August 11, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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