy is undeniable yet also seems somewhat pointless on occasion, such as on "Rocket Ship" or "Rocket Reducer. No 62 (Ramalama Fa fa Fa)" The sex rock chant of "Come Together" is not the more funky Beatles song. If the MC5 song is indeed intended as a sonic re-enactment of sex, I would pity the poor woman on the receiving end.
This kind of breakout may have meant a lot to the audience at the Grande Ballroom, especially if they were wasted and spaced but on record the noise palls somewhat. For all I know Kick Out The Jams is a much more accurate reflection of what the MC5 were about than is the case with he following album. It does seem a tad trying though. The shorter, sharper songs, like "Rambling Rose" or the title track are the stuff of legend; the lengthier noise workouts, not. MC5 were not a jam band and their long extrapolations sound a tad too formless for effect. The effort and the sweat are palpable yet the result is a tedium and not a longing for release. At the end of this Grande Ballroom set the audience would have gone home with ringing ears and not necessarily expanded minds, whether cosmically or politically.
For many years I owned only those first two MC5 albums and it took until October 2011 before I finally acquired the third, and last, studio album High Time (1971). I had known of its existence but had never seen it anywhere, whether as LP or CD, until I order the trio of albums from Amazon.co.uk. The CDs were manufactured in Germany, though.
Apparently one can categorise the three releases as the Sinclair album, the Landau album and the MC5 album. It took the band five or more years to get to the point of being themselves, musically speaking. Perhaps, but I believe that the first two albums were simply the instalments of an ongoing process of refinement of the primal rock force the MC5 were from the beginning.
High Time has a terrible cover, a very literal interpretation of the album title, with photographs of the five band members as part of the clock face of a smashed alarm clock. Perhaps it was intended to be symbolic of the destructive power of revolution. Perhaps the destroyed clock was the result of a drug orgy gone wrong. Perhaps it was meant to evoke the almost cartoonish timer mechanism of a homemade bomb. What it true, is that it is terrible. It reminds of the similarly terrible cover photograph of Grand Funk Railroad's debut album, On Time, where the three Grand Funkers hold similar time pieces and look kind of sheepish, as well they should.
The one thing High Time has in common with Kick Out The Jams is that both album feature only 8 tracks, most of them on the long side.
The opening track, "Sister Anne", is as relentless a three chord rock attack as one could possibly want (could be the template for Status Quo if it wasn't for the far rougher vocals of Rob Tyner) and ends with a Salvation Army brass band outro. Trippy is not the word. It is also the most catchy track, by a long chalk, of the first four tracks, on what would have been side one of the LP. The concise, bright rock and roll of the previous album has been consigned to a dustbin of history and has been replaced by a sleeker version of the brute rock intensity of the debut album.
"Gotta Keep Movin" has a riff and lyrics, commenting on the state of the nation, that would have fitted right in, with brighter production, on Living In The USA, as complementary to "The American Ruse." "Future/Now" tries to do the same but the riff is too stodgy and there is no tune. "Poison" has an almost pretty vocal and "Over and Over", another deeply political song, has very impassioned singing that at times borders on the hysterical.
High Time comes across as a heavy rock and roll album. It is not heavy as in heavy metal even if tempos are often slower than the frenetic pace of earlier records, but it is hard and bottom heavy and almost deliberate, in strict contrast to the bright, crisp sound of Back In The USA. The heaviness is also a moral and political heaviness because the MC5 have not forgotten or abandoned their radical roots although John Sinclair is a mentor of the past. Instead of advocating revolution the MC5 are more concerned with highlighting the evils of the establishment society rather than smashing the walls for they are, after all, a rock and roll band and a rock and roll band cannot make a career of violent confrontation.
Although High Time is as visceral as the previous albums, it is not as immediately accessible and exciting, apart from "Sister Anne", as Back In The USA yet it is a more engaging and album than Kick Out The Jams.
The MC5 came in kicking and went out on a high. That is no mean feat.
Rob Tyner and Fred Smith are dead. Wayne Kramer spent time in jail for drug dealing and has resurrected a rock career since his release, as elder statesman of a distinctive style of high energy Detroit rock and roll. Blues Oyster Cult regularly performed "Kick Out The Jams" live and recorded one such performance for Some Enchanted Evening. The NME rock writers who championed the punk and New Wave waves from 1976 to about 1979 name checked the MC5 as definite influences, both conceptually and musically, on the destroyers of AOR. The MC5 cannot be rated by the numbers of records they sold in their lifetime. They will be rated by the longevity of those records and the impact they will continue to have on brash young rockers everywhere.