Sound: The MC5 sprung forth at a unique time in terms of the American political and musical landscape. Already local stars in their native Detroit, the MC5 (Motor City 5, a hometown homage) featuring Rob Tyner - Vocals, Wayne Kramer - Guitar, Fred 'Sonic' Smith - Guitar, Michael Davis - Bass, and Dennis Thompson - Drums, literally blasted out of the starting gate with this live debut (a unique and rare approach, even today).
Born in the the anti-establishmenterian politics of the day with an angry cry for rebellion and chaos to the nothing-accomplished flower power movement, the MC5 created a sonic landscape that was well-matched to their anarchistic agenda and the riots and demonstrations that followed them.
In addition to having the charismatic Tyner as frontman (who showcased an unsual - in a rock setting - baritone), the MC5's pummelling sound was trademarked by the unique twin-guitar attack of Kramer and Smith. Neither of them virtuosos by any stretch of the imagination, the two players forged a unique sound based upon their strengths - Smith's constant, slashing power chording, and Kramer's unconventional jagged, vibrato-laden leads which either went proto-primitive or loopy, vibrato-heavy free form jazz. Taking advantage of the technological advancements made in amplifier power, the MC5 was known for performing at excrutiating volume levels.
Geographically exposed to Motown, their industrial surroundings (notice this same type of influence as listed by Black Sabbath), and taking in the existing and emerging rock influences of the day, the MC5 proved stylistically diverse by also combining elements of free-form jazz, I.e. John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, etc. Combining these elements at the volume levels that were just coming to fruition courtesy of the Yardbirds and the Who, the MC5's debut was a unique offering whose influence is still felt today (the album is ranked #294 on Rolling Stones' 500 greatest albums of all time).
The album opens with a hilariously dated 'call to arms' by the band's 'spiritual advisor' Brother J.C. Crawford (honestly). With all the then-usual clamor about revolution, being the problem, being the solution, it all sounds somewhat juvenile (a ballroom gathering of the devoted are going to take on the US military... right), but Brother Crawford does get right-on righteous when he asks the crowd if they're ready to testify, which is the perfect segue for 'the testimonial of the MC5! ' And with a blast the band is off:
01.Ramblin' Rose: featuring a stop-go format and a unique falsetto vocal by Kramer (once again straying from the conventional), this arrangement is a perfect opening number... for any band. Thompson's drumming and Davis' bass playing are locked solid over the song's 5 note riff and provide a nice canvas for the rest of the band. Ending somewhat improvisationally over a tangled Kramer guitar line, the song crashes to an authoritative close.
02.Kick Out the Jams: the MC5's calling card, and for good reason. While the song features a rather simple riff a chordal riff, Tyner's inspired vocal and intro-shriek are the stuff of legend; the man literally sounds like his life is on the line. While other bands have remade this in uptempo fashion, the MC5's version remains the definitive one as they foresake high-speed energy for mid-tempo battery.
03.Come Together: total chaos and a not-so-subtle nod to the Who's 'I Can See for Miles'; today's lawyers would not have put with this, maybe things *were* different back then.
04.Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa): the title says it all... somewhat. Early thrash roots are evident, minimal melodic evidence, but - as is usual with the MC5 live - tons of energy that probably led to more than one overturned VW microbus.
05.Borderline: probably the weakest cut on the record, too short to be impactful, but again, future influences are evident in the punk-thrash area and it is performed with the usual MC5 gusto.
06.Motor City is Burning: a genuine blues-based number, but definitely more rock than blues in execution (it's doubtful whether Davis, for all his ability to play energetically, could walk a bass-line; the same goes for Kramer's and Smith's ability to play anything other a power chord). The band however, does display some restrained moments which shine through on the verses. The none-too-subtle lyrics about Black Panther snipers, pigs in the street, etc., definitely have not aged well, but, considering the times it was born of, it's an adequately suburbia shocking courtesy of Tyner's impassioned vocals and Kramer's and Smith's buzz-saw industrial guitars.
07.I Want You Right Now: when you hear this, you instinctively think - The Troggs', I Want You, and you'd be right; high energy and thank goodness for lawyers not paying attention.
08.Starship: 8 minutes and 15 seconds of - which can only be minimally appropriately described as - a complete jazz-punk meth-gargling weird-out, that, somehow, works. When you're listening to this you're convinced that the band has completely lost it's way, until you hear the ending, which shows that it was all manically planned.
The sonic quality of this album is, quite frankly, startling considering it's age. The mix and levels of the instruments, vocals, and the enthralled crowd is near perfect, creating a manic intensity. // 9
Lyrics: The MC5's various musical influence also reveal a stylistic lyrical variety (although it should be noted, not all lyrics are MC5), where the music matches the words quiet well. From the howling party piffle of Ramblin' Rose, Come Together, Borderline, I Want You Right Now, the kicked in the teeth tranquility of Kick Out the Jams, the coarsely political Motor City is Burning, to the lobotomy freakout of Rocket Reducer No. 62 and Starship, the MC5 put lyrical flower power in a blender and hit frappe.
Tyner's unique vocal skills helped elevate the hysteria (if possible) already in place courtesy of the out of control instrumental aspect. A baritone lacking in range, but not in power or earnestness, Tyner's go for broke vocal performance reflects an influence from both the soul and gospel camps where singers often times pushed themselves to the extreme edges of emotional fervor and elevated levels of spiritual consciousness. // 9
Overall Impression: 40 years have elapsed since these performances (recorded over 2 nights in 1968) were captured, providing rock music historians with a clear marker as to where the seeds were sown for (more directly) punk, and (more indirectly) various sub-genres of metal, in particular thrash.
Fans of the Ramones and Sex Pistols that have not heard of the MC5 would be wise give them a listen to see where their heroes' origins lie (not to mention as to how astonished they'd be at time lapse from this MC5 release to when punk came to the forefront). Fans of hard rock & metal that have only heard of the MC5 courtesy of the numerous covers of Kick Out the Jams (Rage Against the Machine, Blue Oyster Cult, Presidents of the USA, Hellacopters, just to name a few) will also be surprised at the energy and craziness that went on 'back then'.
Detractors of the MC5 point at their one-dimensional approach, relying solely on energy and volume to be impactful. While they may have been one-dimensional, it was offset by the simple fact that they excelled and thrived on that particular form; their one-dimensional approach was all that they needed to be successful, memorable, and historical. // 9