The MC5

Dope, Rock'n'Roll, and Committing Primitive Mating Acts In The Streets

Strongest album: Back in the U.S.A.
Weakest album: Kick Out the Jams

The MC5 are a peculiar case, and one full of contradictions. On the one hand, they were one of the most explosive and powerful bands of the late '60s and early '70s, and have left an important legacy to punk and alternative rock that is only a few degrees less influential than the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. On the other hand, the MC5 had trouble capturing their power as a live unit in the studio, resulting in three albums (one live) that, while containing their moments, are seriously flawed. Tied to the incendiary politics of John Sinclair's White Panthers, the MC5 made their reputation as rabble-rousing revolutionaries, but by today's post-feminist standards the MC5 seem pretty reactionary, to say the least: the one "political" idea the MC5 believed in fervently was the right to freedom of sexual expression - the rest of their politics, aside from an understandably militant anti-Vietnam stance, can sound vague and naive, but these Neanderthals made it crystal clear just what they expected from the females of the species. Today their music can sound pretty dated, and a bit difficult to absorb; their straightforward rock side, represented by Back In The U.S.A., has held up far better than their Sun Ra/free jazz influenced experimental side, represented by the Kick Out The Jams. Still, the MC5 are worth a listen, and their political rock clearly presages the likes of the Clash, Public Enemy, and Rage Against The Machine - it seems that every generation gets their MC5.

Brothers and sisters, are you ready to testify? I give you a testimonial - the MC5 Page!

Kick Out The Jams (1969) **1/2

Their most infamous document and most commercially successful album (on record company hype it debuted at #30 on the Billboard album charts), this was recorded live outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It sounded like a hell of a party, and I wish I could have been there, but I wasn't born yet; you can tell by the monstrous visceral roar that the MC5 were a force to be reckoned with live. Unfortunately, little else besides volume and the MC5's vaunted "high energy rock" stand out among this album's virtues. The MC5 offer early heavy metal with a slightly jazzy bent, which isn't as good as it sounds - in fact, it's not very good at all: the cover of Sun Ra's "Starship" starts off powerfully, but soon devolves into numbing noise jamming. The rest of the album takes a similar course, and the sludgy mix (it was recorded live, after all) doesn't allow any of the individual players' solos to shine through the murk; with none of the pieces thrown into relief, it all becomes a smudgy roar. At times this sounds amazingly like the grunge that would make such an impact in the early '90s - and that's not a good thing. The stage patter has dated horribly, with incredibly redundant "thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you's" and hectoring political posturing about "honkies" and "you are either part of the problem or part of the solution". A few good songs are salvaged from this mess, notably the infamous title track (my CD version left the "motherfuckers" in), which Bad Brains covered 20 years later on the otherwise desultory Pump Up The Volume soundtrack; the testerone-overdose of "Sonic Reducer #62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)", which invents the Stone Temple Pilots' "Sex Type Thing" a quarter century early; the overpowering sonic destruction of "Ramblin' Rose", which shares a title with a pretty good Laura Dern movie. Influential, for sure, but not exactly listenable.

Reader Comments

Marge Karabelski,

get your fucking facts straight! "Kick Out The Jams" was not recorded outside the democratic national was recorded Oct. 30-31, 1968 at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit and is their strongest album...some say the strongest live record ever recorded,,,,,asswipe.

Back In The U.S.A. (1970) ****

One of the points in the MC5's favor is that they never made an album that sounded like the other ones they made. This is their most influential and listenable music, and not coincidentally their most conventional. With manager John Sinclair now in jail on a ludicrously inflated dope charge (he sold an undercover cop two joints of pot), the MC5 turned to future Bruce Springsteen manager and rock critic Jon Landau to produce their second album. Landau encouraged the MC5 to forget about their experimental tendencies and return to their rock'n'roll roots. The album begins and closes with Little Richard and Chuck Berry covers, and in between the MC5 offer tight two to three minute jolts of primal, catchy rock. The parody/homage retro-metal of songs like "High School" and "Tonight" proved enormously influential on the lowest-common denominator junk rock aesthetic of many '70s bands, from Alice Cooper to the Ramones, even if the MC5 are being decidedly less ironic than most of the bands that came later. Paring down the songs to about half the length of the five-minute opuses the MC5 offered on both of their other albums tightens the band incredibly, and excises the self-indulgent hippie-era jamming that plagued their other releases. At the same time, this is the greatest guitar solo album the MC5 ever released; with Wayne Kramer's searing fretwork dominating, even the weaker numbers sizzle. The masterpiece is the ferocious "Looking At You", which possesses the most intense and scorching guitar solo ever, and I'll say that on the foot of Jimi Hendrix's grave. The main flaw with this record is its tinny production, which virtually eliminates the bass end of the mix for unrelenting treble; apparently this was the result of a production accident by Landau, who had never produced records before and didn't know what he was doing. This results in a sound in which the rhythm section might as well not exist. The other problem is the MC5's inconsistent songwriting; "Tutti Frutti" and "Back In The U.S.A." are throwaway tracks that aren't as good as the originals, and the let-me-stick-it-in-you-baby ballad "Let Me Try" is a disgrace. The MC5 are much more sincere on the primal mating calls "Call Me Animal" (the line about the Pleicestone always has me rolling in laughter from its Spinal Tap stupidity) and "Teenage Lust", thereby paving the way for Ted Nugent (not exactly a good thing). The two political tracks are not so coincedentally two of the best: "American Ruse", which quotes "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic" in the guitar solo, and contains the album's best lyrics, with lines about the police kicking your teeth in and charging you with assualt, thereby paving the way for NWA. "The Human Being Lawnmower" is better, a Who-like micro-opera that relies heavily on tension-and-release dynamics. A near-masterpiece, but a seriously flawed one.

High Time (1971) ***1/2

The MC5's third album sounds like an attempt to bridge the extremes of the first and second albums, and it succeeds, but only partially. This is their most ambitious and accomplished music, if not quite their best. Producing this album themselves and free from the domineering thumbs of ideological managers, the MC5 were able to make the music they wanted, their way. The song lengths have tripled from the last album, opening and closing with seven-minute epics. However, their experimental side is a lot easier to take this time around than it was on Kick Out The Jams, not in the least because of improved musicianship and some real studio production. The best song is "Sister Anne", about a liberated nun who has the ten commandments tattoed on her arm, and closes with the sound of Detroit's Salvation Army marching band - an audacious idea, but in practice the horns sound like an afterthought after all that ferocious guitar/harmonica soloing. Most of these songs rock, especially the Back In The U.S.A.-style horny bleat "Baby Won't Ya" and the Kick Out The Jams-style call to arms "Over and Over", but there really isn't one tune (if you can really call MC5 songs "tunes") that really stands out as a classic. The have-sex-with-me-woman ballad "Miss X" is better than they've done before - you might even call it bearable. Guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith dominates this album by writing half the songs, but unfortunately the fuller sound doesn't allow the solos to jump out at you the way they did on Back In The U.S.A. - not that there aren't plenty of great guitar solos. The album ends with the lengthy "Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)", a lengthy improv that allows each of the band members an equal time in the solo spotlight, and collapses into an anarchic jamming heap - thus ends the MC5's career. After disastrous lack of commercial success - this album didn't even chart on the Billboard's Top 200 - the MC5 lost their record contract, and the band broke up. A couple of the members served serious time in Federal prisons on drug charges. Fred "Sonic" Smith married Patti Smith, and died from cancer in the early '90s; lead singer Rob Tyner died in 1992. Wayne Kramer has released a couple of solo albums recently, and some of the other members formed some other bands, notably the mid-'70s punk supergroup New Order (not to be confused with the '80s Joy Division offshoot of the same name).

Babes In Arms (1983)

A greatest hits/rarities compilation, it contains outtakes, obscurities, and alternate versions. Supposedly the best place to meet MC5, but I've never seen it.

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