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Best MC5 Songs: 10 Classic Tracks That Kick Out The Jams
Gijsbert Hanekroot
List & Guides

Best MC5 Songs: 10 Classic Tracks That Kick Out The Jams

Inventing punk while deconstructing the very notion of rock’n’roll, the best MC5 songs still have the power to start riots.

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The house band of revolution rock, the forebears of the entire punk movement… The Detroit ramalama garage rock’n’roll five-piece went further than any of their countercultural rivals, and the best MC5 songs still have the power to start riots. To paraphrase the immortal words of the group’s “spiritual advisor”, Brother JC Crawford, we give you a testimonial – the MC5!

10: I Just Don’t Know (1969)

MC5’s early garage band days are firmly exposed on this slice of snarling 60s proto-punk. A B-side released in 1969, three years after it was recorded, the song’s overlooked position in the band’s legacy belies its full-to-the-brim rock’n’roll bravado. Based around a Bo Diddley rhythm being destroyed by everything around it, the one-two power-chord punches from guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith are solely designed to knock you off your feet. Inspired by the band’s British Invasion idols John Lennon and Pete Townshend, the experimental use of feedback is pretty early for a 1966 recording. Not on any studio album, I Just Don’t Know earns its place among the best MC5 songs as a highlight of the much-revered Babes In Arms rarities compilation.

9: Black To Comm (1969)

The hardcore fans’ choice, Black To Comm never saw release during the group’s original lifespan, nor was it ever recorded in a studio. A mainstay of the group’s early days, the song marks perhaps their first foray in deconstructing the very notion of rock’n’roll, using a two-chord battering ram to demolish The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie. Very much in the R&B/mod band vein, performances of Black To Comm would last anywhere between eight and 15 minutes, and always contained multiple breakdowns that devolved into a Dadaist noise melee. Vocalist Rob Tyner would use those moments to preach love and revolution, laying down his template for what was to come during the band’s frontline years.

8: Starship (1969)

Having signed MC5 in September 1968, Elektra Records wisely taped two nights of the group’s Detroit Grande Ballroom residency on Halloween weekend. Released as Kick Out The Jams the following year, the group’s debut album captured the essence of their gloriously discordant, chaotic and downright subversive shows. “We thought it was a revolutionary move to do the first album live,” guitarist Kramer said later. Cribbing words from the back of The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volume Two, a 1965 free jazz recording by Sun Ra And His Solar Arkestra, Starship imagines us “leaving the solar system” while musically yo-yoing between freak-out noise and heavy rock riffage. An eight-minute nod to the era’s psychedelic wave, it closes MC5’s debut album in style.

7: The Human Being Lawnmower (1970)

A distant cousin to Kick Out The Jams, but in its own way a statement of serious intent, The Human Being Lawnmower features so many musical shifts in under two and a half minutes, it’s impossible to second guess what will come next. With lyrics expressing opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War, its stuttering exclamations from all band members come across like an attack helicopter in the middle of the night. A standout track on the group’s second album, Back In The USA.

6: Sister Anne (1971)

By the time MC5 released their third album, High Time, the group were disintegrating, leaving guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith to do most of the heavy lifting. Recalling The Rolling Stones in their full pomp, Sister Anne was, commercially speaking, MC5’s last throw of the dice. Boogie-woogie piano, agitated horns, and wailin’ harmonica abound; paired to their usual ramalama duel-guitar workouts, it’s a genuine party anthem among the best MC5 songs – despite the questionable lyrics about a sexually liberated nun.

5: Shakin’ Street (1970)

Stop the press: MC5 delivers a clear ringing melody over a pared-down arrangement of gently-rocking acoustic guitars. A betrayal of the dope, guns and sex-in-the-streets philosophy, or just a brilliant slice of nostalgic rock’n’roll? You decide. Certainly, Smith’s idea of utopia was this mythical street – “the place where all the kids go” to have fun.

4: Skunk (Sonicly Speaking) (1971)

Closing MC5’s final album, High Time, Skunk (Sonicly Speaking) is the group’s jazz-rock fusion fully realised. Effectively a bar fight set to music, the musicians all pile in on one another once drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson has kicked things off with a minute-long solo (you can imagine Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie paying attention years later). Rob Tyner’s closing assertion – “You know you really ain’t seen nothing yet!” – is a cruel irony. The song ended up marking the end of the group’s blisteringly hot road. History, fortunately, would be kind to them…

3: The American Ruse (1970)

The high-water mark of their supercharged rock’n’roll sound (did they invent power-pop as well as punk?), this straightforward Chuck Berry-esque rocker attacks what the group saw as the hypocritical idea of freedom espoused by the US: less “land of the free”, more land-of-police-beatdowns-and-cheap-shiny-goods. It remains truly shocking to hear Fred Smith mimic the civil-war marching song John Brown’s Body at the beginning of his solo.

2: Looking At You (1970)

First recorded in 1967 and released, the following year, as their lo-fi second single, MC5 returned to Looking At You again for Back In The USA. They kept the structure intact, but better production brought more clarity – including a much clearer vocal from Tyner. Kramer’s ascending guitar solo is a pure blues explosion, while the song’s lyrics reflect the youthful concerns (chasing girls) the best MC5 songs focused on before politics came into play.

1: Kick Out The Jams (1969)

Topping our list of the best MC5 songs, Kick Out The Jams is possibly the most incendiary recording of all time – a song to start riots to, as it quite literally did at MC5’s de facto home, Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. Revelling in the beauty of a great MC5 gig, Tyner self-sermonises with all the hellfire he can muster. Meanwhile, Thompson’s brutal drumming drives the whole insanity along, the amps sounding hot and overworked. That profane opening call (“Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”) would be the group’s undoing, however, as band manager John Sinclair crossed swords with Elektra over censorship. Department store Hudson’s refused to carry the album; the band responded with a magazine advert captioned “Fuck Hudson’s!” Elektra swiftly dropped the group. It was, ultimately, worth it, fuelling the myth surrounding the greatest anti-establishment, proto-punk anthem of them all.

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