The Sto­ries Be­hind The Songs

MC5

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Ian Fort­nam

Kick Out The Jams was the in­cen­di­ary call to arms that orig­i­nally ig­nited punk’s vi­tal spark in 60s Detroit.

The ti­tle track of the band’s live de­but al­bum which cap­tured the band at their most in­spired and in­spir­ing, it was the in­cen­di­ary call to arms that orig­i­nally ig­nited punk’s vi­tal spark in 60s Detroit.

Detroit’s Mo­tor City 5 were a force of na­ture. An ex­plo­sive col­li­sion of high-en­ergy rock’n’roll, psychedel­i­cally in­clined free jazz, rad­i­cal left-wing pol­i­tics, soul-driven R&B show­band steps, acid­ex­panded con­scious­ness and rev­o­lu­tion­spark­ing raw power.

Hav­ing ripped through the Detroit live scene like wild­fire, the band re­leased a pair of in­de­pen­dent sin­gles across a two-year pe­riod (I Can Only Give You Ev­ery­thing b/w One Of The Guys, Look­ing At You b/w Border­line) through Trans Love En­er­gies on AMG and A-Square re­spec­tively. Re­peat press­ings and a bur­geon­ing rep­u­ta­tion for live shows that com­bined the spir­i­tual with the sedi­tious soon at­tracted Elek­tra Records, who signed the band in ’68.

But the 5’s es­sen­tial magic wasn’t best served within the cold con­fine­ment of a record­ing stu­dio, as gui­tarist Wayne Kramer ex­plains: “Play­ing live was what we did best. Most bands did three al­bums and then a live al­bum, so we thought we’d be rev­o­lu­tion­ary and break out with a live al­bum first. It also worked bet­ter for the la­bel. MC5 didn’t know how to work in the stu­dio, so a stu­dio record could have cost Elek­tra a for­tune and been a lengthy, gru­elling process.”

Con­se­quently, the Kick Out The Jams al­bum was recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ball­room across two nights on Oc­to­ber 30 and 31, 1968 and cap­tured the band at their most in­spired and in­spir­ing. From Brother JC Craw­ford’s rab­ble-rous­ing open­ing ‘tes­ti­mo­nial’ rap, through the lib­er­tine ex­cesses of Come To­gether, the proto-punk ack-ack as­sault of Rocket Re­ducer No.62 and the taut, zeit­geist­mir­ror­ing pas­sion of Mo­tor City Is Burn­ing to the spi­ralling space-rock blaze of Star­ship (co-cred­ited to Sun Ra), it de­liv­ers sweat, vol­ume and pas­sion in spades, but is prob­a­bly best re­mem­bered for its no­to­ri­ous ti­tle track with its un­for­get­tably con­tro­ver­sial in­tro­duc­tory ex­hor­ta­tion to “Kick out the jams, moth­er­fuck­ers!”

Be­fore we deal with the reper­cus­sions of Mother­fuck­er­gate, which we surely must, let’s ex­am­ine the story be­hind the song be­hind the pro­fan­ity. At this point in time ev­ery one of the band’s orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions was sim­ply cred­ited to

‘MC5’, but who ac­tu­ally wrote it?

“We were com­mune-ists,” Kramer says laugh­ing. “We had this all-for-one, one-forall… I hes­i­tate to call it a busi­ness struc­ture. We just saw our­selves as one unit, but it was [vo­cal­ist and lyri­cist] Rob Tyner and I that wrote Kick Out The Jams in the kitchen, smok­ing a joint.”

KOTJ still sounds like a state­ment of in­tent. A forth­right four-word man­i­festo, ham­mered home with an at­ten­tion­grab­bing, ex­clam­a­tory ‘moth­er­fucker’.

“Tyner was re­ally speak­ing to us, the rest of the band. Some­times I was crit­i­cal of him, and what he’s say­ing is: ‘Let me be who I am.’ Be­cause who he was was fan­tas­tic. He was your dream lead singer, and he wrote lyrics that work so well, on so many lev­els. What do we mean when we say ‘Kick out the jams’? If you’re go­ing to do any­thing, do it full mea­sure, don’t equiv­o­cate, be all the way in.”

On an­other level, KOTJ is an en­tirely punk state­ment. Pos­si­bly the first. Eight years prior to the Sex Pis­tols, here was an ex­hor­ta­tion to set aside com­pla­cent noodling for short, sharp shocks. To quite lit­er­ally kick out ‘the jams’, of which there were plenty in the MC5’s con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous late-60s mu­sic scene, not least from the Grate­ful Dead.

“They were the re­cip­i­ents of much of our ha­rass­ment,” Kramer says. “All those San Fran­cisco bands, we were tough on ev­ery­body. This was the era of the twen­tyminute gui­tar solo, the forty-minute drum solo. The MC5’s roots are in Lit­tle Richard and Chuck Berry. That’s where we were based and ev­ery­thing grew out from there, and we went from Lit­tle Richard to Sun Ra, all wrapped up in the era of Viet­nam, civil rights and youth re­bel­lion.”

And so to the ‘moth­er­fucker’ of the mat­ter. It was cer­tainly a noun that pro­voked a reaction. So how quickly did the sit­u­a­tion es­ca­late from of­fended Elek­tra ex­ec­u­tives to the MC5 be­ing dropped by the la­bel?

“In the blink of an eye.” says Kramer. “We knew ‘Kick out the jams, moth­er­fucker’ was never go­ing to get played on the ra­dio, so we recorded a ‘Kick out the jams, broth­ers and sis­ters’ ver­sion for the sin­gle. We in­structed Elek­tra to wait un­til it peaked in the chart be­fore re­leas­ing the al­bum. Be­cause when the al­bum’s re­leased the shit’s gonna hit the fan, but we’ll have won al­ready by hav­ing a hit sin­gle. Well, once they saw the sin­gle tak­ing off they rushed the al­bum out.

And when kids came home with this record and mom and dad heard ‘moth­er­fucker’, you could hear the out­rage re­ver­ber­ate across Amer­ica.

“Elek­tra asked us, could they put out a clean ver­sion of the al­bum. We said no and they did it any­way. We’d al­ready had

“It’s ex­cit­ing ev­ery time. Even acous­tic. Ex­cite­ment’s built into the song’s DNA. There’s no way to play that song and be bor­ing.”

a ma­jor dis­rup­tion in our re­la­tion­ship, and then, be­cause our con­tract said we had con­trol of our ad­ver­tis­ing, and a lo­cal store re­fused to carry our records and we called them on it in very graphic street lan­guage and sent Elek­tra the bill [Detroit’s Hud­son’s depart­ment store re­fused to stock MC5 prod­uct so the band ran a full page ad in a lo­cal un­der­ground pa­per that read sim­ply ‘Fuck Hud­son’s’ and in­cluded, with­out per­mis­sion, Elek­tra’s logo]. That was the fi­nal straw and Elek­tra fired us.”

The 5 sub­se­quently signed to At­lantic and made yet more his­tory, but even now, 50 years on, Kick Out The Jams re­tains its vi­tal in­ten­sity.

“I never tire of play­ing it.” Kramer en­thuses. “It’s ex­cit­ing ev­ery time. Even acous­tic. Ex­cite­ment’s built into the song’s DNA. There’s no way to play that song and be bor­ing. It can’t be done.”

hesongs

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