I have to confess that I had not heard of MC5 before I was asked to review this album. A great pity really, as I had considered myself a great punk fan when I was a student; I worshipped at the altar of the Ramones, X ray Spex, the Pistols and so on, and yet I owned neither Stooges nor MC5. Having now rectified this matter, I’ve discovered just what a feel-good, has-to-be-played-full-volume piece of kick-ass that Kick Out The Jams is. At least, half of it.
Unusually even for modern times, this is a live recording from the Detroit Grande Ballroom, and it captures MC5 in all their fast and furious glory. Rather than having a straightforwardly shambolic proto-punk sound in the manner of the Ramones, there’s quite a lot at play here and far too much good ostentatiously good musicianship to be anything like their future descendants.
This having been said, the first half of Kick Out The Jams is pure rockout. Beginning with the band’s ‘spiritual advisor’ Brother J C Crawford preaching to the crowd fervently, suddenly the listener is flung into a wash of tight guitar pairing and almost cracking falsetto tones on Ramblin’ Rose. It thunders along, culminating in some brilliant guitar showiness worthy of any 70s stadium rock act. The superlative Kick Out The Jams follows with its notoriously profane introduction; it’s dirty, basic, undistilled rock at its finest.
Come Together is a whirl of feedback and explicit lyrics, bound together with some of AC/DC’s swagger and Rob Tyner’s almost Ramones-esque vocals. It’s in tracks like these that a glimpse of punk and rock’s future can be seen- the swagger of the Sex Pistols, and a tinge of the frivolous glittery sexuality of T-Rex. Likewise, the catchily-titled Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa) carries this theme on; some excellent drumming, extended dual guitar show-offery that trumps the previous tracks, and the sort of driving sound that with more polish round the edges would become the future bearers of the punk banner.
The second half of the album, however, is problematic from this musical history perspective, as it becomes terribly experimental. Borderline is on the face of it as rocky as the first half, but contains lapses into a different time signature halfway through, more pithy almost poppy lyrics, and isn’t quite suitable to mosh along to because it’s just such a changeable beast. Similarly, Motor City Is Burning is a somewhat self-indulgent six-minute blues jam riffing on controversial political themes (members of MC5 had affiliations with the White Panther Party). It’s catchy, but it sure isn’t punk. I Want You Right Now, similarly, experiments with a quiet-loud mix à la Nirvana and sounds more blues-era Stones than granddaddies of pogoing anarchy. And as for Starship, the final track, quite what Sid Vicious would have made of eight minutes of feedback, frenzied discord and poetic riffing on Sun Ra and his vision of antenna-faced alien lifeforms, I don’t know. It wants, and tries hard to be, prog, but it comes off sounding like the result of Pete Doherty attempting to cover Nat King Cole’s finest hits- the genre clash just doesn’t work for me.
Overall, Kick Out The Jams is indeed a groundbreaking record, but it’s not quite consistently rocky enough to claim total punk innovation, rather than arty genre-bending with a generous hint of feedback. It’s still, at least for the first half, a cracking mosh-tastic listen.