The Great Albums

The MC5, Kick Out the Jams

MC5 classic still has plenty of kick to it


August 11, 2002



In August 1968, there was only one rock band that dared to perform against the first Mayor Daley's wishes at the protests outside the Democratic National Convention. When the police moved in, the tear gas rained down, the billy clubs swung, and the band paid the price for its convictions, taking its lumps and losing all of its equipment.

But while survivors of that day grant that the political rhetoric of the time now seems a bit idealistic (if not downright laughable), the ideals remain laudable.

"The MC5 not only talked about revolution, we believed it," guitarist Wayne Kramer told me a few years ago. "The part about destroying the government and taking over and shooting it out with the pigs and all that--that didn't work. But the other part about the concept of possibilities, the revolution of ideas--that has changed the world."

Indeed, the power of those ideas remains undiminished on the group's greatest album, its 1968 debut, "Kick Out the Jams."

The political consciousness of the Motor City Five was shaped by the Detroit riots of 1967. Fueled by years of racial inequity, the riots erupted during the middle of the Summer of Love, and they galvanized the white musicians, writers, and artists who watched from their rooftops as downtown burned.

"When the Detroit uprising jumped off, we thought the beginning of the end had arrived, and we were busy planning for the 'post-revolutionary construction' which would start with the victory of the insurrection," poet John Sinclair wrote in his autobiography, Guitar Army. "But the fantasy ended with the brutal suppression of the slave revolt in the streets and the gun-butts of the National Guard and U.S. Army troops who beat our door down and threatened to shoot us all on the spot."

In the wake of the riots, Sinclair became the manager of the city's most exciting rock band, which he saw as a vehicle to motivate white youth toward another, more successful uprising. The violence at the Democratic Convention convinced him that revolution would not be possible without armed struggle, and he announced the formation of his radical White Panther Party, which would be associated from that moment on with the MC5, partly to their chagrin.

The first point in the White Panthers' 10-point manifesto was a full endorsement of the Black Panthers' agenda. But it was the second point that captured the public's imagination: "total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock 'n' roll, dope, and ----ing in the streets."

Strange as it seems in retrospect, the music industry thought revolution might be the next big marketing concept circa the late '60s, and the MC5 were signed to Elektra Records (along with their younger "baby brother" band, the Stooges) by Danny Fields, an A&R man who was the label's "house hippie." (He later managed the Ramones.) In an effort to capture the excitement of the group's performances, its debut album was recorded live at its home base, Detroit's Grande Ballroom, on the night of Oct. 30, 1968.

The disc starts with some crowd noise, followed by an inspirational invocation by the White Panthers' "religious leader and spiritual advisor," Brother J.C. Crawford: "Brothers and sisters, I want to see your hands up there! I want everybody to kick up some noise! I want to hear see some revolution out there! ... Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution ... Brothers, it's time to testify! ... Are you ready to testify? I give you a testimonial--the MC5!"

What follows is indeed inspirational, at least in musical terms. "Motor City Is Burning" aside, the MC5's lyrics were never directly political--this was not the Rage Against the Machine or even the System of A Down of its time. In later years, when the group split with Sinclair after failing to make much of a dent on the pop charts, it would blame the political posturing of its former manager, though it would have no more success with its second guru, former rock critic Jon Landau (who now manages Bruce Springsteen).

The musicians would later say that they'd always been less interested in fomenting revolution than in being a great rock band. And in the end, it was the MC5's music that was the most revolutionary.

Given the historical link, comparisons between the Stooges and the Five are inevitable. As a frontman, frizzy-haired white soul singer Rob Tyner was just as frenetic and exciting (if less self-destructive) as Iggy Pop. But guitarists Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith and the rhythm section of bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson were much more accomplished musicians, bettering almost every other hard-rock group at the time (from Blue Cheer to Cream) and laying the groundwork for what would soon be called heavy metal.

The Five's influences were diverse, ranging from the raw garage-rock of bands like the Kinks and the Kingsmen, to the James Brown and Motown grooves they'd grown up with, to bebop and free jazz. Kramer boasted of playing guitar like Pharoah Sanders played sax, and an epic, eight-minute cover of Sun Ra's "Starship" closes the debut album.

The disc's title track stands as one of rock's most indelible anthems, and "Kick Out the Jams" boasts the album's best conventional hook. (It might well have been a hit, if not for the controversy concerning the nasty language; the MC5 eventually edited the word "mother-------" out of the opening, but it was too late to save the single. But the Five were never really about catchy songwriting.) They were a great jam band--the songs spiraled off in new directions each time they were played--but they never lost the crucial drive, energy, and focus essential to great rock 'n' roll.

As Kramer says, "I think [the music connects] with all of those who are addicted to the sound of Marshall amplifiers, blistering drumbeats, and lyrics that have some sense of political consciousness. If not overtly, they tell the truth on some level. And the truth is always more interesting than anything you could make up."

Tracks such as "Ramblin' Rose" and "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)" are like James Brown at double-speed, maniacal groovers that zoom past on sheer energy and with unexpected detours into insane explosions of guitar noise. It's all over in a little more than 40 minutes, but you can almost feel the sweat every time you play the disc, and its effect is akin to an out-of-control rollercoaster ride.

The lifeforce on "Kick Out the Jams" remains undiminished by the passage of time, even if the members of the MC5 do not. Two of the original band members, Tyner and Smith (who married the punk poet, Patti Smith) have died in recent years, before the recent resurgence of interest in the group.

In the works since 1995, Chicago filmmakers David Thomas and Laurel Legler will finally host the world premiere of their feature-length documentary about the group, "The MC5: A True Testimonial!," at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on Aug. 22. Rather more disturbing is the fact that blue jeans manufacturers Levi Strauss & Co. has announced plans to roll out a new line in the spring called "Levi's Vintage Clothing" featuring the famous MC5 flag logos designed by Detroit poster artist Gary Grimshaw. (The revolution still may not be televised, but it will certainly be commodified.)

For his part, Kramer believes the MC5 lives on most in the spirit of the music, and he hears its influence looming louder than ever in the punk-rock underground.

"You can connect the dots from the Five and the Stooges, to the New York Dolls and the Ramones, to Black Flag and Bad Religion, to the current punk scene," he says. "The best part of what's happening in the punk world today is the idea that our creativity and our ability to think will get us through. If you're gonna make a contribution, if you're gonna make a difference, if you've got something to say, you'd better start saying it."