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MC5: The Natural Evolution of the Trogolodyte Into Motor City Revolutionaries


My nom de plume was a kind of happy accident. Taken from a Joni Mitchell song, and a line about all romantics meeting the same fate someday (cynical, drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe) , and how the last time she saw Richard was Detroit in ’68. I carelessly ended up renamed for eternity with the name of the most brutally creative and high energy music scene destination in rock n’ roll history. I should wear the name with caution, instead I throw it around carelessly. Detroit. It sounds almost stylish, a gallic air, graceful almost, instead it is soaked with the fumes from steel works, car manufacturing plants and a city on the rocks that once was home to the likes of Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and the late, great MC5.

My hero, Lester Bangs, for what it was worth, seemed to have a bee in his beer and cough syrup soaked bonnet about the MC5, writing them off as Troggs wanna be’s minus the sexiness. While Rolling Stone was lauding the MC boys as the next big high energy thang to shake rattle and roll to, Lester was coming up with such delightful disses as ‘they come on more Blue Cheer than ‘Trane and Sanders’. Ouch. Lester’s reckoning for the band as a lot of hype, not much bad boys make good on their methamphetamine fueled promises, calling them ‘crude’ and ‘raw’, was a Bangs take down piece de resistance. His gripes ranged from the fact he saw them as too derivative, not saying ‘anything new’ and having a ‘paucity of ideas’. Perhaps Bangs was a little harsh. I dunno, maybe Detroit was getting to the old sniper, and he was lashing out at the scene and the Creem office as much as he was disenchanted with Sonic Smith and the MC5 gang. Lester did make a concession that the MC5 would probably sell a shedload of records off their teenage revolution and energy schtick…and for that much he was not on the money. The MC5 didn’t sell nearly as well as they should have, they remained on the borderlines instead of the financial behemoths of the later punk bands, however in this final reckoning I would say their influence and music is worth a lot more than the Question Mark and the Mysterions, or the Kingsmen that Bangs compared them to. I hope someone gave Lester a drink and some better drugs and he chilled out. Detroit would get to anyone after a while.

The golden age of enlightenment through Rock n’ Roll is dead. We are in a musical and cultural dark age. What was birthed in the Delta in shades of blue, dragged into the mainstream by a few renaissance men and women in the ’60s and ’70s, heralded by Hendrix and Dylan, and dragged kicking and screaming into the industrial modern age by the Beat Triumvirate of the heavens and hells that were music scenes of Detroit, New York City and California, and finally laid to rest in the last golden age, the 1990s, is now jerking and twitching in the airwaves, drowned out by manufactured Nashville country, hipster acoustic acts trying to rehash Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, and the fact that young people prefer to make and consume social media as their act of rebellion instead of picking up a geetar and making their mamas worry they will die in ditches. I guess the rebels are still dying in ditches, but they are all so mundanely dull nowadays. It is all fent overdoses and meth so strong all the average speed freak is up to is shuffling free newspapers, scrubbing the same patch of wall for 36 hours straight, and staring into the middle distance with that methamphetamine thousand mile stare. They are not forming the new MC5, and boy I wish someone would! The world needs it!

All there is for it now is looking back, while the Kids yell “OK BOOMER” at my elderly self. Music is medicine, and the MC5 is a shot in the arm. Whenever I felt sluggish and slow, down and lacking in energy, there was nothing quite like shouting “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” along with Fred and the boys, and jumping around on that pure M.C. diesel. The energy and verve of the MC5 is more contagious than a bad case of the Delta ‘vid.

These boys are pure testosterone fueled sound and fury, yet not signifying nothing. “People have the power” Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith wrote with his wife, Patti Smith (who is no revolutionary slouch herself). Detroit, that city of the solid blue collar worker spawned early socialist punk rage long before Strummer and the Clash even thought about burning down London. That is not to say that the MC5 were above some pure burn down motor city rage – they are from Detroit after all.

Back in 1964 some hold out cave dwelling Troggs were turning out mostly sweet little pop songs for little English cuties and their mop top worshipping crushes, but beating in their troggy hearts was an engine for destruction and seduction, also known as the guitar of Chris Britton, the bass of Pete Staples, the drums of Ronnie Bond and the vocals of the other great Presley of rock and roll, Reg.

I will get it out of the way right here and now. The MC5 owe a lot to the Troggs. If the Troggs were nekkid cave dwellers in the pleasant English mountains green, cavorting before the satanic mills and forming chariots of fire and bows of burning gold outta pure Dexedrine powder-power, scaring the squares and the olds and disturbing the Wild Things into a frenzy of pelvic imperatives, the MC5 were semi evolved beings who existed in a loose society of mostly feral Motor City dwellers, farming soundwaves, urban anger, teenage angst and dissatisfaction and curled lip snarling, hinting at their recent domestication whilst still being some of the wildest things on the steppes of mod proto punk culture. There was a little more stylized sneer to their motor city vroom vroom schtick but they still had aggro threat and power to spare.

Where the Troggs got there first, marking their time cards as proto punk sleaze purveyors in 1964, whilst sullying their speed freak easy rider cred with pretty pop tracks such as Love Is All Around Me, the MC5 were hot on their tails and were much less fond of playing to the quieter more romantic elements of the teenage lust and rebellion gang. Kick Out The Jams, the MC5’s 1969 debut album was wall to wall noise, driven by an engine that had more roar and grumble coming out of their Vox Super Beetle amplifiers than even the most stacked Dodge Charger rolling off those famous Detroit automobile lines.

Wayne Kramer told Arthur (no 9), the counterculture magazine, back in 2004: “They were real 100-watts amplifiers: true power. They had these gigantic speaker cabinets with four twelve-inch speakers and two metal high-frequency horns in them. No one had ever heard anything this loud before. …… So the next step was the Marshall amplifiers, and they were, I don’t know how you quantify it, but they were twice as loud. You had twice as much speaker all of a sudden, and an even more powerful amplifier, so you’re pushing twice as much air.” Pushing air was the name of the game. Blue Cheer might have been louder, but they were less interesting, and more brutal. Listening to Blue Cheer is in exercise in masochismic withstanding of aural pain and vibration. Kick Out The Jams might be loud, but not to the point of wanting to turn off and tune out. The MC5 rocked the biggest party in town, and offered a framework and a focus to the scattered light of teenage dissatisfaction and fury. People have the power, but so did the MC5 – the power to wake people up and direct their energies.

MC5’s cover of Al Smith’s Motor City Is Burning, most famously sung by John Lee Hooker, is a fist in the air of solidarity. The MC5 were deeply political, principled and sure ‘pushed some air’ towards the cause of racial equality, justice and freedom. The fact that they sounded pretty fierce whilst pushing against the system, Wayne Kramer’s shout of ‘THIS IS HIGH SOCIETY’ with the snort of derision before launching into the song remains a bow legged motor city cowpoke standing of ground, a solid counterculture position being held and espoused. I am not quite sure that is what the squares meant when they said ‘high society’, but it has to be preferable to the privilege trap that so many are shut out from.

The MC5 knew that the kids wanted to cut loose and blow off some steam too, and the true star of the MC5, Fred Sonic Smith, provided the most aggressive guitar this side of heavy metal. His Rickenbacker 450/12 modded with a humbucker pick up for extra bite IS the sound of the MC5. Sonic was playing with distortion and overdrive before The Ramones and Sonic Youth even cut the apron strings and struck out for fame and filthy fortune.

The guitar weaving between Kramer and Sonic Smith rivaled any duo in Rock and Roll. They were the Duane Allman and Dickey Betts of proto punk. From the sweetly sexy Rambling Rose to the experimental interstellar astrodrive of Starship, they ignited the revolution via stripped wired bare nekkid electric S(exchange) of air and vibration, testing and probing for holes in the other’s high octane riffs and counterplay. Cream wished they put out anything as grittily white boy bluesy as Rambling Rose. What the band lacked in finesse they made up for in sheer guts and balls. This is no sissy shit, though I am fond as heck of that too, this is testing the boundaries and barriers of not only society, but also of sound, noise, fun and fury.

When Wayne Kramer demands of the audience in the beginning of Rambling Rose that his audience decide which side of the fight they are on. Kramer was the Grand Priest of the punk revolution. “The time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution…to realize their purpose on the planet, and testify’…He comes on like a meth fueled revivalist at some mega church meet, demanding his followers choose revolution or total lack of relevance, because the revolution was coming anyhow. What I would give for some of that revolutionary energy nowadays. Now it feels dangerous to have an ‘unpopular opinion’, and revolution is something that lands up with people doing hard federal time. Revolution and mind freeing via sex, drugs and rock and roll was an option. It was an option but it got bloated and decadent and failed utterly.

Kick Out The Jams is the MC5’s testimony. “Let me be who I am, and let me kick out the jams!” they demand, Fred Sonic Smith’s guitar insisting on no backsliding or quiet scaredy cat refusal to put their noise where their hearts and souls are: in the burning streets of Detroit, with those that fight the ‘pigs’, with the disaffected kids who want more freedom from life than they were told they could have.

It feels like listening to the first shots of a war that was ultimately lost. A war for freedom, fun, equality and solidarity. We came so strong out of the gate, our cause was just and our weapons were loud. The MC5 were members of the White Panther Party – which I know makes me have a knee jerk reaction of ‘sounds pretty wt supremacist to me, motherfuckers; but instead the opposite was true, the White Panthers were affiliated to the Black Panthers. John Sinclair who managed the MC5 was one of the cofounders of the White Panther party.

The White Panther State/ment provided a blueprint for everything that the MC5 were about, and what they wanted, not just for Detroit, but for the country as a whole. You might say that they were dreamers, but they were no hippy Lennon wannabes.

In November 1968, Fifth Estate published the “White Panther State/meant”. It ran as follows:

We want freedom. We want the power for all people to determine our own destinies.

We want justice. We want an immediate and total end to all cultural and political repression of the people by the vicious pig power structure and their mad dog lackies the police, courts and military. We want the end of all police and military violence against the people all over the world right now!

We want a free world economy based on the free exchange of energy and materials and the end of money.

We want free access to all information media and to all technology for all the people.

We want a free educational system, utilizing the best procedures and machinery our modern technology can produce, that will teach each man, woman and child on earth exactly what each needs to know to survive and grow into his or her full human potential.

We want to free all structures from corporate rule and turn the buildings over to the people at once!

We want free time and space for all humans—dissolve all unnatural boundaries!

We want the freedom of all prisoners held in federal, state, county or city jails and prisons since the so-called legal system in America makes it impossible for any man to obtain a fair and impartial trial by a jury of his peers.

We want the freedom of all people who are held against their will in the conscripted armies of the oppressors throughout the world.

We want free land, free food, free shelter, free clothing, free music, free medical care, free education, free media, EVERYTHING FREE FOR EVERYBODY!

It sounds good doesn’t it. 2021 is what failure looks like. This is what a wasted dream looks like. This is what looking back at the war, and the war that sounded so good and so freeing, and realizing it was all for nothing, and that no ground was held, looks like. We are still left wanting. There is only one thing for it. To try again, to ‘kick out the jams, motherfuckers’ to play the record one more time and look at the MC5 manifesto and see if there is anything we can salvage of the dream we once all held that there could be a brighter and more equitable future. I am not much of an idealist. I know that there is no punk rock Eden to rattle the gates of and bang down the walls to.

Eden is burning just as much as Detroit tends to, just as much as it looks like Californian Santa Ana winds might insist on. I don’t have the stomach for a great reset. I don’t have the energy of the youth. All I can do is push a copy of Kick Out The Jams towards the Tik Tok generation and hope for the best, hope that within them there is a spark of rebellion and idealism that I lost somewhere back down the road a ways. Hope that some of our best troops of the revolution, the MC5, who had some of the best tunes and the wildest jams, can reach forwards through time and shake some life into matters. It might be our last best hope.

The best love story in Rock and Roll: Patti and Frederick Smith


  1. Alan Conrad

    “2021 is what failure looks like. This is what a wasted dream looks like.”

    What a powerful statement. As someone who was there in 1968 – a part of it – I can’t say you’re wrong. Steven King [born the same yr as me] said of us, “We had a chance to save the world – instead we opted for the shopping channel.” But that’s a bit unfair – it was a magical time – the magic is gone but it can come back. And it was a bad time too – Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968.

    To me the problem now is that almost everyone has gone to sleep. They need to wake up. I see you’re trying to shake them awake. Good luck.

    1. The Paltry Sum: Detroit Richards

      I veer between wanting to shake people awake and wanting to save my own skin. I think the two cannot co exist safely and peacefully. I am a bit behind you, timewise, but not so far behind that I missed out entirely. King always manages to turn a sinister phrase, doesn’t he? The real drug, the powerful juice wasn’t the smack or the meth, it was capitalism – cheap shitty stuff that is immediately available. ‘Plenty of cheap stuff out there’ as Dylan once said. Now they are not just ‘selling postcards of the hanging’ they are broadcasting it on live TV, encouraging it with every statement and act. It is conform or die. Or sometimes both.
      Thank you for the food for thought. It is what I live for nowadays! regards, Detroit.

      1. Alan Conrad

        Capitalism as the ‘real drug’ – that’s an impressive thought too – in which case we’re living through the greatest drunken binge in history. The conformity – I don’t understand it, though it is everywhere while people pretend to be creative, etc – I think it’s part of them being asleep.

      2. The Paltry Sum: Detroit Richards

        Conforming creativity is a scourge on humanity. Nothing truly boundary pushing is allowed. There are a prescribed range of thoughts and expressions that are allowed. But as Lou Reed once said, ‘between thought and expression, lies a lifetime’….

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