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Slept on Sounds: The MC5

mc5 2005 1

Let me start with this, as it sounds ridiculous even to feel: The MC5 are one of the most disrespected, satirised and wasted bands in history. How can this be when they are cited and celebrated all the time?I've always been fascinated by the strange, inherently unfair and bizarre process via which art is either recognised or rejected by its intended audience, both when it debuts and over time. Serial rejection and frustration can destroy minds, bands and whole genres. I've heard that hatred for the intellectually, challenging and beautifully baroque music slurred as "shoegazing" was instrumental in grinding down Slowdive into breakup and obscurity. They are back now, hopefully for more than just the cheque, and a gorgeous mixtape of their influences on FACT shows why we need to lust about it. At least they are alive, and can come back to secure and clarify a legacy.The MC5 cannot. Sure, there is a version of the band kicking about from time to time, but there is just no way to recapture and restore the original, misunderstood magic they had and apologise for mocking and ignoring it.We all know Detroit was and is a hotbed of musical magicians. Until the fratricidal, suicidal riots of 1967 and the subsequent collapse of the local economy, the amazing diversity of the people who built the cars meant a tonne of night spots, from ballrooms to barrooms and shifty illegal holes called Blind Pigs needed music. And therefore musicians. A tonne of local labels, not just Motown, fed the beast too. New tastes and recording techniques killed the need for so much talent, leaving even noted geniuses like Dennis Coffey moving out, or trading down to assembling piss poor automatic transmissions for some of the worst cars ever made. Maybe it was a mercy the MC5 flamed out long before this gangrene set in.Formed in 1964 in the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, the MC5 gigged with more tirelessness and disregard for decency in venue than a tribe of tweaking hookers. Building up a rabid local following, this switched on crew mixed free jazz virtuosity with garage rock grease, before laying on a thick helping of R and B raunch and Blues power. And that's even before the acid was dropped in, too. As an opening act for overrated 60s blockbusters like Big Brother and the Holding Company, they blew away the headliners to such a degree that crowds demanded an encore from the MC5, not the big names on the bill. Embarassing.Between concerts, they snuck out a couple singles including the propulsive, proto-punky "Looking at You" before one of the most adventurous labels of the time, Elektra, took a punt on them. In a rare moment of major label artistic sensitivity, Elektra even realised that the MC5 were one of these ball lightning in a bottle, mercurial bands that were far more motivated, and impressive, in front of a live audience on a hot night. A couple of Halloween timed gigs in 1968 were cut down into the insane atomic slab of sound and rage that is "Kick out the Jams". When I first heard this LP I felt like my privates had been plugged into a bus battery. The hottest band of 1969 dropped one of the best rock records of all time.Then it all fucked up. As it usually does.The MC5 had an unfortunate hobby on the side, a habit more hateful to the output of great artists than all the chemical vices combined. Batshit bonkers radical far left but also kind of hard right "politics" and general wacktivism. It was tragic - as if Picasso gave up painting in favour of throwing flaming gobs of shit at traffic cops and schoolteachers, with a turkey's tail of of dirtweed pot flowers hanging out of his naked arse. Under a banner urging the Squares to "Mouth Rape Your Granny's Pig Face". It would be safe to say that the lifting of 50s curtain twitching hypocrisy and repression had led to a bit of an overreaction amongst rich white people. An instructive way to understand this is the scene in Gimme Shelter where a blingtard white hippie chick casually deploys obscene racial slurs about Black people in order to raise money for the legal defence of "radical" and no doubt cute Black dudes who were changing America for the better by looting and burning Black neighbourhoods.Elektra sort of tolerated this - and even let out the initial pressing of the LP complete with the command to "KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHERFUCKERS". Retailers refused to stock it, a censored version with "BROTHERS AND SISTERS" instead of the mofo thing was released in parallel, with a wink nudge say no more understanding that anyone who looked older than 12 could get the full fat version if they so desired.This was not enough for Brother John Sinclair. A remarkable, fun man who really was badly oppressed by the Man in a cannabis possession case so shifty and cruel the US Supreme Court threw it out as a political smear, John founded wacktivist groups ranging from The White Panthers to Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. These days he is man enough to admit all this was mostly about porking confused College girls. I love him now, but his need to profane the liner notes of the MC5's crucial debut with cosmically crap and juvenile insults and calls to bone random people in the street on PCP did the band permanent damage.As with many heavily hyped records, reviews were mixed to poor. Sales were worse. In an era starting to move to flower power proggy sitar sex this horrific blast of hot metal from Detroit, LIVE heat to boot, was not welcome. At all.So they were dropped, and fished out of the bin by an Atlantic looking for credible rock acts. In the meantime, the band had sobered up about and thus totally fallen out with Brother John Sinclair so were free from a lot of bad vibes and worse associations.For some unknown rationale, Atlantic paired up the MC5 with Rolling Stone hack and future unleasher of Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau. Jon may or may not have written the original lyrics to Louie, Louie. But he had a vision to strip back and shave rock to its pure, Black 1950s essence. Sadly, critics don't make great producers - or artists. Landau's heavy handed handling of the band grated, and the final LP had a lot less volume and bottom end than the MC5 wanted or deserved.And yet, and yet. It is a total fucking masterpiece.The harsh, minimal production. The emphasis on speed. The covers of Little Richard and Chuck Berry "oldies" to start and finish the experience. It was a total reversal, a negative even of the MC5's rocket raging debut and monstrous live sound. And therefore reveals the heart of the monster itself in all its terrible beauty.When I first got the CD of it, after I had sort of recovered from the mindrape of Kick Out the Jams, I was horrified. Where the fuck was the LOUD? Tutti FRUITY? And so like so many MC5 fans and lazy critics to this day, I only sort of dug Looking at You and Human Being Lawnmower. I even paid top dollar for a CD of rough early mixes that claimed to be the "real" album before the band was "totally stripped of it's power."How blasphemous. And how sad this childish notion that Live is the same as Studio, and that artists must do what we loved and expect or be shat on is one of the many reasons this stone cold slab of sexy sunk without trace until the lovely Rat sourced copy I now own hit my turntable.

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