The Grande Ballroom in Detroit. The home of the MC5. In front of a rabid sell-out crowd lead singer Rob Tyner is bringing the show to a close when from the wings a man leaps onstage and shoots Tyner at close range.
Blood everywhere. Pandemonium. Tyner collapses and is dragged offstage. Both the singer and, bizarrely, the shooter are moved into the dressing room. People pound on the door. The police have to empty a shocked Ballroom.
But the shooter is MC5 road manager Steve Harnadek, the gun is a starter pistol, the blood is from a fake stage pack and both Tyner and Harnadek are in on the (misguided) prank.
Just another day in the history of the MC5.
I came across a lovely copy of their debut album, Kick Out The Jams, in my local record shop a few weeks ago. It’s not a record you see in the used racks very often.
It is an album I first heard about in 1988, aged eighteen. Kerrang! magazine, of which I was an avid reader, produced a supplement, listing the “100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums” and there, at number 61 was the MC5. It may not be heavy metal, but it is heavy in style, and certainly influential.
USA RED ELEKTRA 1969. ORIG. UNCENSORED read the sticker on the cover, summarising all the important details in true used-record shop style.
It’s a peculiar form of shorthand you only find in second hand record shops. No friendly fifty-word staff recommendation like at Waterstones. Nope. Record collectors don’t want to know how a record made the store owner feel last Thursday. They want to know the colour of the label and clues as to whether the thing is authentic. Very unromantic, but we record collectors are hardened bloodhounds.
Although a not insubstantial £40, my instincts told me to snap it up. It had a lovely inner sleeve aside from anything else.
The mention of “uncensored” raises questions of course. Some records carry their own history and I was keen to understand more.
Open up the gatefold, and the liner notes give a clue.
They are written by John Sinclair, founding member of the White Panther Party, a militant, civil-rights group and counterpart of the black panthers.
This is not a gentle home-spun fairy tale like you’d find in a children’s story book or on a tube advert for Jack Daniels whiskey. It’s pretty fiery stuff.
“The MC5 is totally committed to the revolution” states Sinclair, before getting sidetracked about “a working model of the new paleo-cybernetic culture”, a culture so new it has still to properly reveal itself over fifty years after that sentence was written.
Sinclair refocuses and concludes “Go wild! The world is yours!” And “kick out the jams motherf-—r”.
This last statement would see this impassioned speech doomed to obscurity, about which more later.
But let’s start at the beginning. The Motor City Five’s roots are (naturally) in the industrial city of Detroit. Jazz fan and singer Rob Tyner (he named himself after John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner) formed a band and encouraged an improvised, experimental jam called “Black To Comm”. Drummer Bob Gaspar found the song exasperating, unable to relate to the music. After ten minutes of not playing anything Gaspar took out his frustrations on his kit. The high energy outburst of frustration somehow created something new and an MC5 sound – of improvisation and high energy – was born.
Gaspar and his frustrations left the band shortly after but his legacy remained, as did Rob Tyner, Fred “Sonic” Smith, and Wayne Kramer, soon to be joined by Michael David and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson. The classic MC5 line up had found itself.
Meanwhile and elsewhere in Detroit John Sinclair, a 6’4” jazz enthusiast and civil rights activist, formed a commune – the Detroit Artists’ Workshop – where the main thing bonding those concerned appeared to be a fondness for marijuana. Sinclair was forced to temporarily un-bond when sent to jail for six months after dealing marijuana to an undercover cop. On his release, a party was thrown at which Sinclair’s wife Leni booked the MC5 to play. We don’t know whether she realised what she had booked.
Picture this: Sinclair hasn’t seen his family for six months, and at 3am on the day he gets out of prison he is suddenly aware of a disastrously loud rock band playing downstairs in his apartment. This was not, in retrospect, the best way to win over a jazz fan.
Rather than being impressed by the MC5, Sinclair barely listened to the racket being made downstairs. Instead he wrote an article for journal the Fifth Estate saying rock and roll music was for children, the people who played it were untalented oafs and that jazz was superior. It’s the sixties equivalent of a bad Trip Advisor review.
We can also see from this that Sinclair’s ongoing legacy is his influence on Facebook music group bores worldwide.
A jazz fan himself, Kramer took exception and wrote back a spirited defence. The two met, bonded over jazz and let’s be honest, more marijuana. Sinclair offered a rehearsal space and later, management. The subsequent success of the MC5 attracted Elektra A&R guru Danny Fields who offered a $20,000 advance (with The Stooges being signed on the same trip for $5,000 – making this perhaps the greatest piece of A&R work anyone did in a single weekend). It was agreed to retain the live energy of the band by making the debut album a live recording.
The record starts with a speech, as if from a pastor, whipping up the congregation. “Brothers and sisters….I want to know if you are ready to testify…”
The speech – a James Brown “Star Time” style introduction, but with an air of revolution – was given not by Sinclair, but by a man who called himself Brother JC Crawford. Self-styled High Priest of The Church of Zanta, he and his colleague Panther White were not just the leaders of said church.
They were also pretty much the whole congregation.
But Crawford did have a great way about him and was effective at whipping up a crowd. (Crawford had, in fact, replaced Iggy Pop as drummer in The Prime Movers – a pre-stooges band, but eventually progressed to carnival barker for the MC5).
There’s no denying Crawford’s introduction is a great start, adding an air of revolutionary frisson.
The MC5 hired their home venue – Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for two nights, gave two free concerts and recorded both nights plus a couple of rehearsals just in case. It was a stroke of genius.
What is special about this record and what makes it so memorable is not just some great rock songs, but the atmosphere and moment in time that is being captured on tape. Crawford’s introductions, the interaction between band and crowd. The feeling that revolution is necessary and in the air, the energy being whipped up in the audience, the feeling of anarchy in the famous sweary introduction to “Kick Out The Jams” – something not very common on record in 1968.
It’s also not common in the 21st century on streaming platforms. If you search it out, you can find the uncensored version of the song “Kick Out The Jams” on compilations, but the default copy of the album on Spotify is the censored version. While the world doesn’t appear to get too fussed about swear words nowadays, it’s curious that more than fifty years later the record is not readily available in the form the band intended and to a casual listener its impact is reduced.
So were the MC5 dangerous revolutionaries? The songs don’t suggest they are a threat to anyone but themselves and, potentially, any women they might be near. “Rocket Reducer No 62” is less about revolution than it is about hedonism. The actual Rocket Reducer #62 is a solvent (think WD-40) used by people to a) remove paint from engine blocks and b) sniff and get high (it is also highly toxic). Although the MC5 were being put forward as revolutionaries by Sinclair, and although the band did in part at least support the politics, the songs are just rock and roll. Just louder and more chaotic than most bands were playing in 1968.
The band and Sinclair did eventually fall out with each other – over that most revolutionary of things – money, or in Sinclair’s words: “You guys wanted to be bigger than the Beatles, and I wanted you to be bigger than Chairman Mao”.
So what is all this about censorship?With the album breaking into the Billboard top 100, department store Hudson’s (the Detroit equivalent of Macey’s in New York) learned of the exhortation to “Kick out the jams, Motherf——r” at the start of the title song and took exception, refusing to stock any more copies.
In return, the band took out a full page advert in a Detroit-based alternative/underground newspaper called the Ann Arbour Argus.It carried an inflammatory “F—- Hudson’s” legend.
Furthermore the advert carried the Elektra logo with the bill for the advert being sent to the label for payment. The band had also bought musical equipment from the department store, and stopped payment on its account – with $1,600 outstanding – and for good measure sent a letter explaining what they had done advert-wise to the store.
Hudson’s perhaps not surprisingly reacted strongly to this affront. It not only refused to stock the MC5 album, but also threatened to refuse to take other Elektra stock including albums by Judy Collins and Phil Ochs. Elektra was shocked into taking action, immediately withdrawing all copies of the album (and not just from Hudson’s) and offering retailers a censored version instead. So uncensored original copies of the MC5’s first album are now relatively hard to find, because most were withdrawn after a few weeks of being on sale. If you have an uncensored copy, the chances are it was sold in the first few weeks of the album coming out.
Not only was the record itself censored, but so were subsequent copies of the sleeve, with John Sinclair’s sweary sleeve notes also removed. It wasn’t just the swear word that was removed – the record company wasn’t taking any chances and they removed the whole thing.
The relationship between band and label wouldn’t last long: after another incident involving angry revolutionary fans at the Fillmore in New York, despite heading into the top 30, Electra decided to drop the band, deciding they were more trouble than they were worth.
The MC5 recorded two subsequent albums for Atlantic Records. Some say the next LP “Back In The USA” is a better album, but it is more a straight rock and roll record, lacking the improvisation, chaos and sheer excitement of the debut. It’s good, but different, and neither follow up record quite carries the magic of that first live debut.
Further reading: 33 1/3 Series: “The MC5’s Kick Out The Jams” by Don McLeese MC5 Sonically Speaking by Brett Callwood Further viewing: The MC5: A True Testimonial