Rob Tyner - vocals, flute; Wayne Kramer - guitar; Fred "Sonic" Smith- guitar; Michael Davis - bass; Dennis Thompson - drums; John Sinclair - saxophone; J.C. Crawford - introduction (track 1)
In 1967 and 1968, rapid social change, a highly charged political climate and technological advances in recording combined to have a profound effect on popular music. California and England had become the epicenters of rock music, resulting in the peak years of psychedelia. The music being popularized during this time often directly reflected the environments of these bands. The media was quick to recognize and capitalize on the simplicity of the "Peace and Love" esthetic that permeated much of this era's music, but often chose to ignore what was simultaneously happening in other, more volatile cities. Prime examples were the Velvet Underground in New York City and the MC5 in Detroit; bands whose music also directly reflected their environments and political climates. These groups were initially ignored by the mainstream media as they were more challenging to write about and far more controversial. Their music reflected a much grittier existence and presented a less attractive image for the media of that era.
Detroit's MC5 are often mentioned as precursors to the Punk movement, but this is merely a superficial observation. They had a raw, thrashy sound to be sure, but this was also a band on a mission. They began like many groups of the era, playing music for listeners to dance to, but quickly established their own identity. Instead of "peace and love," the MC5, in conjunction with activist John Sinclair, embraced radical left-wing politics and were much more likely to espouse "Burn Baby Burn." This and other such inflammatory rhetoric directly reflected the turmoil they were living through in Detroit. To understand where the MC5 were coming from, one must put their music in this context.
Detroit was an extremely volatile city in 1968, when the MC5 recorded their debut album. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4th of that year, Detroit's police, fearing an escalation of riots in the streets, established a "protective curfew" in the city after dark. For the MC5, John Sinclair and their collective, this essentially destroyed their ability to work, since their income was derived from concerts and related events that primarily took place at night. In addition to the threats to their livelihood, the collective was also regularly experiencing police harassment, followed by suspicious arson attacks on their home, forcing them to relocate to Ann Arbor in May of 1968. It was in this highly charged climate that the MC5's music was created.
The initial spark for the band was between guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith. As rebellious teenagers, they embraced music with speed, volume, and plenty of attitude. They were both fans of R&B, blues, and guitar oriented rock & roll like Chuck Berry and The Ventures, but they were also compelled by the free jazz of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Archie Shepp. By the time MC5 recorded their first album on October 30th and 31st, 1968 at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, they had begun incorporating the squealing, abrasive sounds of free jazz. The left wing politics of the band's lyrics and these diverse musical elements combined to create the MC5's explosive sound and politically provocative performances. The MC5 quickly earned a reputation for their high-energy concerts and began drawing local audiences of 1,000 or more, proving they were clearly on to something.
These recordings capture various 1968 MC5 performances in varying degrees of quality recorded at their home base at the Grande Ballroom. Tracks 1 and 4 were recorded three nights prior to the legendary performances that were recorded by Elektra for the band's debut album, Kick Out The Jams. Track 1 features the MC5's White Panther master of ceremonies, JC Crawford, introducing the band on the night of October 27th, including his invitation to join them three nights later for the official live recording for the band's first album. This same concert is revisited on track 4 for the 18-minute "I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver." Beginning on a raunchy John Lee Hooker blues riff, with vocalist Rob Tyner spitting out angry improvised lyrics, this gradually mutates into a free-form freakout of blazing intensity. John Sinclair adds occasional saxophone blasts and Rob Tyner plays flute amidst the cacophony.
The earliest recording here, "Ice Pick Slim," from a performance on May 26, 1968, develops along similar lines. Essentially "Hambone" by free jazz pioneer Archie Shepp with lyrics added by Rob Tyner, this was directly inspired by the writings of the African-American convict novelist Robert Beck, professionally known as Iceberg Slim.
The remaining tracks are the best quality recordings here and will be of great interest to fans as they derive from the two nights recorded for the Kick Out The Jams album. The autobiographical "Motor City Is Burning" is arguably more ferocious than the take used on the album. Essentially a raw blues-based number, this features Kramer and Smith seriously cranking it out over the deep undulations of bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson. Although incomplete, the MC5's take on Ray Charles "I Believe To My Soul" begins as another basic blues but rapidly develops into a cathartic release of compressed energy. Again, Michael Davis' pummeling bass propels Tyner, Kramer and Smith to go berserk on stage. An alternate take of "Rocket Reducer No. 62" is another powerful performance. Although a bit tamer than the version selected for the album, this remains one hell-raising rocker and is a prime example of the telepathy between Kramer and Smith.
Unlike the spiritually searching nature of so much of the music of 1968, the MC5 were more interested in the raw spontaneous release of energy, not to mention confrontation, using their music as a full frontal attack on the powers that be.