Saturday, November 18, 2017

Total Destroy: The Case of the MC5

Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa When Rolling Stone magazine collected articles for a 25th anniversary issue, an MC5 profile by Eric Ehrmann was the earliest feature selected. When that article first appeared, 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.

My sense is that the MC5 worked better as an idea than as a band. I worked for Rolling Stone when the magazine reran their cover story, 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.

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.

At this point, nobody listens to the MC5. 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, but they’re never played on classic rock radio, and their musical lineage lives on primarily through the work of Ted Nugent. All the White Panther Party rhetoric seems silly now, but hey, it meant something back then. Especially to Ted.

Kick out the Jams 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. In a sense, they remind me of N.W.A, who easily made it into the Rock Hall last year, despite a career that was even shorter than the MC5’s. But N.W.A had lasting cultural significance, and I don't see anybody making movies about the MC5 25 years after their demise.

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. Hey, your (great) post inspired me to make my own "Who did it better?" post, comparing covers of Kick Out the Jams.


  2. Eric Ehrmann here download in Brazil. As I have notesd elsewhere, the 5 was a great live experience. Danny Fields, Landau, and Elektra's Holzmann wanted to turno them into something they couldn't be neither culturally nor polically. A money machine. Sinclair made his $25k Faustian bargain and the next thing you know Wayne was saying they wanted us tô run laps and eat granola. That and their voracious drug apetites and it was end of story. See Wayne's film. They were iconic as a political,quasi-revoltionary LIVE band.