Motor City in Paradise

Brother Wayne Kramer’s MC50 kick out the jams in Boston

MC50 at the Paradise, photo by Doug Quintal

It’s Thursday night in Boston. I’m on my way to MC50, a celebration, of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” at the Paradise rock club, where I will meet up with old pal, Hugo Burnham, the Gang of Four’s co-founding drummer, and other friends for, well, a rather unique experience.

Gotta say: This is some convoluted kind of nostalgia. Anticipating a new experience to make new memories of vintage hard rock music from a band I never saw, but for an album I cherished many years ago. And I’m thinking that’s what the guys on stage must be feeling, too, to some extent. Maybe a generation or so after me, they too got their proto-punk education this way. These guys are Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendon Canty, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and rangy lead singer Marcus Durant, who was in Zen Guerilla, a ‘90s blues-rock-psych band from San Francisco heavily indebted to the MC5. With his prodigious afro, Hugo joked that perhaps Durant was tapped because of his resemblance to the late MC5 singer Rob Tyner.

My story: I discovered “Kick Out the Jams,” the MC5’s debut, in the cut-out bins at the Record Warehouse, a repository of thousands of cut-outs, in Bangor, Maine. I got it not when it was released (1969), but a few years later. It must have been around 1972, three years after the album’s release, when I was 16. My musical curiosity was piqued and my taste was expanding. I really knew nothing about the MC5, but the colorful collage of a cover – there was a lot of action going on there – drew me into what looked like some incendiary hard rock.

I also really liked live albums. (How does a band cut a live album for its debut?) And around about ’77, I figured out the proto-punk aspect of it all, as with Detroit brethren the Stooges (their first album another cut-out bin score).

And when Tyner addressed us thus – “And right now… right now… right now it’s time to… kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” – well, I’d never heard anything like that on disc before. (Elektra Records panicked and re-released sans “motherfuckers” and with “brothers and sisters; I preferred to be called a motherfucker.)

So, at the Paradise. Peter Wolf – local hero, Boston’s Zelig, a huge star in Detroit with the J. Geils Band in the early ‘70s – did a fast-talking intro and then the band comes on as J.C. Crawford’s exhortation from the album plays: “Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there, let me see a sea of hands. I want everybody to kick up some noise, I want to hear some revolution out there brothers. I wanna hear a little revolution. Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem or whether you are gonna be the solution. You must choose brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision, five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, are you ready to testify, are you ready, I give you a testimonial …”

And they were off with “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Kick Out the Jams.”  It felt real good, felt real current, Kramer bouncing around the stage like a man half his age, whipping out Townshend windmill guitar strokes. Note about “Kick out the jams” from Kramer via the good folks at Wikipedia: “People said ‘Oh wow, kick out the jams means break down restrictions’ etc., and it made good copy, but when we wrote it we didn’t have that in mind. We first used the phrase when we were the house band at a ballroom in Detroit, and we played there every week with another band from the area. … We got in the habit, being the sort of punks we are, of screaming at them to get off the stage, to kick out the jams, meaning stop jamming. We were saying it all the time and it became a sort of esoteric phrase. Now, I think people can get what they like out of it; that’s one of the good things about rock and roll.”  

Frankly, if it meant “stop jamming” I’m A-OK with that and if it meant breaking down restrictions that’s fine, too.

“Come Together” (not the Beatles song) was hard, slow(er) blues – a bit ho-hum – but “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lam Fa Fa Fa)” brought the energy back up again. (Note to self: This is probably where Cheetah Chrome and David Thomas got “Sonic Reducer.”)

I’d sort of forgotten this, but I rarely played the second side of “Kick Out the Jams” and when the songs from that side unfolded my interest level sagged, the Sun Ra/MC5 credited “Starship” seeming like the worst of (I band I love) Hawkwind. There were seven more songs in the 15-song set. Oh, I wish they’d corked up the Clash’s “Jail Guitar Doors,” where the Clash name-drop Kramer and “his deals of cocaine” – he was busted and served two years at Federal Correctional Institute in Lexington, Kentucky.

The rest of the concert: Some ups, some downs, an up being “American Ruse” with Kramer indulging this pro-American/anti-Trump political bend – the MC5 being long-time lefty heroes – with something like “I know our country is in trouble right now … we have a criminal in the White House, a third-generation white supremacist and an organized crime figure.”

Did I come away as enthralled as I came in? Not quite. It peaked early for me and that initial rush subsided into that feeling of, “Well, I’m glad I’m here to see this, but I’m not over the moon.” I’ll take it, certainly. It dinged a musical bell that hadn’t been dinged in a long time.


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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