Thursday, 13 March 2008



The Motor City Five was more than just a rock band.  Indeed they were more than the prototype punk band that legend has presented them as.  No, here was a band with aspiration far further than mere entertainer and innovator.  They had a genuine agenda and thus a purpose to their rock.

It is a very bold gesture for your first record to be a live album.  There are so many pitfalls that can occur.  The gig could be shit.  The equipment used to record could be shit.  The band could be shit.  To enter into such an endeavour a band needs to be at the top of their game but even then gold is not guaranteed.  Such was the self belief of the MC5.

It opens with something of a sermon and Brother J.C. Crawford calling out to the crowd to see their hands.  If you have ever seen the way that Ian Svenonius works the room with The Make Up, then hearing and witnessing the MC5 suddenly you realise where he learned his chops.  Then after getting his “sea of hands” Crawford begins speaking of revolution asking the crowd “to decide whether you are going to be problem or whether you are going to be the solution” before telling them that it takes them “five seconds to realise your purpose here on the planet, five seconds that its time to move” as the final question asks the audience if they’re reading to testify.  And with that the crowd has already been whipped up into a frenzy before a note has even been played.  This is powerful stuff.

When At The Drive-in arrived a decade ago with their afros and wowing with their blunt energy it was obvious to the ones in the know that they were trying to bring a unique spin on being the MC5.  And being that the product was so good, the fucking pulled it off.

“Kick Out The Jams” is one of the most powerful declarations in rock history.  It was (and still is) a call to arms to remove restrictions (the jams).  This was a forward thinking outfit with an appropriate rallying call.  They moved like a unit and were expertly positioned by their manager John Sinclair to cause chaos in otherwise sedate climates.  And anything that accomplishes such feats is a very powerful and important object.

The album was recorded over two nights in October 1969 (Devil’s Night and Halloween) in Detroit.  Acting ahead of the curve this was a band pre-empting the demise of the city while more than adding to its musical legacy with a hefty weighted tome.

The MC5 was a huge sounding band.  The storming start of “Rambin’ Rose” heavily reminds of the “Rock N Roll” opening to Led Zeppelin concerts while there is no doubt there is a gnarly Stooges type bound to their sound in general and “Borderline” sounds somewhat like The Who.  To this you can add a subtle but effective psychedelic leaning that appears to lay the ground for Mudhoney while the vocal exertion in general echoes James Brown in both approach and register before it eventually ends entering Sun Ra territory.

At the beginning of “Motor City Is Burning” Crawford continues his preaching with discussion of what is high society before leaning into a slow burning blues number addressing just that.  This was the time of the draft and the Vietnam War, at time when there was no option other than be incarcerated or fight.

The band played home to three strong characters in Wayne Kramer the father of the band, Rob Tyner the vocal frontman and Fred “Sonic” Smith the primary songwriter.  Combined theirs was one hell of an engine room.

A big part of their decision to record live was their desire to capture their raw energy as by now they had built up real momentum with their gigs holding a reputation for being more about confrontation than entertainment.  With a staunch local following behind them they were being enthused to play/rock harder and harder.  When touring bands hit Detroit, Detroit would promptly hit them back at the MC5 would often blow them offstage.

Ultimately the band was too dangerous, too controversial to ever really being a mainstream going concern.  Kick Out The Jams was released on February 1969 and the band was promptly dropped by Elektra in March 1969.

Consisting of just eight songs the album is very much a two headed beast with the band tearing out the blocks on the first side with four incendiary offerings before slowing the pace down on side two with a cross section of a bluesy drawl ahead of one final eight minute jam.  Over the years fans have shown preference for one side over the other but it is the second side that holds most interest for me as I can hear the intro from “Rise Above” by Black Flag in “Borderline” and a band that sounds like Mudhoney crossed with Hendrix doing “Wild Thing” on “I Want You Right Now” not to mention the venomous bile of “Motor City Is Burning” ahead of the exciting exploration of closing track “Starship” seemingly designed to lift proceedings above and out the building.

On the outset this record smashed everything.

Thesaurus moment: irascible.

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