Friday, December 18, 2020

MC5: Revolution in the Motor City

As much as possible in my backwater town in southeast Missouri I was a student radical.

I was suspended from high school for participating in a demonstration at the campus administration building. I owned Mao Tse Tung’’s “Little Red Book,” Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” and “Our Time Is Now,” a collection of radical essays from high school journalists. (All of those books were confiscated from my locker during a surprise sweep by school authorities.) 

My revolutionary fervor ticked up a notch or two when I encountered MC5’s Kick Out The Jams, the debut album of a Marxist quintet of loud, brash and profane musicians and provocateurs from Detroit (The MC in their name stands for Motor City).

On stage, MC5 was electrifying and manic. They meshed elements of psychedelic rock, garage rock, hard rock and the blues. And they were harbingers of the punk rock scene that was to shake up the rock and roll world in the mid 70s. They were punk before spiked hair and safety pins dominated the fashion scene. Johnny Rotten was still in knickers while these Michigan boys were making things uneasy for the establishment. 

I loved this stuff. It was sure to piss off my dad and damn near everyone else who wasn’t part of the counterculture. Especially when the straights heard the intro to the title song. Country Joe and The Fish had the infamous fish cheer but MC5 had their own profane catchphrase, “kick out the jams, motherf-----s.” 

If you caught the song “Kick Out The Jams” on radio you heard singer Rob Tyner scream out “kick out the jams, brothers and sisters” at the song’s beginning. But, on the album (at least until the record company blinked and released a sanitized disc, even changing the word in the gatefold liner notes) the needle dropped on the MF word. he MF bomb drops routinely today but hearing it on an album back then was a shock to the system. I made sure never to play the album if my father was in the house. 

Subtle, these guys were not. Their music and their political messages hit you over the head like a sledgehammer. 

MC5 covered two topics of vital concern to my teenage soul – lust and revolution. 

Consider these lyrics from the title song, “Kick Out The Jams:”

“I know how you want it child, hot quick and tight
The girls can’t stand it when you’re doing it right”.

Or “Rocket Reducer No. 62:”

“After some good tokes and a six pack
We can sock ‘em out ‘til you’re flat on your back.”

Then there’s “Motor City Is Burning,” a bluesy wail about the riots that erupted in Detroit in 1967 and again in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“My hometown is burning down to the ground
Worser than Vietnam.
It made the pigs in the street freak out.
I’d just like to strike a match for freedom myself. 
I may be a white boy but I can be a bad boy, too.” 

Radical politics gave the group a core following among Yippie revolutionaries but also led to the band’s undoing. At the same time he was “managing" the band, poet John Sinclair served as a founding member of the White Panther Party, a militantly anti-racist socialist group and counterpart of the Black Panthers. Sinclair went to prison in 1969 on drug charges. Guitarist Wayne Kramer discussed the band, 1960s politics and the evolution of pop music in a fascinating lecture at Loyola University. Here is a link.

I loved Kick Out The Jams back in the day for its raw power, its brute sexuality and revolutionary politics. The album and its successor, Back In The USA, were in my vinyl collection but somehow disappeared. I did not sell or loan them out so it is a mystery. I replaced Kick Out The Jams when it was released on CD. As an old man with a wife, kids and a grandson the teenage lust songs are now a little groan-inducing. While my politics still trend liberal the band’s revolutionary angst now appears somewhat naive but they sparked a fire in me back when I was young and I thought my generation would change the world. But the music is good and from time-to-time I pop the CD in and rock out. 

Debut disc captured band's live glory: The nascent band was at its best on stage and had built a reputation across Detroit for its live shows, which attracted the attention of Elektra Records. To capture that stage vibe (and because the band had no experience recording in a studio) Kick Out The Jams was recorded live during a two-night gig in Detroit, unusual for a debut album.

Record company blinked over controversy: MC5’s relationship with Elektra lasted only for one album. A “clean” version of “Kick Out The Jams” was released as a single with an intro of “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters.” Knowing the profane version would never get radio airplay the band wanted a hit single before releasing the album. When Elektra saw the single taking off the company rushed the album into stores and all hell broke loose when kids starting bringing an album home with the world “mother----r” blaring out of the speakers. Elektra wanted to release a clean version of the album, the band said no, but Elektra did it anyway. Atlantic subsequently picked up the group but both Atlantic albums lost money and the label dropped the group. The group broke up and two founding members, vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred Smith, both died in their mid 40s.

Band helps Iggy land contract: When Danny Fields of Elektra Records came to Detroit to preview the band for a possible contract MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer suggested he should also check out another Detroit group, The Stooges, with Iggy Pop as front man. Fields followed the recommendation and both groups were signed at the same time.

Jon Landau found rock's future: The group’s second album, Born In The USA, was produced by Jon Landau before he decided that Bruce Springsteen was the future of rock ‘n’ roll.

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