CBGBs is generally regarded as the birthplace of Punk. The Bowery (NYC) venue certainly was the nexus of the Punk universe but Punk's origins trace back to the Midwest - the Detroit area - with the Stooges and MC5 (short for Motor City Five).
Though the MC5 were founded in '64, Rob Tyner (vocals), Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith (guitars) Michael Davis (bass) and Dennis Thompson (drums) didn't get much traction until '68 when they made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine without even having an album out. The group's live energy and political leanings earned them initial attention.
Kramer and Smith were high school friends who played in several bands. At one point Kramer felt they needed a manager. The older Rob Derminger stepped in. But being a manager was not in the cards. After unsuccessfully auditioning on bass, the left leaning Deminger became the group's vocalist, changing his name to Rob Tyner.
While Tyner's addition was a definite plus, the group still needed a "manager" and that's when John Sinclair surfaced. Sinclair, who refused to be termed a traditional manager, was active in the White Panther Party - the white equivalent of the Black Panther Party - seeking a cultural revolution in the U.S. The MC5's political and provocative shows, including carrying unloaded rifles onstage, gained notoriety. Music critic Robert Bixby wrote that MC5's sound was like "a catastrophic force of nature the band was barely able to control." In true counter-culture fashion, MC5 imbibed heavily in LSD and marijuana. That would cause problems down the road, but for now everything was crashing forward.
The MC5's first single was released on Trans-Love Energies, a Sinclair creation. The MC5 toured the East Coast opening for Big Brother & The Holding Company (with Janis Joplin) and Cream. That exposure led to the Rolling Stone cover. The group also began an association with the radical group Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers.
MC5 played the '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Several bands were scheduled to perform but only the MC5 did. The anti-war protests, chaos, riots and assorted violence made playing next to impossible but MC5 weathered it. Of all the other acts scheduled, only Neil Young showed up, and that was as far as he got.
Hearing the buzz, Elektra Records (the Doors' label) sent Danny Fields to check out the group. While in the Motor City, Fields was advised to catch the Stooges, which he did. In the end, Fields offered contracts to both groups.
"Kick Out The Jams" was recorded live at two October, '68, shows at Detroit's Grande Ballroom. Elektra execs felt the band sounded better live and decided to roll the dice.
From the album, "Starship" lifted its lyrics from a Sun Ra poem. Heady stuff. The group also covered John Lee Hooker's "Motor City Is Burning." During the song Tyner praised the Black Panther snipers during the '67 Detroit riots. But it was the title track that drew the attention and controversy. The rallying cry of "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" could hardly be ignored. The single release had "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!" The change was a wasted attempt to garner radio airplay.
The '69 debut received mixed reviews though critic Mark Demming famously wrote that the album "is one of the most powerfully energetic live albums ever made ... this is an album that refuses to be played quietly." "Kick Out The Jams" sold 100,000 copies. Not bad but not great either - especially following all the coverage.
Calling "Kick Out The Jams" obscene, the Detroit based Hudson's department stores refused to sell the album. That just couldn't stand. So MC5 took out a full-page ad, using the band and Elektra logos, in an underground rag (The Fifth Estate) with a simple message: "Fuck Hudson's!" Hudson's didn't take too kindly to this. They yanked every Elektra album out of their stores. Elektra figured the only way out was to drop the group - which they did.
The MC5 landed on Atlantic for their sophomore effort, "Back In The USA." The set was produced by future Bruce Springsteen cohort, John Landau. The group was not happy with the end result and neither was the public. The album failed to chart.
"High Time" hit in '70. MC5 exerted more creative control and while they garnered better reviews it failed to move the needle.
Heavy touring and equally intense drug use wore the group out. In addition, they had a falling out with Sinclair who was mired in his own legal troubles (tough to be a revolutionary). Unable to turn around their commercial fortunes, Atlantic cut them loose. Their last session was to lay down songs for a film soundtrack.
In a wayward attempt to go out in style, MC5 reunited for a '72 a farewell show on New Year's Eve at the Grande Ballroom. Just four years earlier, the place was packed, now only a couple dozen showed up. The group only got through a few songs before a distraught Kramer walked off the stage. The inevitable break-up came shortly thereafter.
Though Smith continued performing he was probably best remembered as the husband of Patti Smith. He passed away following a lengthy illness in '94. Smith was not the only ex-MC5 member dealt cruelly by fate. Tyner kept active in the local music scene but died in '91. Kramer and Davis spent a good chunk of time in prison for drug related convictions.
Following their demise, MC5 were quickly forgotten. A sign of the times. A weird, wild apparition. An unlikely confluence of influences and issues. But over the years the group's stature has risen. Their place has trailblazers both sonically and politically being fully recognized.
1969 Kick Out The Jams
1970 Back In The USA
1971 High Time
Arguably, the best performance on "Kick Out The Jams," MC5's premier effort, is Tyner's opening revolutionary call-to-action. While the message "are you part of the problem or part of the solution" may sound simplistic there's no denying the passion.
Kramer and Smith are fierce guitarists capable of killer riffs and solos that can both bludgeon then soar. They also provide the punch to support Tyner's shout-vocals trading on energy rather than skill - a true Punk trait. The title track has a great riff and sounds like a garage band taking on The Who. "Come Together" and "Starship" with its 'countdown', are dramatic and explosive.
The group's dissatisfaction with "Back In The U.S.A." is understandable. Any '70s album that opens with Little Richard's "Tutti-Frutti" and closes with Chuck Berry's "Back In The U.S.A." is clearly in trouble. Though their covers are dynamic and entertaining, it's symptomatic of deeper problems. It's as if somebody, probably from Atlantic, told the group to back off on the revolutionary rants and sing about things the kids (audience) are really interested in. That's the only plausible explanation for "Teenage Lust," "High School" (complete with 'sis-boom-bah") and "Shakin' Street." These are good songs but after being a 'radical' band returning to high school is a serious regression. MC5 do measure up on "Call Me Animal," the type of song Alice Cooper took to the bank a few years later, and "The American Ruse." "Sick and tired of paying these dues, sick to my gut of the American ruse." This biting track is where "Back In The U.S.A." should have started.
"High Time" is a vast improvement but it was too little too late. At times they sound like Billy Idol fronting the Count Five. "Gotta Keep Movin'" is a classic pre-Punk track while "Baby Won't Ya" borrows from the Stones. The strident "Future/Now" and the riff-driven "Poison" and "Over And Over" are the best shots.