“This album of songs is a microcosm of the times that spawned it,” according to lead singer Rob Tyner. Recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on Halloween night in 1968, it was a ballsy decision by the band and Elektra to release a live album as their debut, but it was a wise decision, as the album boasts an incredible, manic energy. Kick Out The Jams is a true hard rock original, an impressive if defiantly dated document on which the songs are sometimes average but the playing is so fierce that it hardly matters. Listening to “Religious Leader And Spiritual Advisor” Brother J.C. Crawford’s fiery introduction (with his “I wanna hear some revolution out there, brothers” and “are you ready to testify?” propaganda) is mildly amusing, and his fever-pitched incantations are continued by lunatic Afro-haired frontman Tyner (great screamer, so-so singer, at least on this album), most notably during his infamous “kick out the jams, motherfuckers” (which for years was censored from the album) introduction to the explosive title track. The band kicks some serious ass, with a violently loud psychedelic assault that is primal metal thunder, highlighted by the distorted dual guitar madness of Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith. Some of these songs are fairly straightforward statements of garageland fury (favorites: “Kick Out The Jams,” "Come Together," “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa),” and “I Want You Right Now”), while others are more indulgent, with the truly terrible “Starship” (8:24) being the biggest offender (they should leave that sort of avant jazz stuff to Sun Ra, though at least the song is sequenced last). Kramer’s (not Tyner as most people think) falsetto on “Ramblin’ Rose” is also somewhat embarrassing, but the “I give you a testimonial, the MC5!!!” intro (1:30) as the band kicks in is a great rock 'n’ roll moment, and the song’s catchy sing along chorus is also notable. Elsewhere, the band revels in their explosive attack, but “Motor City Is Burning” is an excellent straight up blues that shows that these guys weren’t all about pure power but were capable of subtlety. “Borderline” is a hazy attempt at a more pop oriented direction (foreshadowing Back In The USA) that still rocks, even if more than any other song here it reeks of the late ‘60s. But so what? Kick Out The Jams is an important historical document in that it was the alleged inspiration for many hard rock and punk combos. In fact, the MC5 are often labeled “proto-punk,” but these guys can really play their instruments; the rhythm section of drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis is badass. Although seriously flawed, the album has an exciting overall vibe and many great moments, as it transports listeners to a far away time and place, as true rebels from another era emphatically reveal their essence. It sounds like it would’ve been awe-inspiring had I been there and embraced their “rock 'n' roll, dope, and fucking in the streets” credo (remember, this ultra-serious band often served as the mouthpiece of poet/activist and White Panther Party leader John Sinclair), and hell, they still sound unlike anybody else. If their music didn’t always hold up as well as the revolutionary “punk” ideals that spawned it, this album still proves that on a good night these motherfuckers could kick out the jams with the best of them.
Back In The USA (Atlantic ’70) Rating: B+
After getting dropped by Elektra after the fallout from the “Hudson’s incident” (the band used Elektra stationary to make a sign that said "Fuck Hudson's" - Hudson's being the Wal-Mart of the Midwest at the time. Hudson's had already banned their “controversial” debut album, but when Hudson’s threatened to ban all Elektra records, it was bye bye MC5), the band signed with Atlantic for album number two, which is so different from Kick Out The Jams that sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the same band. Trimming the excess fat from their recklessly incendiary live debut, the MC5 surprised everybody by making a straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll album with short songs with plenty of pop hooks. Then again, although they cover Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Chuck Berry’s “Back In The USA,” songs such as ““Looking At You,” “Call Me Animal,” and “The American Ruse” showed that the MC5 were still more primitive and wilder than their mentors. The band is clearly looking for a broader audience here, while their lyrical focus has narrowed to less overtly political statements (though there are some of those) by concentrating on infinitely more pleasurable physical desires. The album features an ultra thin production, brought about by accident by first time producer Jon Landau, which robs the band of some of their power (former Bruce Springsteen manager Mike Appel had a point when he noted that - before Bruce, anyway - as a producer Landau made for a great writer). This creates a jarring yet highly original mix that, though it disconcerted many of the band’s followers at the time, helps make the album highly distinguishable today (much like David Bowie’s work with The Stooges on Raw Power). After all, the guitars still kick, and though some of their high energy fury has been misplaced, the band's songwriting has improved as they’ve learned some tricks of popcraft (such as emulating The Who ’s cutesy chorus harmonies), resulting in a fun and catchy party record. It’s hard not to sing along to horny teen pop tunes such as “Tonight,” “Teenage Lust," “High School," and “ Shakin' Street,” while “Let Me Try” is a soulful ballad that briefly slows things down successfully. Tyner really shines on this one, and his singing is far more reserved and considered on this record (not necessarily a good thing if you remember what I said about his screaming ability in the last review), which admittedly lacks some of the uninhibited excitement of Kick Out The Jams. In addition, the songs are too short, as is the album itself at 28:08, and the bands commercial aspirations curtail the wild experimentation that made their first album such a rowdy blast. Truth is, the cover songs, while short, fast, and fun, seem unnecessary, and their inclusion makes me think that perhaps the album was rushed. Still, any album with a song title like “The Human Being Lawnmower” has got to be good, right? Back In The USA is good, but it is also the band’s most compromised and least exciting endeavor, despite the earnest performances of its undeniably talented participants. Incidentally, this arguable “sell out” album actually fared far worse commercially than Kick Out The Jams (a top 30 hit), and Atlantic ultimately dropped the band like a bad habit after one more artistically successful but commercially disastrous album.
High Time (Atlantic ’71) Rating: A
Indeed, High Time was another commercial failure, but the band's last proper studio album (they've had a slew of posthumous releases) despite also being flawed, was their best yet (at least to me it is; it's rarely regarded as such). Truth is, if it wasn’t for bands like the MC5, I wouldn’t feel the need to write reviews for this site. A victim of the record company business who wore their hearts on their sleeve and never played the corporate game, at their best I swear that this was one of the greatest rock bands of all time. This album's liner notes trumpet that “the MC5's proudest boast was that they always played high energy rock n’ roll,” and there are times when High Time is ablaze with a kinetic energy. It starts with the rollicking 7+ minute “Sister Anne” and rarely lets up thereafter, aside from some lighthearted horns from the Salvation Army Band, a soaring, soulful power ballad (“Miss X,” featuring Tyner's best ever vocal), and the occasional unfortunate indulgence like the end of the otherwise fine “Future/Now.” At times the band builds to a fever pitch with an astonishing display of force, with Kramer and Smith’s blaring guitars leading the way while the rhythm section wails away, most memorably on the awesome “Baby Won’t Ya” and “Poison,” the latter of which Kramer would later revisit on his solo album The Hard Stuff. The fast and furious “Gotta Keep Movin'” is in line with the material on Back In The USA only heavier, while most of the other tracks see the band stretching out a bit, much like on Kick Out The Jams but in a more straightforwardly accessible and less muddy manner. Fred “Sonic” Smith comes into his own as a songwriter, penning four songs, while Tyner provides some of his most impassioned vocal performances; in fact I'd argue that High Time on the whole represents his peak as a singer. Political to the bitter end, the band is all about revolution on “Over and Over,” another highlight with a catchy shouted chorus and raging instrumentation, while tribal stick work, searing guitar runs, and surprising horns create an endearingly explosive mess on “Skunk (Sonically Speaking),” which somehow works and which best demonstrates the reckless chance taking acumen of a band who were too daring (and too mismanaged) to ever find commercial acceptance (Tyner is at his desperate best on both tracks). However, many musicians who did discover the band had their lives changed as a result, and the MC5 are one of the under acknowledged greats to whom this Web site is humbly dedicated.
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