I Listened To The MC5 So You Won't Have To
I own all three MC5 albums but could never listen to one all the way through until this weekend, when I forced myself through Kick Out The Jams, Back In The USA and High Time, released between 1969 and 1971. The job got easier as it went along but there's a lot of serious parody to be had both in the music and the band themselves.
Is 60s to mid 70s punk relevant today? Yes and No. Yes if you think being punk requires a full knowledge of the history and roots of the music, and No if you feel it requires nothing more than a general interest in the music and culture. Your average punk of 15 thinks Operation Ivy is Old School and that’s OK by me. I fell into hardcore around 1980 only because new wave was dying. To me, old skool is Fear, The DKs, X, Minor Threat, Ramones and Husker Du. The MC5? The NY Dolls? That’s urban hippie music from the Neolithic era. I appreciate old bands because I’m a two-bit punk historian (with a memory like a steel spaghetti strainer), but I don’t kid myself that these bands are of any interest to some kid into NOFX or Bad Religion. None. And it doesn’t have to be. As long as The Kids don’t act like punk started in 1993 I say they’re not missing out if they never hear one note from before their time.
Wayne Kramer paid his dues and his recent recordings are good, but whenever he’s trotted out to defend the activist wing of punk I consider the comical idiocy of The White Panther Party, in which the MC5 were the gun and violent revolution version of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (Exhibits A and B). They treated women like rags and the revolutionary rantings on Kick Out The Jams are hysterical nonsense. Drugs, guns and stupidity don't mix.
My take on the albums is the opposite of their cheerleaders. The live album, Kick Out The Jams, is horrible. The guitars wank, songs veer of into bizarre tangents and the politics are slogans. It’s a heavy metal hippie wig-out mess. The only good part is hearing the MC5’s tagline “Kick Out The Jams. Motherf—ker!”, which may be their lasting legacy anyway. If this is great than great sucks.
Back In The USA is a studio album and shows they can actually play. It opens and closes with pop covers (“Tutti Fruity” and “Back In The USA”) and has some odd teen glam anthems on it like “Tonight” (this must be the inspiration for Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”) and “High School” (“’Cause they’re going to High School Rah rah rah// High School Sis Boom Bah// High School Hey Hey Hey”) “Shakedown Street” is pure pop Grateful Dead. No Jams being kicked here, folks, and you are allowed to wonder if this is the same band.
High Time is pretty good. It shows them to be in fine company with Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. “Sister Anne” combines “Johnny B. Goode” and “Bad To The Bone” (of course written many years later). The horn wig-out on “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)” is phenomenal and a brilliant break from the guitar wankfest that made their live shows such a great reason to take lsd.
The MC5 lends itself to parody played straight, and it seems the MC5 documentary agrees (here and here).