Punk history is often reductive, boiling down subtle cultural nuances to an archetypal struggle between a lone hero (and a few heroines) who battle with an old, complacent and corporate network of evil. Sort of like Luke Skywalker in a leather jacket. According to these histories, punks smash their icons, kill their idols and demystify overly conceptual rock music which has little relevance to the real world (can anyone imagine the Vibrators watching Rick Wakeman’s 1975 The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which was performed on ice nonetheless?). Within these histories, critics almost universally cite London and New York as punk’s gritty places of origin. This historical reduction probably stems from the genre’s “attitude,” an irreverence towards authority that, in the seventies, was most commonly evidenced in a disdain for corrupt music industry types, bloated arena rock acts and an almost unanimous aversion to hippies. These punk histories position hippies as aging nostalgia seekers, too earthy, too slow and too stoned to be artistically or culturally relevant.
But this antagonism between punks and hippies is too one-dimensional, painting history in broad brushstrokes that neglect how the sixties did, in fact, influence the rise of punk rock. This historical oversight began to shift in the nineties, however, as pop historians like Clinton Heylin traced punk back to a variety of disparate places and sources: to the Velvet Underground’s art and minimalist experiments; to Cleveland’s Rocket from the Tombs and their postured anomie; and, in a more visceral sense, to Detroit’s politically-charged distortion-mavens the MC5, who revamped hippie culture into something confrontational and anarchic. In a wider historical sense, the MC5 document a shift within the late sixties, as flower-power pacifism gave way to a more militant form of political action.
MC5 formed in late 1964 while its members were still in high school in Lincoln Park, Michigan. In those early years, guitarists Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer, bassist Pat Burrows, drummer Bob Gaspar and vocalist Rob Tyner performed primarily as a cover band. Their influences were diverse, borrowing as much from Detroit’s fabled R & B culture as from the British Invasion. Though covers would remain an integral part of their performances and recordings—their first self-released single in 1966 featured a cover of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything”—the mature MC5 eventually found its unique identity when Kramer and Smith began incorporating distortion and feedback into their sound. This sonic shift was another example of the MC5’s reverential borrowing, this time from free jazz and rock ‘n’ roll volume-pushers like the Who.
Burrows and Gaspar left the band in the fall of 1965 as the MC5 were becoming known as Detroit’s most dangerous and outrageous live act. By the time their replacements arrived—bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson—the band had secured regular gigs at the Grande Ballroom, where they attracted curious thrill seekers who were interested as much in the spectacle as the MC5’s sound. Their sets included a diverse and rollicking range of covers—from the Who’s “Can’t Explain,” to Archie Shepp’s “Hambone” and Pharaoh Sanders’ “Upper Egypt,”—that were broken open for extended jams, especially showcasing Kramer and Smith’s interlocking guitar lines.
Beyond being known for their rowdy live sets, two other linked factors make clear how the MC5 anticipated punk: in 1967 John Sinclair, an ex-high-school-English-teacher-turned-militant-revolutionary began managing the band, providing them with a unique form of political rhetoric and street credibility; and around this time, the band accepted Huey Newton’s invitation to form a White Panther Party that would work in concert with the Black Panthers. Wayne Kramer claims it was this leap into revolutionary ideology that helped support their new sonic experiments. At this stage in their career, they were Michigan’s most talked about and feared band, even more so than the Ann Arbor’s Psychedelic Stooges.
After seeing the MC5 perform at the Yippies’ Festival of Life in Chicago during the politically-charged summer of 1968—an event set up in opposition to the Democratic National Convention—Danny Fields signed the band to Elektra Records. In the spirit of the revolution, their debut, Kick Out the Jams, was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom on October 30 and 31st, 1968. It was two nights of free music and the audience was treated to large doses of political rabble rousing from Sinclair, Brother J.C. Crawford, and others from the Trans-Love Energies Collective. This debut evidences the most cohesive record the band ever released and showcases many of their anthems, including “Kick Out The Jams” and “Rocket Reducer No. 62” (which sounds like the Ramones performing “Gimme Some Lovin’”), as well as more subdued songs (“Motor City is Burning”) and a sample of their improv-experiments (Sun Ra’s “Starship”). Unlike many of the New York punk bands from the seventies whose records failed to sell substantial numbers while the bands were together, the MC5’s first release broke the Top 30.
Along with this taste of success, the band also experienced pressure from the Elektra when the label received complaints about Tyner’s encouraging the audience to “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” Though the MC5 tried to mount a counter-response in the underground and alternative press, Elektra released a censored version of the album that replaced “motherfuckers” with a more benign invitation to “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters.” The controversy soured the band’s relationship with Elektra, who promptly dropped them.
They were subsequently signed to Atlantic Records, who released their second album in 1970, Back in the U.S.A.; engineered by Jon Landau, Back in the U.S.A. was the MC5’s first studio-based full-length and the band’s rambunctious and rowdy live sound was replaced with a more “polished” production. The album’s title is borrowed from a Chuck Berry song, which they included, along with a cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” In 1970, Sinclair was arrested on drug charges, an event often coupled with this record as marking the beginning of the end.
The band released High Time in 1971, another record that was disappointingly received. Though Atlantic dropped them after this record, High Time includes some of their best-written material. In particular, Fred Smith crafted the heavy-rock anthems “Sister Anne” and “Skunk (Sonicly [sic] Speaking),” which open and close the record respectively. Where Back in the U.S.A. suffered from a trebly lack of low end, High Time recalls some of the noise and bombast of their live shows.
Sinclair gave the MC5 their mantra: Dope, Guns and Fucking in the Streets (a slogan later taken up by the Amphetamine Reptile label 7” series), but by the early seventies, the band struggled to embody these counter-cultural claims. They experienced numerous run-ins with the law and indulged in drug excesses, which predictably lead to the band’s disintegration. Davis left in 1972 because of a heroin addiction and Wayne Kramer spent most of the seventies and eighties struggling with substance abuse and, eventually, jail time, though he did release a remarkable comeback record in 1995, The Hard Stuff, on Epitaph that was very well received. Tyner and Smith (who went on to marry Patti Smith) both died of heart ailments in the early nineties.
MC5 borrowed liberally from African-American music, culture and politics, especially James Brown and the aforementioned Black Panthers. In the late sixties and early seventies these influences raised suspicions among critics who argued the MC5’s greatest “innovations” were really only dubious forms of cultural theft. But the MC5’s driving bass and distorted guitar and, especially their charismatic and soulful lead singer, went on to influence many indie acts of the nineties, namely the John Spencer Blues Explosion, Zen Guerilla and the Make-Up, who invoked the band’s call to arms but only with a postured and playful smirk. It is difficult not to hear how many of the retro rock acts celebrated today were also influenced by the MC5’s rhythm and blues stomp, though they are cited less often than their fellow Michiganders, the Stooges. Though never realized, the MC5’s “total revolution” was attempted a few years later by punk acts like The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
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Heylin, Clinton. From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk
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McLeese, Don. The MC5’s Kick Out the Jams. New York: Continuum, 2005.
© Brian Gempp 2006