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"Are you ready to testify?"

Class E

Main Category: Punk/Grunge
Also applicable: Rhythm & Blues, Pop Rock, Avantgarde
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: --------



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of an MC5 fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective MC5 fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Mick Jagger's favourite band, somewhere around 1970-71. And what kind of a band could qualify as Mick Jagger's favourite? Apart from Barclay James Harvest or The Incredible Strings Band, of course.

Well, it would certainly have to be a rock'n'roll band, and that's what the MC5 were all about (by the way, MC5 deciphers as 'Motor City Five' - the guys were the headliners of the Detroit rock scene in their prime). Together with the Stooges, which came at about the same time, and the New York Dolls, which came a little bit later, MC5 form what I'd call the "Holy Trinity of Proto-Punk", a pretty vague notion, of course, since nobody can really give an exact definition of what 'proto punk' actually is. Then again, isn't the Holy Trinity supposed to be a pretty vague notion itself?

In any case, MC5 were certainly closer to the Dolls than to the Stooges. Out of the three, the band was certainly the most radical and politically/socially engaged, at least, that's how it looked on the surface. Advocates of total social freedom (whether that meant freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or freedom of having sex with your favourite animal), MC5 made their wild, no-holds-barred shows more than just a good-time party, they tried to transform them into social statements. That side of the band's personality hasn't hold up particularly well through the years, though, for the exact same reasons as Flower Power in general, even if MC5 were only indirectly connected to the hippie movement as such.

What HAS hold up, of course, is the band's wild, untamed energy, their brave and uncompromised ignoring of contemporary musical trends, and their undoubtful musical talents. The first side, best represented on their live debut, certainly places them in the upper category when it comes to "total abandon" - not having the chops of Hendrix, the band was still able to inflame the audience like no-one else, even if this 'inflaming' was often conducted by means of untampered aggression and chaotic noise rather than actual playing. Like their 'brethren', the Stooges, MC5 put up all kinds of "performances", but in the end, mainly due to the evident professionalism of the band's two guitarists, these 'performances' actually amounted to some real kick-ass music.

Speaking of professionalism, there never actually could be any debate about whether MC5 could or couldn't play their instruments: guitarists Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer, while not technically perfect virtuosos, were certainly well-trained and, moreover, had enough talent to know when to play a one-note solo and when to insert a classic Berry lick for maximum effort. And, of course, there's no denying the powerful vocal stance of the band's lead vocalist Rob Tyner - a bit similar to Leslie West of Mountain for the overall ponderousness of his roar (AND his body), he brings in a certain epic stance to the band's soul.

What MC5 didn't have a true mastery of was songwriting - as with most proto-punk and garage bands, their efforts at creating well-crafted memorable songs were hardly anything more than mediocre. Every now and then, you're able to meet with a gem or two, but every bad poet writes at least one good poem, and that's why I'm certainly not going to stand up for MC5 being particularly underrated or anything. This lack of spark painfully shows on their two studio albums: the 'MC5 vibe' might have been the primary thing in the band's late Sixties' period, when they were managed by John Sinclair, creator of the White Panther movement, but by 1970, with Sinclair in jail for drug possession and a necessary change of image, MC5 concentrated on studio production, first envisaging themselves as keepers of the Chuck Berry spirit and then expanding on that idea by making their material slightly more complex and serious, if not any less ass-kicking. However, very few songs off those albums could enter the Golden Fund of rock: they still have to be considered as interesting events on the whole rather than collections of solidly written songs. A fact is a fact: out of the Holy Trinity, MC5 could have been the most musically talented (they had two expert guitarists in the band, after all), but they were also the least capable to write good songs.

That said, the vibe alone should earn MC5 some respect - after all, kudos to the band for having been so brave and uncompromising. With their attitude and musical philosophy, they had virtually no chance to break it big in an epoch when Led Zeppelin symbolized one end of the popular/critical spectrum and King Crimson and ELP its other end, yet they never betrayed their ideals, and in the tradition of 'lesser' bands of the day, lasted only as long as their tolerance for lack of success and numerous personal problems allowed them, which is, for three years. Let us, then, take care and preserve the legacy of the five guys from Detroit.

Lineup: Rob Tyner - vocals; Fred Smith - guitar; Wayne Kramer - guitar; Mike Davis - bass; Dennis Thompson - drums. Fred Smith is perhaps the most well known band member outside of MC5, as later on he would play on records by Patti Smith and end up marrying her in 1980. Rob Tyner and Fred Smith are both deceased now, both from heart attacks, and Kramer is still occasionally putting forth a solo album or two, as far as I know.



Year Of Release: 1969
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Man, that's one DIRTY LOUD album. Get on with your 'punk revolution of 1977', willya?


Track listing: 1) Ramblin' Rose; 2) Kick Out The Jams; 3) Come Together; 4) Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa); 5) Borderline; 6) Motor City Is Burning; 7) I Want You Right Now; 8) Starship.

I certainly should have hated this record, and actually I did just that - on first listen. It wasn't until my ears started to discern actual shaped sounds from the never ending massive behemothic roar of the album that I began to 'get' Kick Out The Jams. But don't be fooled! No matter how much you listen to this stuff, you will never want to treat the eight tracks on here as actual songs, even if some of them are; once you do, you'll kick it out the window.

What I treasure is the atmosphere [and the playing, and some of the songs, because pure atmosphere won't get you far - but more on that later]. The album was recorded live at Russ Gill's Grande Ballroom, Detroit, on October 30-31, 1968, and represents the "Detroit Underground" (or "Overground", whatever - it's obvious that the MC5 weren't all that huge at the time) in all its glory and naive happiness. No wonder Kick Out The Jams is considered such a near-classic, and is usually treasured by fans as the ultimate MC5 experience; where else could you get a live album at the time that would bring the players and the audiences so close to each other, and with so much sincerity at that?

I mean, yeah, the opening speech by MC5 "brother" and "Spiritual Advisor" J. C. Crawford, may sound ridiculous and laughable today, but don't judge it by today's standards - judge it from a universal humanistic position, if you wish. 'Brothers and sisters, it's for you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or the solution': nice words, eh? True words at that, and stop your giggling, you little conformist twat out there. Dig it, brothers and sisters, and groove nicely to the sounds of the unbelievable MC5...

The recording quality, by the way, is dang impeccable - for such a loose venue and such a chaotic performance in general, at least. Like I said, once your ear gets addicted to the roar and the humdrum, you'll never wanna stop the record. The MC5 play their gritty rock'n'roll at the max, with Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith alternating dazzling/grizzling solos and Rob Tyner screaming at the top of his lungs. There are sometimes no breaks in between songs, and sometimes there are some, but it really does not matter: the keyword here is 'speed', and not necessarily the actual playing speed, but just a general feeling of frenzy that ignites you from second one, as Crawford throws his rapid-fire invocations into the crowd, and bursts you apart at the last second. That's why I don't even mind the closing track so much - 'Starship' is an eight-minute cacophonic mess that certainly sucks on its own, but as part of the whole it looks like a logical conclusion to the entire head spinning shenanigan. Oh well, not that I'd ever highlight it as an individual good track...

Individually, I would certainly select the title track. 'Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!' What a monster of a song - a number that could be said to have served as the blueprint for the entire career of Kiss (well, if not the track itself, the record certainly was). Only, unlike Kiss, there's an actual feeling of life present within this song - 'tis no show-business, baby, 'tis real life entertainment. It's controlled, for sure, but it sounds like the band is ready to fall apart every second, and somehow it doesn't. The album opener, 'Ramblin' Rose', is also pretty nifty, with Tyner singing the lyrics in a corny falsetto that forms the perfect counterpoint to the band's gruff sonic assault.

None of the other songs are memorable, but hey, it's a statement, not a collection of catchy riffs, after all. I'd say a few tracks are far more chaotic and patience wasting ('Come Together') than others, but it's not really so essential when you get treats like 'I Want You Right Now', that greets us with a 'Wild Thing'-like intro before proceeding to thrill us with a 'harmonized' accappella mid-section, after which Tyner suddenly erupts with some of the wildest screams ever captured on tape - Rob sounds like a convicted criminal in the process of being dragged to the guillotine. And so on.

It's not that Kick Out The Jams really makes for tasteful repeated listens - like every 'performance', it should be savoured for just a few times, then laid to rest - but there's no denying the power and the conviction of the concert, and it's all the more weird to think that several years on, it would be this exact same style that would be appropriated by glam rockers all over the world, only glam rockers would do it for the money and the MC5 did it for the idea... Wait, don't disillusion me! Who cares if the MC5 really were in it for the money as well? Let the music speak - every note on here cries out 'brothers and sisters, let's testify', whereas every note on a Kiss album cries out 'give the people what they want'... If you get my drift, that is.

That said, I can't award Kick Out The Jams a higher rating than whatever I gave it simply because it does not present the listener with a full, ample display of the band's talents. The guitar solos rule, but they're few and muddy; Tyner screams too much, rarely uncovering his full vocal potential; and the songs, while some of them are well-written, are hard to appreciate because of all the noise. Thus, if you wanna hear the MC5 in all of their creative glory, and songwriting and studio artistry is more important to you than the Spirit of Equality, head straight to the studio albums.



Year Of Release: 1970
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 11

Compact, retroish and with some nice solos to boot - completely out of time, too.


Track listing: 1) Tutti-Frutti; 2) Tonight; 3) Teenage Lust; 4) Let Me Try; 5) Looking At You; 6) High School; 7) Call Me Animal; 8) The American Ruse; 9) Shakin' Street; 10) The Human Being Lawnmower; 11) Back In The USA.

Live, the MC5 might have sounded rather, er, caveman-like compared to most contemporary American bands, but at least they wore flashy fuzzy clothes, fucked the establishment and tried to establish a love, peace & freedom atmosphere. In the studio, however, the clothes and the atmosphere was gone, and they were given the reins to concentrate on what is now widely quoted as one of, if not the ultimate "proto-punk" album - Back In The USA.

Although, actually, what's so punkish about the album? Absolutely nothing bar the idea of 'getting back to roots'. The record is intentionally structured just like your typical Fifties rock'n'roll record. Eleven songs, only one of which goes over four minutes (none of the others go over three), with the record over in the flash of an eye, bookmarked by a Little Richard cover on one side and a Chuck Berry cover on the other. In between we find nine originals that could all have been easily written in the Fifties by any of the two dudes quoted above (or other rock'n'rollers), although the recording quality is closer to Sixties' garage-style, or to all those early energetic singles by the Who, the ones recorded before 1966.

This very limitation itself prevents me from calling the record a masterpiece: as excellent as this imitation is, it's strictly an imitation, and MC5 would have to be simply immaculate, outstanding songwriters, able to pile hook upon hook within a one-and-a-half minute, in order for Back In The USA to get a higher rating than it gets. They do write good songs, though, and it is their best record by a long shot. Well, perhaps by a short shot - it's just that on here, the individual talents of the band members come to the forefront, with Rob Tyner's vocals being carefully modelled after the required mood of the song (he mostly refrains from screaming and sticks to careful articulation, too), and Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith really shining on their instruments. It's not that I really think of either of them as a great soloist in that technical sense, although Kramer does seem to be able to play some jazzy speedy runs; they're rather working in the Fogerty vein, being able to understand the power of each individual note if its position and function within the song is well-defined. This is THE album, in fact, to go look for 'proto-punk guitar soloing' - lead guitarwork on songs like 'Looking At You' or 'Human Being Lawnmover' is terrific, raising tension like nothing else.

The subject matter, for the most part, features on the traditional, well-respected topic (getting some), but they do leave a bit of space for their most powerful social statement on 'The American Ruse', a fierce speedy rocker with angry rabid lyrics from Tyner - 'I'm sick and tired of paying these dues/And I'm sick to my guts of the American ruse' and an equally rabid Berry-like solo from Fred. Keith Richards would be proud of Fred's performance. Come to think of it, the song itself is essentially a plain Berry rip-off, only sped up, politicized and marked with a stroke of genius represented by that tricky little pause at the end of each verse: 'finally getting hip to the American... RUSE!' Ah, you never know when a well-placed pause will come in handy. You pick it up and carefully put it away in your backpack... er, sorry, wrong game.

I'm also quite partial to the covers - they hardly embetter the originals, but they're not supposed to - maybe the Rolling Stones were intent on besting their idols when they were putting out their albums of reinterpreted and tightened-up covers, but the MC5 are not, they're trying to sound "authentic" to a certain degree, and don't fiddle around too much with production values or "vicious" playing styles. But the arrangement of 'Tutti Frutti' is still magnificent - gotta love that neat guitar riff they pin the song to, or Kramer's fluent, not-a-note-missed-out-style solo. 'Back In The USA' is pretty nice, too, with not a single 'whoah-whoah, ooh, yeah' out of place and with three solos nicely complementing each other.

As for the rest of the originals, some of them kinda blend together, which is not surprising - you try listening to a full album of, say, Chuck Berry tunes (NOT a compilation - rather an album of Berry tunes recorded at the same time) and see if they don't blend together. Unfortunately, the band's only attempt at a ballad is misguided and falls flat: 'Let Me Try' borrows the melody from Otis Redding (the same melody the Stones borrowed for 'I Got The Blues', which, strange enough, is also one of their poorest numbers of that period) and drags on for four minutes without achieving anything but some generic sexist attitude. A couple of other songs, like 'The Human Being Lawnmower' or 'Looking At You', forget to establish a hook at all, although, funny enough, these are the songs with the best guitar soloing on the record; Kramer's finger-flashing jazzy passages on 'Looking At You', in particular, convince me that he's been highly underrated as a guitarist, although, to be fair, we could have the same passages and much more from Alvin Lee of Ten Years After fame - which gives me a further chance to promote the band's Undead album, one of the hottest live experiences of the Sixties.

The other songs are pretty cool, though. 'Shakin' Street' has a nice monotonous rockabilly punch, 'Call Me Animal' is gruff and dangerous, 'Tonight' would make a great vehicle for Eddy Cochrane... ah well, you get my drift. In any case, Back In The USA is a must for all rock'n'roll fans, an important link between the Fifties and the late Seventies, and just a cute little record to groove to for twenty eight minutes and twenty five seconds. Maybe the best studio rock'n'roll album of 1970, in fact, if we don't count the classic "metallic" releases of that year.



Year Of Release: 1971
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 10

Complex, baby! Long and complex! Multi-part songs and all that crap, yet they still sound like they're doing rock'n'roll.

Best song: SISTER ANNE

Track listing: 1) Sister Anne; 2) Baby Won't Ya; 3) Miss X; 4) Gotta Keep Movin'; 5) Future/Now; 6) Poison; 7) Over And Over; 8) Shunk (Sonicly Speaking).

Another huge change in image and style - this doesn't sound anything like the last album. If you axe me, it actually sounds a bit more like Mott the Hoople in a particularly bad mood to me. At least, in parts. The songs are now extended, with five-minute and even seven-minute lengths the norm of the day, and they even add multi-sectionism to their limited number of tricks. Don't worry, the band hasn't gone progressive or anything: this is still essentially rock'n'roll, although this time around it's anything but stripped-down rock'n'roll. There's tons of overdubbing here, fat guitar tones, multiple double-tracked passages, etc., etc., resulting in an almost Phil Spector-like sound at times. My guess is that MC5 were trying to reinvent themselves according to the glammy standards of the day, standards that required not only everything loud, but also required everything in as large quantities as possible. So the band is even augmented by a horn section on several tracks, and brings in extra pianists and organists to complement the sound.

How does that all work? It all works fine, except that MC5 still aren't able to write a great song to save their lives. Maybe it's because the band members didn't want to share the responsibility for potential filler material that they divided the songwriting on here? That way, Fred Smith gets the lion's share of songwriting - his are four out of eight songs, Kramer gets two, and Tyner and drummer Dennis Thompson each contribute one. And it's now obvious who was the main songwriter in the band: two of Fred Smith's compositions that open the album are the two best songs on it, plain and simple.

'Sister Anne' is definitely a proto-punk masterpiece, presenting us with that coolest of the coolest mid-tempo stomps, you know, the kind of stomp where the drummer really abuses the cymbals, the main driving guitar riff stomps forward like a drunk brontosaurus, a tinkling boogie-woogie piano can be heard somewhere in the background if you're using one of those nifty apparati for better hearing, and the lead singer sings in a negligent and nonchalant, yet angry and pissed-off tone that seems not to come out of the speakers, but rather from somewhere beyond or beside the speakers. In other words, the end of the world, further aggravated by the instrumental section where the production gets extra muddy and you spend hours trying to count how many guitars exactly are playing that same goddamn Berry-lick over and over and why the hell does it all sound so terrific when you could come up with a song like that yourself in about five minutes. Which would be true - but would you be able to record it in this annihilating manner? Except that you wouldn't probably end this with such a dumb 'experimental' idea as an extract from Detroit's Salvation Army band performance.

'Baby Won't Ya' is almost as good, once you get used to the complex, slightly dissonant beat of the verses - as for the chorus, that one seems to have been lifted straight off the traditional 'Baby Let Me Follow You Down', but it's such an obvious lift-off that it looks more like 'quoting' to me. And my favourite part is the instrumental break anyway, with the twin guitar attack working perfectly. Not even AC/DC could work it out that way.

The other two songs by Smith are also done in a similar way: massive riff attack, enhanced by pianos, harmonicas, horns, whatever comes along the way, but they somehow lack both the rhythmic punch of 'Sister Anne' and the clever chorus rip-off of 'Baby Won't Ya'. The political 'Over And Over' sounds suspiciously close to one of those Airplane-style political statements that are able to blow away a band's musical reputation; 'Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)' somewhat redeems the song, however, by promising us the most energetic and adrenaline-dependent performance on the album, giving some chance for drummer Dennis Thompson to display his prolific blows and some more chance for both Smith and Kramer to show how fast they actually can play - hardly any slower than Ritchie Blackmore on 'Child In Time', I'd say, and nobody played faster than Ritchie Blackmore on 'Child In Time' in the early Seventies. So, while the song is hardly existent, it can just be taken as a pretext for flashing some chops. But keep the horns out of here!

Compared to Smith's material, the rest of the tunes are weak. Kramer gets in the obligatory ballad, the powerhouse of 'Miss X', also done in Spector style, and not rewarding us with any particular musical hooks; as for his bit of rock'n'roll, 'Poison', it opens with a really cool riff, but somehow, instead of pushing that grumbling riff into the foreground, they lock it deep inside one speaker and pile ugly harmonies and boring power chords on top of it. Cool guitar solo, as always, but the song certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Dennis Thompson delivers 'Gotta Keep Movin', the fastest tune on the album that, however, doesn't go anywhere, because essentially, if you listen closer, it's just a little variation on the classic Bo Diddley rhythm, done in an annoyingly sloppy manner. You guys proved us you could play real tight on that last record - why are you so intent on disproving that opinion here? WHY?

Finally, Tyner's contribution, 'Future/Now', starts out promisingly, with a menacing, dark drive that almost threatens to overthrow 'Sister Anne' from its unreachable pinnacle, but then halfway through the song Rob makes a nosedive and transforms it into an atmospheric, near-ambient, meditative chant accompanied by slow echoey guitar arpeggios and nothing else. Maybe the worst sabotaging move to ever be encountered on an MC5 record.

So, as you see, there's much to laud and there's much to condemn. Many ideas - and just as many mistakes and misguided moves, as far as I can see it, at least. God knows how the band could have expanded on that style had they been left intact; if you ask me, though, High Time, unlike the preceding two records, leaves a naggin' feeling that at this time, the band really didn't know what to do: this album doesn't have a sense of purpose. And the MC5 just aren't worth discussing seriously if they don't have a sense of purpose; I mean, the Who could get away with an album like Sell Out because even if they weren't sure of the album's goals and their further main directions, it was all easily compensated by the magnificent songwriting, but not here. For Kick Out The Jams, I can say - 'hey, these songs aren't that good, but they sound like they're on an important peace'n'love mission, and that's allright by me!' Or: 'hey, none of the songs on Back In The USA beat out your average Chuck Berry classic, but isn't it cool for a band to do a compact album like this in 1970?'. For High Time, I can only say 'umm... nice drive on 'Sister Anne' out there'.

That said, I still give the album a nine, because for the usual MC5 standard, this ain't half bad, and there really isn't a truly bad song on here, and 'Sister Anne' really kicks ass, and plus, if I give the album anything less, you'll be tempted to think of the band as a bunch of suckers and you won't buy their albums, and that's not the intent of this site, right? We're not on the Kansas page anymore, anyway.


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