by Simon Sweetman
Musically The MC5 - with their name conjuring the mental image of
Detroit's assembly line routine for car manufacturing - were the
antidote to that other famous Detroit sound of the 60s: Motown.And,
the Motor City Five bought sleazy, sludgy riffs and a raw rock heart
to their live performances.
To put the song Kick Out The Jams in its wider - correct - social
context, it was written and first performed in 1968. In that year,
America was on the brink of sociopolitical upheaval. Two of its
brightest political visionaries, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby
Kennedy, had been assassinated; the war in Vietnam was proving
tougher than anticipated (with rising US casualties) and President
Lyndon Johnson chose not to stand for re-election, introducing
Richard Nixon to government.
The MC5 only released three official albums in their career, and in
terms of success (both critical and chart-wise) it was the law of
diminishing returns. Their debut, Kick Out The Jams is their classic.
Recorded over two nights in October of 1968, it was released in 1969.
The band went on to record Back In The USA in 1970 and High Time in 1971.
They were fine-enough albums, similar in style and tone to their
debut, but the important thing about Kick Out The Jams is that it was
a live album.
A bold move for a band to release as first album; but in the case of
the high-voltage rock - and fabled early shows of the MC5 - it was a
smart move. Many critics contest that only The Who's Live At Leeds
stands as a live rock'n'roll album that matches both the power and
glory of Kick Out The Jams.
Ok, so, The MC5 formed in 1964, in an early incarnation - and after
replacing their original bassist and drummer, they cemented their
lineup which hinged on two key members; the twin-guitar attack of
Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith. The band drew its influence from
early primal rockers such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
They married that to the revisionist approach of The Who and The
Rolling Stones, who had essentially already re-written the sound of
primitive R'n'B and rock'n'roll.
The MC5 had one other important set of influences: they were well
versed in the works of the avant-garde and free-jazz movements; the
likes of Sun Ra (they cover one of his tunes on Jams) John Coltrane,
Ornette Coleman and Pharaoh Sanders.
What was special about the MC5 was their connection with the growth
of discontent amongst the alienated youth of the counterculture. They
took their political anger and frustrations out on their instruments.
Essentially, it is as if the group was channeling sexual energy and
converting it in to musical energy; you could read in to this some
suggestion of sexual frustration. The point is the energy of the song
comes from its simple, infectious drive. And the lyrics - though
forming a type of street poetry - and certainly pertaining to the
inherent rhythms of the riff - are not the most defining aspect of
the song, or the band.
It serves mostly to show a conscious move away from the folk aspect
of songwriting that had started to dominate a great deal of rock and
pop music after the major discovery of Bob Dylan.
The important thing about the MC5 is that, along with The Stooges,
they can now be considered revolutionary in their approach to wild
and free rock'n'roll. With the benefit of time we can see - and say -
that they were not only a total influence on punk (a decade ahead of
its major-label acceptance) but also, now, a huge influence on the
garage-rock revival trend; bands such as The White Stripes (and
remember back to The Von Bondies?) began to name-check them in interviews.
The song Kick Out The Jams has been covered by several acts; its
relentless three-chord guitar riff, doubled on the bass - and sloppy,
open hi-hat drum groove move the song along.
It's not just punk/grunge/metal and rock acts that have covered the
song - and/or claimed that the MC5 were among their influences.
Novelty pop-punk act The Presidents Of The United States Of America
included their version of Kick Out The Jams on their debut,
self-titled album in 1995.
Jeff Buckley was a keen admirer, often opening shows with a faithful,
grunty version of the tune.
From the 1980s on, a bombardment of MC5 reissues hit the shelves.
There are over 20 compilations available from a band that only ever
recorded three albums, and arguably only one seminal album.
If you want one album, besides Kick Out The Jams - The Big Bang: The
Best Of The MC5, released in 2000, is an impressive collection that
takes in all the band's good material.
I think the song survives because of its relentless riff and its
lyrical push - promoting the very idea of kicking out the jams; it
seems natural to cover it and kick out a jam by singing Kick Out The Jams.
The idea that Kick Out The Jams (the album) is the MC5's most
important comes from the politics, the impact - and from that song.
But actually, for me, Back In The USA is a better album.
Were you a fan of the MC5? Do you have a favourite song? And what's
your favourite album? Do you like Kick Out The Jams? Or were/are you
more in to Back In The USA and/or High Time?