MC5: Challenging the Establishment and Kicking Out the Jams

Wayne Kramer of the MC5, live on stage
By Hugh Shirley Candyside -, CC BY-SA 2.0,

As the Great Bard William Shakespeare once wrote (probably);

“The 1960s were some crazy ass times”

It was a time of social and political upheaval. There was the Civil Rights movement. The clusterf*ck of the Vietnam war. And thousands upon thousands of hippies across the world, stinking the place up with patchouli oil, joss sticks, and pot. Yet, in the middle of all this madness and liberation, music managed to hit the kind of plateau that hadn’t seemed possible a decade earlier, when the industry was full of Rockin’ Robin’s and Elvis shaking his wang on national TV. Oh sure, there were diamonds in the rough such as Little Richard and Johnny Cash, but when Bobby Darin’s song about taking a bath turned out to be one of the biggest sellers of the time, you can pretty much say that the fiddy’s were an absolute waste of time. Fortunately, the 60s made up for it and then some. The amount of groundbreaking bands and artists that came out of this period is second to none. Hendrix, Zeppelin, Cream, Janis, The Doors, Dylan, the list goes on and on, and still, for me, the most important group of this era are the ones who rarely get the recognition they deserve. When most people were just happy to talk about a revolution, these guys were looking to start one. They formed their own White Panther Party to try and bring down the establishment. They created their own religion, Zenta, to attack the status quo head-on. They were punk before punk. They were metal before metal. They were The MC5.

If you’ve read any of my other articles on this site, you’ll know that music has played a huge part in my life. And if you haven’t, then I highly suggest you do when you’re finished reading this. This is down to the fact that every artist I adore has always been linked to a seminal moment in my life, one way or another. Whether that was going through the growing pains of my teenage years, or having my heartbroken for the millionth time, up to some of the darkest moments of addiction and depression that’s helped make me who I am today, there’s always been a point that I can turn around and say “Yeah, that’s when that love affair started”. But with the MC5, I can’t do that. They’ve just always been there. This stems from my step-dad and his record collection. I’m not sure how old I was, but I clearly remember browsing through it when he and my mum were out drinking one night and stumbling across the Kick Out The Jams LP, tucked somewhere between Nazareth and Uriah Heep. It was the cover that drew me in. It was this insane collage of five guys, obviously in the throws of some nirvana that I was too young to understand. All sweat, hair, and passion; it was as if it were alive in my hands. I had to have it so, as surreptitiously as I could, I snuck it upstairs before the folks staggered back through the door, slipped on my headphones, and dropped the needle onto the grooves. It blew my f*cking mind.

Brothers and Sisters, the time has come for each and everyone of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution?”

This sound of a call to arms was followed by Wayne Kramer’s opening riff to ‘Ramblin Rose’, and it was enough to take my breath away, but when the rest of the band joined in with the kind of venom usually reserved for a snakepit and Kramer hit the opening line with his falsetto, I was a full-on convert to the cause. But it was when I heard;

Right now, right now, it’s time to…Kick out The Jams, Mother-F*ckers!”

that I knew I’d found my new musical home.

There’s not a bad track on that entire album, which became abundantly clear to me as the eight tracks progressed. By the time the last notes had dripped out of my speakers on the far-out closer, Starship, it was obvious, even to a rather young me, that the MC5 would always be a part of my life in one way, shape, or form. However, it wouldn’t be until I reached an age where the history of the groups I was listening to became almost as important as their, would I discover that the Motor City 5 had a far broader scope of influence on a majority of other bands I followed with a passion. And not just that; their mandate to the people was as intricately woven into the fabric of their songs as their screaming guitar work, their pounding rhythm section, and Rob Tyner’s incredible vocals.

Formed by childhood friends, Wayne Kraner and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, the MC5 wouldn’t find their niche in life until Rob Tyner joined them in 1964. They had originally approached him to become their manager/bass player, but it was his presence on stage and his amazing voice that convinced them that he’d be wasted in these duel roles, and instead talked him into becoming their singer. He was also responsible for the change of name, deciding that Motor City 5 would help reflect their Detroit roots, but that wasn’t all he brought to the table. Tyner was heavily into the left-wing political scene taking hold in the mid-sixties, and it would be this influence that would help transform the group from a great band into a great band with a manifesto. In 1965 the classic MC5 line-up was completed when Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson joined the cause, and they would take the Detroit music scene by storm, playing the kind of shows that left those in attendance feeling as if they’d been in an all-out war at the end of each night. This was down to the fact that nobody played harder, louder, or faster than the MC5. All the band knew what to do was attack, and they would throw themselves into every performance as if it was their last. As Robert Bixby wrote it was like they were in possession of;

…a catastrophic force of nature the band was barely able to control”

Here was a band who would walk on stage with rifles, though they were unloaded, and would finish their set with a ‘sniper’ shooting Rob Tyner dead. They sure as s*it weren’t for the faint of heart.

By 1968, they’d released three singles on the AMG label, including the sensational Look At You, and had been such a smash during their East Coast support tour that they’d blown none other than Cream off the stage every night and been praised to the rafters by Rolling Stone magazine, but what they really needed was an album. Elektra came calling, the boys signed up, and Kick Out The Jams was the result. Yet, what should’ve been their crowning moment was mired in controversy. It seems strange in this day and age when nearly every other word on rap records is either profanity or the N-bomb, but the use of motherf*ckers saw the MC5 deep in the brown stuff. It saw Hudson’s department store in their home city flat out refuse to stock the record which, in turn, saw the band take out a full-page advert in the Fifth Estate that read;

“Stick Alive with the MC5, and F*ck Hudson’s!”

As funny as that was, what wasn’t was that they went ahead and did this with the Elektra logo front and center. As you can imagine, Hudson didn’t find this amusing at all, and neither did Elektra when the store stopped stocking any of the bands on the label. This act of rebellion suddenly found the MC5 without a home. This wouldn’t be the only trouble they would face during this time, as their manager was a walking target for the authorities. John Sinclair was a poet and activist who was heavily influential in The White Panther Party and the aforementioned Fifth Estate underground magazine. Now, considering this was during a time where anyone challenging the greater powers was automatically placed on J. Edgar Hoover’s sh*t list, it was only a matter of time before he fell foul to the full extent of the law. Having already been busted on a few occasions, the heat that Sinclair brought on the band became too much for them. They parted ways in 1969, a few months later Sinclair would offer a couple of joints to an undercover narc and find himself facing ten years in jail.

The band themselves were fair from saints in this department and their copious intake of drugs would start to take its toll over the next three years, but they still managed to crank out two of the most influential albums ever during this period. Back in The USA is considered the first-ever punk album by anyone with ears. It’s full of short, punchy songs that all but abandon the more lengthy, experimental tracks of their debut. The MC5 weren’t big fans of the production on the record, handled by Jon Landau, as they were convinced he was trying to mold them in his own image, but the fact remains that it’s still a bloody good record. To quote Lemmy;

In a time of terrible manufactured music, Back in the USA was rock ‘n’ roll, untreated.”

They followed it up in 1971 by High Times, an album that would become the blueprint for all hard-rock albums for the rest of the decade. It’s a fantastic record and saw the boys revert to the longer format of old. Sadly, it would also prove to be their last venture into the studio together. By now heroin was a real problem. Michael Davis was the first to go, being kicked to the curb when his addiction became a problem and it got to the point where only Kramer and Smith would be left to limp along under the MC5 banner. In 1972, the band reformed for a farewell show, but the Grande Ballroom that had once been a mecca for thousands of MC5 fans had less than 100 in attendance to see them off. It was all too much for Kramer who walked off stage after a couple of songs.

Rob Tyner would be the first of the five to pass away, in 1991, from a heart attack. Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith would follow suit in 1994, and Michael Davis would die of liver failure in 2011, but their lives should be celebrated for what they brought to the world, not mourned. The MC5 are just as important today as they were when they parted ways 48 years ago and their music is still an assault on the senses that has rarely been bettered. They helped push the Detroit music scene to the fore, were instrumental in getting Iggy and The Stooges signed and believed so heavily in what they were doing that they became the musical mouthpiece for The White Panther Party. So committed to the cause were they, that they once played an anti-war demonstration, which in itself is nothing unusual considering the era, but when none of the other artists on the bill turned up for fear of police reprisals, the MC5 played for eight f*cking hours straight. I feel that it’s no exaggeration to say that the MC5 had more revolutionary zeal in their amplifiers than most performers of that decade did in their entire souls. And if you ever doubt that this was a band who believed in what they said, let this version of Motor City Is Burning take over your life for the next five minutes.

And remember, when life does get a little too much for you, brothers and sisters, and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, then just remember there is always time to;

Kick Out The Jams, Mother-F*ckers!”

Written by Neil Gray

The Grandmaster of Asian Cinema.

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