Friday, June 20, 2014

The MC5

I'll give you a testimonial, THE MC5!

With the rambling 2 minute speech from Brother J C Crawford, we get a sense of the tornado forming from within and after warming up the crowd with his five second speech, the band unleashes with the punk Ramblin Rose.  With an out of tune guitar from Wayne Kramer (he admitted in interviews it was out of tune) the band is like a uncoming train wreck.  Being one of the first albums to use the sex with your parents word KICK OUT THE JAMS MUTHAFUKKA  The Motor City Five or MC5 lays everything to waste on the way to the I Can See The Miles rip of Come Together.  The drunk tempo of Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa, one has to catch his breath before turning the record over for Borderline, the mutated blues of Motor City Is Burning (with another Brother Crawford rave up), and back to the noisegrind of  I Want You Right Now before concluding with the the trainwreck ending of Starship based on a poem by Sun Ra.  This is the beginning of the MC5.

Basically a garage rock band, but with an eye on Ornotte Coleman Free Jazz type of avant garde noise, The 5 were ahead of their time. The twin guitars of Fred (Sonic) Smith and Brother Wayne Kramer, Mike Davis' bass, Rob Tyler's screaming vocals and the underrated Dennis Thompson. The MC5 made a couple of regional singles, a fairly note for note rendering of Them's I Can Only Give You Everything, a feedback laden I'm In The Mood, a John Lee Hooker song remade as I Just Don't Know.  And the harder to find Borderline which Rhino either couldn't or wouldn't add to their mix CD of The Big Bang, a subpar overview of what MC5 had to offer.  Warts and all, it shows them to be high energy rock, even more wilder than some of the stuff that came out in 1968, but it also shows the downside of the band, adding the worthless Miss X from High Time. Wayne Kramer who wrote that also compiled the best of too.  Not much variety for oddities except for 3 of the 4 singles before they signed to Elektra and Thunder Express from a bootleg album.

The MC5 were signed to Elektra, the label that was better known for british blues and folk music rather than rock but with the success of The Doors were starting to take off.  Elektra also signed another Detroit band The Stooges but the thought was that The MC5 was going to be bigger.  And the ideal was to record The MC5 in a live setting.  Bruce Botnick recorded the happening.  Now Kick Out The Jams was a groundbreaking album for myself.  I came across the title track via the Superstars Of The 70s series that Warner Music put out and we got to hear the Brothers and Sisters version of said song but never did I hear the MF shout till I found the actual record for 1.97 at Wells years ago and proceeded to make my dad mad about hearing that, half crocked on beer and made it known that it was a piece of crap.  Especially on hearing Starship, I wonder if he was going fly off the easy chair, snatched the record off the player and break it into little pieces.  But I liked most of the record, including the first side.  Years later, I would trade a Neil Young Freedom Picture CD disc for a Japanese version of Kick Out The Jams.  40 plus years later, I still find Kick Out The Jams to be the definite MC5 statement and album.  This is rock and roll, from the pounding drums to the loud and whacked out guitar work and shouted vocals.  Rob Tyler was a shouter and not a screamer and it's a shame that nobody bothered to film their concert at the Grande Ballroom that night. You had to be there.

The 5 were radical rockers and it cost them their contract with Elektra after a now long gone department store refused to stock Kick Out The Jams and somebody responded with a F bom on Elektra paper.  Which even the radical label thought that was going way too far and they dropped them.  Atlantic actually snatched them up but begin to transfer the band into something less radical.  They hooked up with Jon Landau, a Rolling Stone review writer and future Bruce Springsteen manager and managed to make one of the more fucked up recordings in their history.  Back In The USA is a fun album.  The songs are damn  good but the recording of that record is odious and lacking any bass.  If anything Jon Landau's production was the main blame.  Some of their better known songs (High School, Tonight, Human Being Lawnmower) are here.

High Time might be the better of the two Atlantic releases.  Without Landau around they self produced it with Geoff Haslem (Velvet Underground, J. Geils Band) and perhaps this album is the one true vision of what the MC5 was all about.  The crazed beginning of Sister Anne which ends with a Salvation Army band doing a death march, the one note lead guitar ending of Baby Won't Ya, the eerie Future/Now and the punk jazz of Skunk (Sonically Speaking) you can hear the influences coming together for the MC5.  It wasn't made for the radio and sales showed it (it didn't chart).  The Five were dropped from Atlantic.

There's been a onslaught of post MC5 reissues and concerts but the three that I did buy 66 Breakout shows an early but potent lineup of the Five doing covers and plenty of James Brown.  Thunder Express was recorded in 1972 with a replacement bass player and the band runs through their better known songs.  I came across Phun City UK on a bootleg German import, the sound is K Mart recorder poor but the band is in fine form.  I haven't heard anything else when Total Energy reissued some MC5 concert performances (some were reissued via Castle/Sanctuary in the 2000s) but I'm guessing the sound quality varies from good to poor.  Buyer beware.

Just as Rhino reissued the Atlantic albums and Elektra issued Kick Out The Jams on CD Rob Tyler passed away.  Fred Sonic Smith, later married Patti Smith retired from music to raise a family and then died in 1994. Wayne Kramer would reunite with Mike Davis and Dennis Thompson to do some reunion shows in the 1990s and then in 2005 with Dick Manitoba (The Dictators, Manitoba's Wild Kingdom) did reunite and played from time to time till Davis died in 2012.  To which Kramer finally retired the Five once and for all.

In essence, The MC5 never got the credit due when they were around, album sales were lackluster to nonexistent but for those who had an album probably form radical bands of their own.  The albums are flawed but a product of the times.  But they may have been the most radical and the most dangerous band to ever come out of Detroit.  With elements of garage rock and free jazz from the likes of Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Sun Ra, no other band even attempted this as you can hear on Kick Out The Jams, this makes the MC5 one of the more original bands of the 60s. 

And as the story goes, you had to be there to see it to believe it.


Kick out the jams (Elektra 1968) A-
Back in the USA (Atlantic 1970) B+
High Time (Atlantic 1971) B+
Thunder Express (Skydog 1972) B
The Big Bang (Rhino 2000) B-

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