MC5 – Kick Out The Jams

Sorry, no time to finish the MS Paint cover. Kind of underestimated the detail in this one!
I’ll change it out to the MS Paint version 
in the next day or two. -Ang

MC5 – Kick Out The Jams
Released February, 1969

MC5 were, as their full name, Motor City Five, suggests, a five piece band from Detroit. They were the result of separate ventures, led by school friends Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith (probably not his real name). They started life as The Bounty Hunters, the name inherited from Kramer’s band. The Bounty Hunters were successful enough for the band to live the muso dream and kick the day jobs in favour of full time music playing. In their search for a manager, they found Rob Tyner, who originally wanted to be a bass player, but they quickly realised he’d be much more useful as a front man, despite being fat and ugly. He could definitely sing though, and I guess that’s the most important quality in a frontman… It was also Tyner who decided to rename the band after their home town.

In the summer of ’68, MC5 toured down the east coast of the States, often garnering more of a positive response than the bands they opened for, including afyccim artists Big Brother and the Holding Company and Cream. I’ve never heard of crowds wanting encores from support bands, but apparently it happened. Around this time MC5 became heavily involved in the left wing political scene, protesting against the Vietnam War. “Kick Out The Jams” was recorded live over two nights in ’68 in Detroit’s Grande Ballroom music venue. It’s often referred to as one of the best live albums of all time and music critic Mark Deming wrote that it’s “an album that refuses to be played quietly”. Best live album? I’m not sure about that. Refuses to be played quietly? Absolutely, 100%.

Ang said last week that if I don’t like this album, she’ll eat a hat. My initial feeling was that she was spot on. I really did like it. Until a few more listens, and it kind of got a bit annoying. I love the raw loudness of it, but I feel like the sixties recording technology didn’t do it any favours. When everyone fires up, there’s very little recording clarity, but I guess that’s to be expected in a nearly fifty year old album. One thing that never let me down was Tyner’s vocals. It’s spot on rock and roll the whole way, and I’ll know I’ll get crucified for this, but he reminded me a lot of Dave Grohl, particularly in ‘Come Together’. In fact, the only weak vocal performance was by Kramer in ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. That falsetto was awful. It would’ve suited the song, if someone with a better voice had done it.

I have to say that I did not hear one guitar solo that I liked in the whole album. I reckon the guitar work was sloppy as a whole. To me, it almost sounded like there was something wrong with the guitar. Was it out of tune? I wouldn’t be surprised, these bros jumped around and went crazy on stage – it was part of their appeal – and guitars are pretty fragile with their tuning. I think we’ve got to put a lot of the messiness down to good old fashioned DFN. The end of ‘Rocket Reducer No 62’ is a prime example, and we know the band were mad for a bit of the LSD and weed… But while we’re on the subject of DFN, let’s address the elephant in the room: ‘Starship’. What the hell was going on there? ‘Starship’ was credited to Sun Ra, the jazz musician who was prolific in avant garde and free jazz. Because he was mental, he thought he was of the “Angel Race” and wrote a lot of “cosmic” pieces, pioneering the afrofuturism genre. Yeah, it’s a thing. Look it up. Anyway, MC5 loved his work and put together this nearly nine minute pile of bollocks. A pile of bollocks that wouldn’t have been out of place on an early Pink Floyd album. But is way out of place on a live hard rock album.

With the exception of ‘Starship’, “Kick Out The Jams” is a solid live album that propelled MC5 to stardom. It’s ok in small doses, but anymore it becomes very noisy, very messy, and not much fun. Though I’m sure they had fun recording it.

All I can say is that it’s lucky for MC5 (and various other 60’s artists) that I’m a serial procrastinator. Because the first 4-5 listens of this album had me writing a completely different review. I will say that the first 5 tracks, especially the title track, ‘Kick Out The Jams’, really don’t do much for me. But somewhere around track 6, ‘Motor City Is Burning’, the band seem to really warm up and take a turn for the better, heading down a totally rocking and bad ass punk-rock-meets-blues line, that had me cranking the stereo right up and tapping my foot to the point that my desk was shaking slightly. At this point I began to think that I might like this band after all! ‘I Want You Right Now’, another bluesy number, was my other highlight. But unfortunately, just like MC5’s career, my enjoyment of this album was short lived.  Track 8 ‘Starship’, a combination of punk rock and psychedelic rock that seemed to go on for about 8 minutes too long (total time 8.25) was just weird, self-indulgent and musically, horrible. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Once again, MC5 are lucky I’m a pretty diplomatic listener, and I won’t ignore the obvious: Their music, to me, was a catalyst for what was to follow in coming decades, especially in the late 80’s to mid 90’s with the explosion of garage and punk rock. You just need to look at the list of artists who have covered MC5 – Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Jeff Buckley, and the Presidents of the United States of America, to name a few. It’s fast paced, it’s noisy, and it’s obnoxiously in-your-face. Yes it’s punk rock, but for me it was the kind of punk rock that I wouldn’t revisit.

I can’t say that I enjoyed this album. I do admire the passion and energy that the band have though, and I even enjoyed their banter in between songs. The fact that they were so gracious in thanking their audience is quite endearing. I just wish that the passion they exuded spilled over into musical and/or songwriting talent. It all starts off pretty well. An incendiary stage introduction gives way to the band launching into ‘Ramblin’ Rose’, and they almost sound a little Zeppelinesque. I don’t why Rob Tyner felt the need to sing it in his falsetto range, but it kinda works; gives it a sense of novelty. The most famous track on this album follows, the titular song about jams and the kicking out of the aforementioned. Aside from the infamous stage cry before it starts and a half-decent riff, I don’t get what makes this song so appealing. It’s some sort of call to arms, I guess. Over the years, the meaning behind kicking out the jams has since been over-analysed by fans and critics alike, no doubt to the band’s delight. It all goes downhill from there for me, as the remaining tracks descend into a melange of screaming, pounding and feedback. There’s an admiral attempt at some sort of double guitar solo at the end of ‘Rocket Reducer No. 62’, but it doesn’t come off. Oh, and the less said about the final track ‘Starship’ the better. I’m glad that bands like The Ramones and The Clash came along and showed how you could achieve what MC5 did in a five or six minute song in less than two. I’m sure this album laid the ground work for the punk movement, and perhaps even grunge, but it doesn’t move me. Maybe you had to be there.

To quote music writer Chris Smith in regards to MC5, “There was punk before punk, but nobody knew what to call it”. When Rob Tyner yells out “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” what he is saying is fuck you to the man. “Kick Out The Jams” is meant to sound messy and shambolic. MC5 weren’t going for neat, tidy and well recorded. They were spitting in the face of everything that the 60s stood for. And if it wasn’t for them saying fuck you to the man way back in 1969 some of the music that followed would have been very different. Way ahead of their time these guys were the original punks, closely followed by Iggy and The Stooges. I love MC5 and “Kick Out The Jams”, in all of its messy glory. Yes, the falsetto in ‘Ramblin’ Rose’ is terrible. Yes, ‘Starship’ is absolutely diabolical. Yes, the musicality of each member is quite questionable in, well, all of the songs… but that’s kind of the point. MC5 are the younger brother to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix who end up being way cooler because they don’t give a crap as to what anyone thinks of them. What we hear on this album is a new kind of music, with a nod to the blues, R&B and rock that it was born from. If the mid to late 60s were about free love and hippies, “Kick Out The Jams” is the absolute antithesis to that. It’s raw sex, clearly a whole heap of drugs and punch you in the face rock n roll. It’s the heralding of the 70s that was to come. Whether or not you like “Kick out the Jams”, you can’t deny MC5 that. Fucking brilliant I say.
(Please forgive me for the swearing in this review, but if there is any time to drop a few F-bombs it’s during a review of MC5.)

Every week we’d like to hear your thoughts on the album. Just click on one of the links below, or leave a comment here to have your say.