Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Can't Forget the Motor City: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part VIII

The MC5 was featured in a very early article by Eric Ehrmann that helped put Rolling Stone
magazine on the map; when they collected articles for a 25th anniversary issue, the MC5 profile was the earliest feature selected. I worked for the magazine at that point, and what struck me about that feature was how retrograde the band was. They lived together in a house in Detroit Big Pink-style, where they were attended to by their old ladies, who I don’t believe were even granted names in the article. Their entire position was to serve the men, although the article did praise the “total destroy barbecue” they prepared for them.

At that point, the MC5 was one of the hottest acts in rock, even though their debut album, the live Kick Out the Jams, hadn’t been released yet. They were at the crossroads of the hippie movement and what would come to be called punk, all roaring guitars and political anger, propelled by the anthemic title single.

That was probably the high point for the MC5, when they were all promise and no delivery. Shortly after that article appeared, Lester Bangs reviewed Kick Out the Jams for Rolling Stone, and he was not impressed, calling it “this ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album.” It reached a rather wan Number 30 on the album charts, with the title single going to Number 87.

The MC5 released their second album Back in the USA, produced by future Springsteen honcho Jon Landau, in 1972. It didn’t do as well as Kick Out the Jams. Their third album, High Time, from 1971, did even worse, and the band was shortly no more.

The Case For The MC5 really were an important band. Their saga kicks off the indispensable punk chronicle Please Kill Me, and their mix of heavy metal thunder and political broadsides showed a new way for rock music to go. All the White Panther Party rhetoric seems silly now, but hey, it meant something back then. Lester Bangs notwithstanding, Kick Out the Jams has regained some luster in the ensuing years, being named to Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Case Against When was the last time you heard an MC5 song? Their music hasn’t aged well, and their career was really short. All that White Panther Party rhetoric seems silly now.

The Cool Factor They covered Sun Ra on Kick Out the Jams. Guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith went on to marry Patti Smith.

The Verdict Given the choice between cultural significance and musical quality, I’ll go with musical quality every time. I just don’t see enough of it in the MC5’s case. I vote no for the MC5.


  1. The last time I listened to an MC5 song? Well, the version of "Ramblin' Rose" from the Detroit Tube Works TV show is one of my 10 most-watched YouTube videos ever:

    I buy into the Five's mythological image as Bad Deeeetroit Motherf--kers, and in those golden moments when they were *on* they could blow through walls ... but in a discussion of the very best, most influential and/or most successful rock performers of all time, they really don't have a place.

    I'd love to know what Brother Wayne Kramer would say in his induction speech, though. (And you thought Steve Miller aired some people out...)

  2. Hi, Eric Ehrmann checking in from Brazil having recently stumbled upon this item. The "Five" was really a live band. Period. Wayne did a movie about the band a while back and said that after the band signed with Elektra it was like they were supposed to "run laps, and eat yogurt and granola." Ironically, while the "old ladies" were subservient, one named Patti married drummer Fred "Sonic" Smith, and took his name... ever hear of, uh... Patti Smith.