When they started performing in the 1960's, Detroit's MC5 were labeled misfits even by the misfits. When the band held concerts on the west coast, hippie audiences that identified with the pastel, kaleidoscopic psychedelia of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service gave blank, perplexed stares to the hard-rocking, no-holds-barred powerhouse sound of five Motor City
natives who spent their childhoods competing with each other in how many note-for-note Chuck Berry solos they could pull off. "I think they all
hated us because they had to play with us in Detroit, where we kicked all their asses," explained original guitarist Wayne Kramer in the liner notes of the band's greatest hits compilation, The Big Bang. But these rockabilly roots are barely noticeable under the layers of feedback and
vocal chord-cracking screams that scatter MC5's critically-acclaimed debut album, the 1969 live record Kick Out the Jams.
It's anything but conventional to choose a live outing to record a band's first album, but MC5's back-breaking energy was something that simply
couldn't be contained in the confines of a studio. The band may not have been an appropriate fit out west, but back home in Detroit they had a rabid following and with good reason. MC5 put on a show that rivaled
the two most intense live bands of the decade - Led Zeppelin and the Who. But while Zeppelin decided to venture into the intricate incubation period of heavy metal and the Who tackled elaborate rock operas, MC5
remained stubbornly gritty, helping pave the way for the beginnings of the punk rock movement.
What made MC5 different from punk itself were their influences. Instead of
drawing from the well of three-chord, two-minute outbursts like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, they had a much more interesting muse in the soul of Berry and James Brown, and the spacey acid-jazz of Sun Ra. They even close the set with a Ra cover, the eight-and-a-half minute epic "Starship."
Kick Out the Jams is a glorious mess. It's sloppy, crude and unforgiving, but infinitely rewarding. The title track expresses this feature terrifically with the blood-curdling wails of vocalist Rob Tyner and "wall of sound" riffs of guitarists Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith. The
album shows that the quintet wasn't all muscle, either. There's a certain finesse in the appropriately-timed guitar solos in tracks like "Ramblin' Rose" and "Motor City is Burning," the latter more a departure into blues territory than anything else present on the record.
It's performances like "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)," that solidify the band's reputation for pulverizing its audience, and unapologetic self-praise like "Cause I'm a natural man/ I'm a born
hell raiser/ And I don't give a damn" that paved the way for years of gangsta rap artists to come. The song comes to a close with another quality atypical of punk - a downright electrifying harmony of Smith and Kramer's dueling guitar skills.
What's even more impressive is that when MC5 finally garnered the courage to take their sound to the studio, the result was an equally striking and powerful LP, 1970's Back in the USA, a record that injected a grimy, trouncing quality to 50's rock & roll. But it's generally agreed that neither MC5, nor any other band for that matter, could equal or surpass both the sonic brutality and beauty of Kick Out the Jams.