Graded on a Curve:
MC5,
Kick Out the Jams

Am I the only person in the world who finds the MC5’s seminal live debut, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams, terribly overrated? No I’m not. When it came out, the late, great Lester Bangs wrote it off in Rolling Stone magazine as “ridiculous, overbearing, and pretentious.” I’ll go Lester one further. I think it’s boring.

On what sophisticated scientific basis do I adjudge Kick Out the Jams dull? Simple. I’ve listened to it some 83 times, and every time I do so I find myself drifting off mid-listen. The only tracks that keep me interested are the title cut, “Ramblin’ Rose,” and “I Want You Right Now,” and the last named only holds my attention because it sounds exactly like the Troggs’ “I Want You.” I’ve spent my whole life hearing people laud the MC5 as the second greatest proto-punk band to ever crawl out of the rubble of Detroit city. I beg to differ. I don’t listen to the MC5 and hear Iggy and the Stooges; I listen to them and hear Grand Funk Railroad. Much hipper, and with more garage in their sound, for sure, but both bands are playing hard rock. Iggy sounded like no one ever had before; the MC5 sound like America’s answer to the aforementioned Troggs.

I would be the last to deny opening cut “Ramblin’ Rose” wins in the metallic K.O. department–although I’m not a huge fan of Wayne Kramer’s falsetto vocals–or that “Kick Out the Jams” is every bit as incendiary as reported. But while the latter song’s sonic propulsion reminds me of the Stooges, Rob Tyner’s vocals have Grand Funk written all over them. And while I generally like sloppy, I think “Kick Out the Jams” could be tighter.

As for “Come Together,” it doesn’t so much come together as fall apart. There’s a melody in there somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find it; no sooner am I done listening to it before I forget how it goes. It’s positively anti-memorable. And the same goes for “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa),” which despite its memorable title is eminently forgettable–a puddle of guitar ooze into which the group vocals sink without a trace. “Borderline” is all bombast and no song; the guitar is gargantuan but it takes you nowhere, while the vocals are, to borrow a phrase, all sound and fury signifying nothing. I’ll take Madonna’s “Borderline” any day.

I don’t know how a song called “Motor City Is Burning” can fail to hold my interest, but it does. I suppose these white boys just weren’t born to play the blues. John Lee Hooker’s original is slinky and light on its feet; the MC5’s version is leaden and distinguished only by Wayne Kramer’s heavy-duty guitar wank. Which gets interesting, I’ll admit, mid-song. But when Tyner is singing my attention wanders. And once again the playing is anything but tight. “I Want You Right Now” hitches a monstrously big hook to some truly bombastic vocals and works. And Kramer’s solo does indeed bring the Stooges to mind. It’s too bad the MC5 decide to slow down the proceedings mid-song; it nearly wrecks the momentum of the thing.

As for the shockingly different “Starship,” it reminds me less of Sun Ra (the cosmically enlightened intergalactic jazzmeister who wrote the song) than the cornball Jefferson Airplane. “Leaving the solar system” indeed; “Starship” is a meandering, embarrassing foray into space rock at its worst. Tyner warbles like a songbird with an Afro, the “far out” guitar effects are the epitome of hokey, and Iggy and the Stooges–who did a bang-up job of exploring the limits of the free jazz freakout on “L.A. Blues”–have never sounded so far away.

I can’t help but wonder if many peoples’ love for this LP is due to a factor that can only be called “extra-musical”–to wit, the MC5’s White Panther radicalism. With its calls to arms (“I wanna hear some revolution out there!”) and talk of “brothers and sisters” and “honkies,” Kick Out the Jams is as much political statement as musical one. Lester Bangs wrote off the MC5’s revolutionary rhetoric as hype. I tend to think they were sincere, and not just talking the talk in order to sell records. But in the end it doesn’t much matter. An album can’t be judged by its politics; what matters is the music. And like I said before, I find the music on Kick Out the Jams less than gripping. That’s apostasy, I know. But as Kingsley Amis once said, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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  • Narbo Wabo

    The revolutionary rhetoric WAS hype. NO opinion needed on that. The band admitted as much. Not that they didn’t believe in what they were doing but they were a rock n roll band first and revolutionary puppets of Sinclair second.
    Your take on the 5 being the US’s answer to the Troggs in interesting. The first Stooges record would be far more Troggs-like than the 5, surely. I love both bands. To me the 5 out Who’d the Who (the real overrated band IMO) on this record.
    KOTJ is juvenile, yes. Of course it is. It’s RnR. It’s more bombast than songs, yes. Of course it is. It’s RnR. This record above all was the purest blast of RnR energy since Little Richard and until Raw Power (which still boogies more than the 5 did to my ears), Sure, I’ll take the Grand Funk comparison. It’s people music. It sweats, it farts, it grooves. It gets down with it you jive-ass honky! Now go put on your Carly Simon record and let the kids play!

    • Michael Little

      Nice! You make some good points. Just allow me to say a couple of things. One, I don’t hate Grand Funk and I like the idea of KOTJ. I simply don’t like most of the songs on it that much, a fact that I still find surprising if only because I’m a huge fan of juvenile rock’n’roll. I love the Troggs and the Stooges, to say nothing of Slade and The Sweet, for a reason. The bottom line is simple; I love the volume and sheer energy of KOTJ, but even now, having listened to the album for a good week, I can’t remember most of the songs. I can’t help but read something into that. As for Carly Simon, I love the one about Mick Jagger. Or Warren Beatty. Or whoever. But that’s where my affection ends. And I love the fuck out of the Who, and I’m shocked you don’t think they’re not juvenile! Thanks for responding, my friend. Best, Mike

      • Narbo Wabo

        Fair enough. The x factor of what melodies or rhythm sticks in any given person’s brain is hard to argue. They are still some of the catchiest songs of the era to me though. Rama Lama combined with the duel guitar riff, borderline with it’s gang type vocal harmonies and how the band almost crumbles at the end of the chorus under the sheer weight of the attack. And of course the title track ought to speak for itself at this point. I’ll agree with the assessment of Starship. A bit wrongheaded perhaps but it wins for me on ambition alone. To me KOTJ encapsulates what was best about RnR at it’s best; a bunch of kids getting together whose will, passion and musical ambition far out stretches their skills to the point that the failure is the greatest sound you could imagine because it is the sound of the human spirit overcoming. Looking forward to that Carly Simon review haha!

        • Michael Little

          I can’t argue with you, my friend. You make a good argument. And you’re passionate about the band, that’s obvious. I’ll give it another listen. Your writing makes me want to give it another listen. You should be writing for The Vinyl District. Contact Jon Meyers and send him a review! Carly Simon here I come! Best.

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