By IAN McFARLANE
THE MC5 have been described retrospectively as the first ’70s band of the ’60s. Certainly at a time when much American music was mellowing, MC5 delivered an uncompromising brand of high energy rock and roll that was just too radical to be accepted by the Woodstock generation as a whole.
To this day the MC5 are remembered as much for their frantic mix of garage rock and heavy metal as their rabble-rousing politics (equal parts left-wing hippie ideology and naive idealism). ‘Kick Out the Jams’ and ‘Motor City is Burning’ were obvious harbingers to the likes of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘Clash City Rockers’ and ‘California Über Alles’.
Indeed the MC5, alongside Iggy and the Stooges, remain an oft-cited influence on the late ’70s punk movement and its more chaotic second cousin, ’80s hardcore. Here in Australia, the Detroit connection (as epitomised by the MC5 and the Stooges) has been central to the rise of everyone from Radio Birdman and the Hitmen to the Celibate Rifles and the Hard-Ons.
The Motor City Five, as they were originally known, were formed in Detroit in 1965 by Rob Tyner (vocals), Michael Davis (bass), Dennis Thompson (drums) and guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. By early 1967 the band had released one unsuccessful single, ‘I Can Only Give You Everything’, on the local AMG label before coming to the attention of John Sinclair. He sensed the band’s enormous potential and offered to manage them, despite a lack of any experience in the area. Soon enough, however, Sinclair had the band playing regular headline gigs at Detroit’s famed Grande Ballroom. Sinclair wasn’t just a rock fan – he was also ‘Minister of Information’ for the radical left-wing White Panther party. Under Sinclair’s guidance the MC5 became the party’s figurehead and the band began to move away from their R&B roots towards high volume rock and roll with a strong anti-establishment emphasis.
In early 1968 the MC5 released ‘Looking at You’ as a single on the local A-Square label. The song captured the band’s raw, frenetic style perfectly and it remains a killer track to this very day. Then in 1969 Elektra Records released the band’s forceful debut album, Kick Out the Jams, which had been recorded at the Grande in October 1968.
The album contained plenty of high energy moments (the title track, ‘Ramblin’ Rose’, ‘Come Together’) with science fiction noise (‘Starship’, ‘Rocket Reducer No. 62’) thrown in for good measure. The album’s major outrage, however, stemmed from Tyner’s opening shout of “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”. A local record shop refused to stock the album and the band retaliated by covering the shop’s window with “Fuck You” stickers that bore the Elektra logo. Elektra’s response was to drop the MC5 and alter the offending line to “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters” on all subsequent copies of the album. (continued below)
Later in the year Sinclair was arrested for possession of two joints and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. By this time the MC5 had signed to Atlantic Records and were beginning to replace their old political anthems with songs dealing with the problems of a new teenage generation. The band’s next album, Back in the USA (1970), produced by rock critic Jon Landau (before he met Bruce Springsteen), was crammed with two and a half minute gems such as ‘Tonight’, ‘High School’, ‘Teenage Lust’ and ‘Shakin’ Street’ (“where all the kids meet”). The uncontrolled hysteria of the first album had been passed over for a more refined fervour, with the twin guitars and the power drive rhythm section working overtime. Yet sales were poor because to old MC5 fans the album seemed like a compromise, while it attracted few new devotees. So having lost their audience, the MC5 felt free to put down the best playing of their career on the next album, High Time (1971).
Some of the previous drive and conviction was diminished by the addition of mass brass but the band stretched out comfortably on ‘Sister Anne’, ‘Over and Over’ and ‘Skunk (Sonically Speaking)’. High Time was a strong album but it fared no better than Back in the USA and Atlantic subsequently dropped the band. Morale was at a low ebb and in 1972, following a disastrous European tour, the MC5 disbanded.
Rob Tyner made various attempts to front a new MC5 line-up, before carving out a career as a writer/photographer. Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith led his own outfit in the late ’70s, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band (recording the epochal single ‘City Slang’), before marrying singer Patti Smith. Dennis Thompson linked up with ex-Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton in New Order, the pair later joining three ex-Radio Birdman members (guitarist Deniz Tek, bassist Warwick Gilbert and singer Rob Younger) as New Race for a memorable Australian tour in 1981 (the band’s searing in-concert album, The First and the Last, featured a blistering rendition of ‘Looking at You’). Both Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis spent several years in prison, during the ’70s, on drug charges.
The punk boom of the ’70s, however, was to bring belated recognition for the style, verve and energy of the MC5, with the hectic frenzy of their early shows being emulated by many bands. The Damned even covered ‘Looking at You’. The band’s influence spread much further: Blue Öyster Cult regularly covered ‘Kick Out the Jams’ in concert; French band Shakin’ Street (with ex-Dictators and pre-Manowar guitarist Ross the Boss being a latter-day member) took their name and sound directly from the MC5; many of the heavily political hardcore bands of the ’80s, such as the Dead Kennedys, can be seen as direct descendants; and finally the spirit of the MC5 arguably foretold the uncompromising stance of the likes of Metallica and Megadeth.