A group appeared back when I cared about the emanation of such things—late 60s—to wit, MC5, formerly or aka Motor City Five. Rolling Stone cover-storied them as the best thing since mustard, before they had released an album. Rolling Stone promoting an act? Hard to imagine.
John Sinclair served as mentor and manager for the group. He also founded the White Panthers. The White Panthers, by report, were dedicated to furthering the goals of the Black Panthers. Sinclair famously (at the time) was arrested for possession of marijuana and given a sentence of five years, which eventually, post public outrage, boiled down to two. Obviously, a lot of things going on here.
While in school, I read, if not got, a lot of the literature of the what would it be called, the Black Movement. I was sympathetic if not politically astute. I think of the scenes in Ellison’s Invisible Man, when the political firebrands seem more like bullies (“the Iron Hand crush’d the tyrants Head / and became a tyrant in his stead”—Blake, of course, quoted from memory). So the political matter of MC5 was just stuff for me. I was wary, even if they did use naughty words.
The hype was more stuff. I’d heard their signature song, “Kick Out the Jams”, but nothing else. For a group with persuasion in their garden, that’s not much. Lester Bangs’ brief and dismissive mention of them made me look to YouTube, where all everything reposes. I found a live version of “Kick Out the Jams”. You can accomplish the same trick.
The clip begins with the lead singer exhorting: “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers”. It’s a nice phrase, albeit obviously controversial. That second noun truly was the centre of their controversial sphere. I think they had to change that to “brothers and sisters”, with considerably less impact. The world was like that, the whippersnappers. The song sounds political but the lyrics really are just testosterone sex. You can shape it more politically but you might hurt yourself trying. No prob there, it is rock and roll.
Musically, sonically, it’s full bore charge ahead. One can fairly call their music proto-punk, proto heavy metal, proto anything so long as you call it proto. A tight, steady rhythm section pushes the two guitars ahead. Those wee, little Marshall amps—sine qua non back then—added to the assault. The singer, Rob Tyner, looks kind of awkward with his rock star movements but he seems sturdy enough in all phases of rock wailing. He took his last name, sez Wikipedia, from Coltrane’s pianist. Not the only oddity reported.
Wayne Kramer, the more lead guitarist, looks baby-faced and mischievous. At one point he turns his back to the crowd and wiggles his butt as the music roars on. Right after, he and Sonic Smith, the other guitarist (the one with the awesome name), lay down on their backs while continuing to play. A little later, the two bow their guitars back and forth to each other. In another vid, same concert, they do the same movements in sync. Feels like too much forethought. Somewhere or other Kramer plays the guitar behind his back. Shades of Hendrix, or Buddy Guy.
The crowd’s into it. A bounding beach ball blesses the event. A guy gets on stage and dances for a bit until a roadie rather politely pushes him off.
I guess my tastes were moving elsewhere, because I heard little more about MC5 after Rolling Stone’s completely guileless anointment. The group lasted a few years, but at least they live forever in recorded bliss.
I don’t know why I am taken by these guys. Despite the hype, they aren’t so politically motivated as say Rage Against the Machine (who do a version of “Kick Out the Jams”). I’m leery of the escapade anyway, dire warnings from entertainers. You can tell us anything you want, but it has got to have the beat to knock our socks off. MC5 apparently played an 8 hour concert (somewhere) at the 68 Democratic Convention, which was a fun gathering of happy people. Few other scheduled performers made it to the stage. So there’s that.
Digging up old music that I didn’t really listen to is, like, I dunno. I would not want to face the head winds of MC5’s Marshall amps but it was an angry time needing serious thud. Blue Cheer came as advertised, the loudest group ever. It’s not hype if it’s all true. For all their patchy showmanship, MC5 are straightforward with their threat level. I have hardly listened to punk music, it sort of happened when I wasn’t looking, but the idea sounds corny, staged anger. If MC5 want to ride their Big Man Pony, I’ll accept the stockpile of noise. Noise is exuberance, as at least our children know.
The bass line here, I think, is that there’s no history left to happen. MC5 were just a collection of people who managed, or thought they managed, to kick the jams in an outward direction. Hippie peace & love made homeless marmalade. That war then didn’t stop, and these wars now aint stopping either. At least naughty words no longer bother us.