Rob Tyner - vocals; Wayne Kramer - guitar; Fred "Sonic" Smith- guitar; Michael Davis - bass; Dennis Thompson - drums
Detroit's MC5 are often mentioned as precursors to both Heavy Metal and 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 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 MC5s 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 'n' 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 MC5s explosive sound and politically provocative performances. The MC5 quickly earned a reputation for their high-energy concerts and began drawing local audiences of 1000 or more, proving they were clearly on to something.
This recording, sourced from an open reel recording patched directly off the MC5's soundboard, captures the group in all their crash and burn glory, several months prior to the recordings for their first album. Performing live at the Sturgis Armory, this performance clearly demonstrates the fire and brimstone of the band's sound, just weeks after they had relocated to Ann Arbor. One of the few recordings to document a near complete performance at this most volatile time in the band's history, this features all but two of the classic first albums songs in a slightly earlier stage of development and in even rawer form. The MC5s quintessential anthem "Kick Out The Jams," is here as well as other debut album tracks like "Come Together," "Rocket Reducer No. 62," "Borderline," "I Want You Right Now," and a free-form exploration on Sun Ra's "Starship."
However, what will be of equal or even greater interest to fans is the inclusion of songs that were never recorded for the three primary MC5 albums. These include originals such as "Revolutionary Blues" and a frighteningly intense reading of "Black To Comm" which concludes this performance. Several standout covers are also featured here that reveal the diverse roots of the band's music, including a raging James Brown medley of "Cold Sweat," "I Can't Stand Myself," and "There Was A Time," a wild and utterly unique take on the Booker T. Jones/William Bell blues classic, "Born Under A Bad Sign," and a blazing version of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" that is literally out of control. Midway through the set, they also take a stab at Pharaoh Sanders' "Upper Egypt," with Tyner delivering lyrical contributions courtesy of John Sinclair.
The last two songs on the recording feature the band at their most fearless and experimental. Sun Ra's "Starship" in the hands of the MC5 is never less than adventurous, ranging from sludgy heavy metal (that pre-dates Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin) to spontaneous improvisations of vocal grunts and groans, poetry, and feedback drenched drones. This highly exploratory number and "Black To Comm," which together comprise the final 20 minutes of this set, clearly display the elements of angry black free-jazz that had begun permeating the band's live performances.
There is no subtlety here. This is loud, angry, in-your-face music meant to move the bodies of the audience with a blazing spontaneous release of compressed energy. Unlike the spiritually searching nature of so much of the music of 1968, the MC5's music reflected back the violence and political turmoil of the times. This is confrontational music and a full frontal attack on the powers that be. Rebellious and exhilarating, this performance proves just how devastating the MC5 could be in concert during the summer of '68.