Music Features

Overlooked Albums #41: The MC5 - Kick Out The Jams

Recorded during two sizzling performances at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, Kick Out the Jams now stands as a fascinating time capsule. In 1968, the Grande Ballroom was the place to be; the meeting spot for suburban rock ‘n’ roll kids, the testing ground for local groups, the inner-city grapevine for a burgeoning music press. Outside, the city still thrived, its sprawling streets teeming with industry and commerce to the beat of Motown hits. Still, it was a tough town to live in; unlike San Francisco, the funk wasn’t disguised with patchouli oil. Nothing was handed down to the people working brain-numbing shifts on assembly lines,and leisure time was often disrupted by a goonish police force, who pounded on blacks and longhairs with undisguised bloodlust. This harsh environment was a hotbed of hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll bands, and the MC5 ruled the scene.  

The MC5 were from nearby Lincoln Park but became the quintessential Detroit band. Their music was raw, their views were political and their intent was to promote social revolution to the tune of high-energy freakouts. The Five’s fast rise to local glory and their deal with Elektra Records had garnered national attention, and the challenge now was to translate their powder-keg music to vinyl. That power would have been lost in a sterile recording studio, watchful eyes on UV meters being the industry’s norm. The decision to record their first album live was a gamble; it could pull the fanbase in while alienating potential buyers accustomed to smooth productions. Artists like Stevie Wonder and James Brown had drummed up big sales with live recordings, but a debut album by an unproven new group defied economic logic. Still, the Five’s uncompromising hard-knuckle sound would point the way to the future while pop fans were still surfing the waves of psychedelia, blues rock and bubblegum.

The album opens with the heated rhetoric of a stage announcer, very much of its time. We should consider though, that 1968 had already seen the vicious murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and that a summer of unrest was capped by violent anti-war protests during the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. The MC5 dared to play there at a park concert just as flare-ups between police and protesters went on around them. The band walked it as they talked it, yet the opening song here is Ramblin’ Rose, sung in a goofy falsetto by guitarist Wayne Kramer, which tells us that they know obscure R&B oldies and that they don’t take themselves too seriously. Next up is the title song with its famous “motherfucker” introduction, the cause of headaches and strife for fledgling Elektra Records. Its double-guitar attack and heavy-muscled basic chords were designed to kick noodling boogie bands offstage, as they did in those halcyon days. Before the fire dies down, Come Together hits us with Pete Townshend chords. Rob Tyner’s baritone vocals seem to strain here, but by the end the incendiary song is just another walk in the park for him. Rocket Reducer N. 62 manages to be equally metallic and funky, a fusion of Hendrix and Otis Redding. Borderline is thrash metal before its time, going from fast to warp speed. I Want You Right Now slows the pace, but compensates with crunching wild-thing chords. Starship reveals an expansive side. Lyrics by jazz maverick Sun Ra inspired this space-age fantasy that blends odd sound patterns and improvisation. This shape-shifting approach would be later adopted by the Patti Smith Group as their stock-in-trade.

Motor City Is Burning is the album’s sole political song. It was recorded by bluesman John Lee Hooker shortly after the 1967 Detroit riots. His version is about a man confused by the events, still trying to figure out what’s going on as they unfold. The MC5’s version pulls no punches; Tyner declares he’d like to join in and strike a match for freedom, and the anger is palpable. Yet the song was a harbinger of things to come. The riots marked a negative turn to the city’s economy, speeding up the migration of people and industries that was already underway.

The album and single did well on the charts, but the Five were still dropped by Elektra over censorship issues and loss of revenues, with the Hudson’s department-store chain refusing to stock the label’s releases. This was compounded by the arrest of John Sinclair, the band’s manager, who was given a ten year sentence for two joints. Though the Five supported Sinclair, there was an ideological conflict bubbling under. There was an inherent contradiction in Marxists wanting to become rock stars. From prison, Sinclair lambasted the band for “being greedy for easy fame”.  Back In The U.S.A, released by Atlantic in 1970, was a concise and powerful second album, but many saw it as a sellout. On hindsight, this release would become the prototype for the decade’s punk studio albums, not that it did the band any good. Their tenure at Atlantic only lasted for another album. Poor sales and the band’s controversial reputation would keep other labels at bay. Meanwhile, Detroit’s music venues were fast disappearing. The Grande Ballroom would close its doors on New Year’s Eve, 1972. As fate would have it, the band played their last gig there that night.

Today the Grande Ballroom stands among the ruins of a city block, awaiting its fate. The ghosts of the past live there, but nostalgia can’t hold back the living. Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson, the group’s surviving members, still play today. Wayne Kramer still believes he can change lives through the power of music, as he proves every day with Jail Guitar Doors USA, a foundation created to provide instruments to prison inmates. As for Detroit, its residents got tired of seeing their city in shambles, and there are now concerted efforts towards urban renewal. It will take years, but little by little, stone by stone, Detroit will rise again.