A new box set celebrates the 50th anniversary of Detroit proto-punk legends the MC5
In late October 1968, the Motor City Five, aka the MC5, took the stage in the familiar surroundings of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for “two recording concerts” – admission was free – and did their thing in front of an adoring hometown crowd. This included setting off their signature song with the following intro: “And right now…right now…right now it’s time to…kick out the jams, MOTHERFUCKERS!” Even having Elektra Records there to record the show for the band’s debut album, which would launch the regional favorites onto the national stage, could not dampen their transgressive spirit.
Of course, the world wasn’t quite ready for that level of revolutionary speech when the album came out in 1969, and, after a small initial pressing, a clumsy edit replaced the offending word with “Brothers and Sisters!” That was the version I got when I finally tracked down a copy at Venus Records on 8th street in NYC after months of searching. While I was slightly disappointed in the dubbed intro, at least my copy had the gatefold cover. Also, the fact remains that taking out one word could not squelch the incendiary sounds contained in the grooves.
After a hyped up intro from “Brother” J.C. Crawford (“It only takes five seconds to realize your purpose on the planet!”) the band launches into a cover of “Ramblin’ Rose” that immediately makes their style of controlled chaos clear. The two guitars of Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith tangle and gnash like fighting dogs that have suddenly found a common enemy. Dennis Thompson’s drums push and swirl in a maelstrom of forward motion and if Michael Davis’s bass is somewhat lost in the mix, you know it’s something they’re all depending on. Kramer takes the vocals in an absurd falsetto, but the title track introduces lead singer Rob Tyner, a fine blue-eyed soul singer given free reign to shout and scream, with more than a touch of Otis Redding to his approach. This devastating clip below gives an idea of what was going on visually while they performed and reveals Kramer as one of the great showmen of his era.
The intensity of the album, which included everything from politically-oriented blues (“Motor City Is Burning”), and lust-soaked hard rock (“I Want You Right Now”) to free jazz (“Starship,” co-credited to Sun Ra), had hardly dimmed when I dropped the needle on my copy in 1982, making my “speakers move air and move me, too,” to quote MC5 protege Iggy Pop. “Borderline” was especially effective, its push-pull relationship to time moving my body like a marionette. And it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be the same today for some unsuspecting person buying Total Assault, the new deluxe box set on Rhino, which includes all three MC5 albums on colored vinyl, slipcased and including some previously unseen photos by Raeanne Rubenstein and a new essay by Creem magazine founding editor/writer Jaan Uhelszki.
Yes, THREE albums – as I learned a few years later, there were two albums that followed in the seismic aftershocks of Kick Out The Jams. After the “motherfucker” controversy and a dispute with Hudson’s, a Detroit department store that dropped all Elektra albums in response, the MC5 moved to Atlantic. Back In The USA came out in 1970 and, thanks to neophyte producer Jon Landau’s push for “more treble!” replaced the debut’s gut punch with a barbed wire that sliced off the top of your skull. Once open, your head was filled with all sorts of ideas about America in all its wonderful contradictions. From the simple joys of the Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs that bookend the album, to the “terminal stasis” of “The American Ruse” and the dehumanizing force of “The Human Being Lawnmower,” the album is at least as thematically complex as Born In The U.S.A., a similarly titled album Landau produced a few years later. First-time listeners should be on the lookout for excellent deep cuts like the soulful “Let Me Try,” one of Tyner’s sweetest performances, and the charming “Shakin’ Street” (yes, “where all the kids meet”), sweetly sung by Sonic Smith himself.
While the first album rode its furious energy to Billboard’s Top 40 (peaking at 30), Back In The USA rose no higher than 137, making their third album their last chance for redemption. Produced by the band with “N.G.Neer” Geoffrey Haslam (who had worked on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded just prior) and with “Album Concept” credited to “Frederico Smithelini,” High Time was a go-for-broke bid for independence and legitimacy as masters of maximum rock & roll. And it totally worked, at least artistically speaking.
When the first CD reissues of the MC5 came out in 1992, I put on High Time in the studio I shared with another photographer. I’ll never forget flipping through the booklet as “Sister Anne” blasted throughout the loft, exclaiming, “Two harmonica parts! Wow, who’s ever done that before?” My friend looked up from his desk and said, “Sounds a little like overkill.” YES, it was overkill, but only in the best senses of the word! Consider that the Smith-Tyner harmonica duel came before the seven-minute track devolved into a bedraggled hymn, complete with what sounds like miniature marching band, and you have what is surely one of the greatest opening tracks in rock history. “Sister Anne,” written by Wayne Kramer, was merely a prelude to the wonders within High Time, which included Dennis Thompson’s tough “Gotta Keep Moving,” with its glorious guitar breaks, and Fred Smith’s “Over And Over,” an anthem to end all anthems with one of Tyner’s most unhinged vocals. The album ends with “Skunk (Sonically Speaking),” another Smith track, which begins with a percussion jam including an enthusiastic hanger-on named Bob Seger, and besides usual twin-guitar thrills’n’chills features a powerful horn section. Listen for the moment the tenor sax of Leon Henderson (Joe Henderson’s younger brother) blasts out of the mix for a blistering solo. A guitar coda gives you a chance to catch your breath before the album ends.
Commercially, however, High Time was an Ishtar-sized disaster, not even scraping the bottom of the Top 200. Ironically, the middling review in Rolling Stone that may have helped seal that fate was written by none other than Lenny Kaye, who later became the bassist for Patti Smith and ended up introducing her to Sonic, leading to one of the great rock romances. As Tyner sings in “Future/Now,” “The future is here right now, if you’re willing to pay the cost!” But there was no real future for the MC5. The failure of the album, along with the destructive swath cut by hard drugs and alcohol, led to the band’s gradual dissolution. They recorded only three more songs (including the proggy “Gold“) before playing their last gig in a nearly empty Grande Ballroom on the final day of 1972. It was a tragic ending to the comet-like career of one of America’s finest bands.
Feel the heat once again with Total Assault, out September 21 from Rhino.