MC5, Kick Out the Jams (February 1969) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 8

Meanwhile, just a month after Led Zeppelin’s first album, over in Chicago, the MC5 were giving us this. [Warning: NSFW language at the start]

MC5 are usually described as proto-punk — a description that I’ve already used for the The Who, at least as regards My Generation. But to my mind their signature song is much more metal than punk, perhaps largely because of the quality of distortion on the guitars and the use of power chords (root and fifth only) rather than full chords with thirds.

Not all musical innovations occur by adding something. Sometimes it’s about taking something away. In this case, what’s lost is textural variation. Kick Out the Jams sounds the same all the way though.  It’s actually quite instructive to compare with all the earlier entries on this list, and note how they all have moments of textural change — as for example the drop down to voices alone for the title line of Born to be Wild, or for “You may be a lover / But you ain’t no dancer” in Helter Skelter. By contrast, Kick Out the Jams feels relentless.

Of course it’s open to interpretation whether this was a deliberate innovation on the MC5’s part, or a mere lack of vision or technique. Critical opinion of the MC5 is adulatory verging on the idolatrous, with opinions like “one of the greatest records ever pressed” being widespread. Again this near-unanimous modern verdict it’s interesting to see Lester Bangs’ review for Rolling Stone at the time of release: “Musically the group is intentionally crude and aggressively raw. Which can make for powerful music except when it is used to conceal a paucity of ideas, as it is here.”

Who’s right? Was Bangs seeing it as it is, and are modern reviewers merely blind men following the blind off a musical-othodoxy cliff? Or has its greatness only slowly become apparent, having been too innovative for the critics of the time? No doubt others will disagree, but my hat is in the Bangs camp. My problem with Kick Out the Jams is that it’s just not interesting. Andrew Hickey once wrote to me that the one thing he can’t bear in music is to be bored: he even thinks that Yesterday is too long because of the repeated middle eight and last verse. I don’t go as far as him, but any song that does the same thing from start to end is just not getting the job done for me.

So, MC5 and Kick Out the Jams: an innovation that I can do without.

18 responses to “MC5, Kick Out the Jams (February 1969) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 8

  1. ”Not all musical innovations occur by adding something. Sometimes it’s about taking something away”

    Now here we agree! Except often when you take something away, people react like burglars have been and are only capable of seeing what’s gone. They don’t see the space that’s been opened up, or what’s been done with it.

    Which may be exacerbated when looking at something from a timeline of development. There’s nothing wrong with looking at music this way, of course. But we should keep in mind that’s not the way music happens as it’s created. We can only see that throughline with hindsight. Given your other interests, I expect you’re familiar with having to explain to people that evolution isn’t teleological. And similarly, music isn’t a series of innovations that build to an endpoint.

    And this may be exacerbated still more in the case of the MC5 who, as you say, fed into both hard rock and punk. To me, art is parimarily about expressing a feeling and, perhaps secondarily, evoking an era. And music seems particularly well-placed to do that, as it kind of exists in the world in a way film or novels merely inhabit their own bubble-space. We easily talk of eras having a “soundtrack”, after all.

    Both of which, I contend, the MC5 do in spades. However much they influenced later developments, they belong in the fiery, agitational Sixties underground scene. (Something I did my own little YouTube list about here.) And they epitomise for me that feeling of early-Twenties youthful exuberance, where you feel boldly sure you can take on the world. Kick out the jams!

  2. I’m glad to see Gavin defending the MC5, because I was going to say the same thing as Mike — I want to like them, but I find myself getting bored. But the linked post, and watching the live performance, give me a better ability to place them and understand what they’re doing.

    Also, to continue on a tangent, reading Gavin’s linked post about the Sixties underground, I’m curious if you’ve listened to the Holy Modal Rounders at all? They’re a classic, if irreverent, folk revival group (and the namesake for Rounder records which is on the of major folk labels), but they started in New York, and I appreciate the way in which they clearly sound like part of the New York underground.

    For example, looking them up today I just found this excellent track from 1971 (Peter Stampfel shows up in the comments to note that it was recorded live at his father’s place in Long Island). In a certain way, it doesn’t seem that far removed from the Velvet Underground.

  3. One more link for the Holy Modal Rounders (with apologies again for the tangent), in case you don’t want to listen to an 11 1/2 minute recording that is fun but self-indulgent. Here is a recording from 1965 which captures their weirdness well. I think it’s excellent, but probably an acquired taste.

  4. Thanks for the link NickS. Though I recently saw Peter Stampfel play with Jeffrey Lewis (which, in my usual obsessive-compulsive way, I blogged about here, the Holy Modal Rounders are yet another band I’m woefully ignorant of.

    Your link reminds me more of the Fugs than the Velvets (perhaps unsurprisingly, as Stampfel played in both), there’s the same kind of free-wheeling raucousness to it, like the unprofessionalism is part of the point. Less a musical picture and more the musical equivalent of scrawling graffiti on someone’s front wall. But there’s an overlap there, there’s definitely something proto-punk to it.

  5. Just in case anyone was interested, ;et’s try that link again.

  6. Your link reminds me more of the Fugs than the Velvets (perhaps unsurprisingly, as Stampfel played in both), there’s the same kind of free-wheeling raucousness to it, like the unprofessionalism is part of the point.

    Which link, the one from 1971 or the one from 1965? I think the 1965 recording is less free-wheeling.

    Part of what has always distinguished the Holy Modal Rounders for me is that they clearly have a deep love and knowledge of the the traditional music that they’re playing off of. I’ve always believed that they are entirely capable of playing it more traditionally (Like this) but chose not to for reasons of personality, rather than any lack of musical talent.

    I haven’t listed to much by the Fugs, but the comparison to the Velvets was based more on a shared (or overlapping) sense of “cool” rather than a specifically musical similarity. They just strike me as having a distinctly East Coast sense of humor.

  7. The one from 1965. I went with your revised opinion.

    “…they clearly have a deep love and knowledge of the the traditional music that they’re playing off of. I’ve always believed that they are entirely capable of playing it more traditionally (Like this) but chose not to for reasons of personality,”

    If an artist does a loose charcoal sketch, no-one seems to say “ah, so he can’t paint in oils”. I’ve never understood why a similar thing didn’t follow with music.

    The Fugs are well worth checking out. You may need an interest in the Sixties underground scene and what was happening all a round them – they’re a cultural as much as a musical force. But well worth checking out.

  8. I’ve never heard of MC5 until now. And from what you say… I don’t know why you’ve even mentioned them.

    And seeing as you’ve gotten to 1970, I guess you won’t be mentioning this band, or at least this song, so I’ll just mention it here: King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man. (October 1969) It might not fit into the timeline’s progression, but I think it is a worthy mention for its uniqueness.

  9. Why did I mention MC5 at all? I suppose because of a sense that they are considered historically important. But I don’t know, maybe I should have followed my own inclination and skipped over them after all.

    You’re right, I don’t include King Crimson here — not from any lack of liking their work, but from the sense that they were much more about prog rock than heavy metal. If I ever come to do a prog timeline, they will be in that for sure!

  10. … the same kind of free-wheeling raucousness to it, like the unprofessionalism is part of the point. Less a musical picture and more the musical equivalent of scrawling graffiti on someone’s front wall.

    I wouldn’t describe the ’65 recording in those terms. But I don’t think we disagree, I think we’re just coming at it from different directions. From my perspective there are a fair number of mediocre folk recordings that never rise above the level of pastiche/homage. So I see the Rounders’ ability to take traditional tunes and twist them, while still honoring the original as a clear sign of talent and not free-wheeling, but carefully calculated (see also John Hartford for a later example).

    That said, I think your description of, “. . . growing your hair, playing weird music and annoying people. But not necessarily in that order.” is spot on. So, in that sense, I think we can both agree that it makes sense to mention them in the context of the sixties underground music scene.

  11. Yeah, I think folk music can get very hung up on this notion of authenticity. Like it’s an heirloom that’s got to be treasured and treated delicately. It’s not just that it’s a perspective I don’t relate to. I think it misses the point of what folk music is.

  12. That’s a topic for a potentially long conversation. But, generally speaking I agree. I do love the people who are willing to put in the effort to really track down the roots of a song and understand where it’s coming from. But I also think that there’s no point in just performing folk music as if it were a museum piece.

    Two nicely phrased quotes that I’ve come across on the topic:

    “One of the most important things about folksongs that makes them different from other kinds of songs is that there is never just one way to do them: everybody can sing them in his own way, and nobody can say that there is any “right” or “wrong” about it. Of course, if a song came from the mountains of Kentucky, and if you weren’t raised in the mountains of Kentucky, when you sing it your way it will no longer be a Kentucky mountain folksong. But it will be your song.” (Sam Hinton)

    and, more pithily,

    “If I sing something not the way you’re used to hearing it, and you think I’ve got the tune or the words wrong, then it isn’t folk. On the other hand, if you think I’m singing a variant–then it’s folk.” (Charlie Baum)

  13. always thought of MC5 more as garage rock. Did you consider Vanilla Fudge or Sabbath for your timeline?

  14. On “garage rock” — of course we can split the names of musical genres indefinitely. In this series, I’m more interested in what these formative tracks led to, rather than what they were.

    Vanilla Fudge: good suggestion, and one that hadn’t occurred to me. I’ll add them to the Ones That Got Away list on the timeline page. Black Sabbath: stand by :-)

  15. Pingback: Black Sabbath, Paranoid (August 1970) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 10 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  16. Pingback: Scorpions, I Can’t Get Enough (February 1979) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 15 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  17. Margus Kiis

    It is a historical fact that 1968 MC5 warmed up both Yardbirds feat Jimmy Page and Deep Purple in Detroit. And after those nights Jimmy Page and Deep Purple returned to UK and soon the history changed. Just check out how both british bands looked and sounded before seeing MC5 and how DP and New Yardbirds aka Led Zeppelin sounded and ACTED a year later.

  18. Wow. I did not know that. I’m so glad you found these pieces, and are commenting your way through them! For sure, Deep Purple changed dramatically between Deep Purple (1969) and In Rock … but that doesn’t match the chronology well. If MC5 opened for Purple in 1968, then we should have expected to see their influence even by The Book of Taliesyn (1969).

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