Formed in and around John Sinclair’s White Panther Party, the Motor City 5’s enduring relevance lies less in the Detroit quintet’s music (the in-concert Kick Out the Jams sounds closer to early-’70s heavy metal than anything else) and more in the political attitudes behind that music; “Kick Out the Jams” and “Motor City Is Burning” are obvious harbingers of “Anarchy in the UK.” Unfortunately for the 5, their utopian beliefs didn’t translate to vinyl with the intensity of, say, the first Clash album. Led by Rob Tyner’s rabble-rousing vocals and the twin guitar assault of Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, Kick Out the Jams has plenty of high-energy rock, with science-fiction noise (“Rocket Reducer No. 62” and “Starship,” co-credited to Sun Ra) thrown in for class. But would the revolution be recorded by Elektra?
Evidently not. The next MC5 album, produced by Jon Landau (prior to his more financially rewarding alliance with Bruce Springsteen), finds them downplaying the rabble-rousing in favor of claustrophobically taut and blisteringly electric sub-three-minute odes to “High School,” “Teenage Lust” and “Shakin’ Street” (“where all the kids meet”). The LP also contains performances of “Tutti Frutti” and the Chuck Berry title cut, with its refrain of “I’m so glad I’m living in the USA.” Sarcasm? A timely return to the roots? Probably both. At least the concise songs are easier to like than the first LP’s hippie-era sprawl.
Having lost their audience between the first two albums, the MC5 felt free to put down the best playing of their recording career on the totally ignored High Time. Song lengths are back up, but the band stretches out comfortably on “Sister Anne,” “Over and Over” and the jazzy “Skunk (Sonicly Speaking).” Did the MC5’s circular saga prove the invincibility of pure pop? In any case, their records and legend remain an oft-cited influence on the nose-thumbing irreverence and chaotic energy of punk groups.
Babes in Arms is a belated appendix to the band’s catalogue. It consists of early 45 sides done for indie labels, alternate takes and remixes (some scarcely different from the originals) from the three original albums, plus one otherwise unreleased cut.
Like the Stooges and other groups, numerous live concert albums of the MC5 have been issued. Amid a rash of obvious bootlegs, the two French releases at least appear to be legal issues. Do It is a muddy sounding radio broadcast from ’71: well played renditions of eight songs, including “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Tutti Frutti” and John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City Is Burning” alongside “Kick Out the Jams” and “Looking at You.” But beware of the utterly unlistenable pink-vinyl Live Detroit, an inaudible mush of muffled noise.
Tyner died in September 1991. Smith died in ’94.