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.