You should listen to MC5, Detroit’s lost ’60s punk band

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 - 6:40pm

On one of those listless Christmas break days, when the wind is bitter but there isn’t any snow to make up for it, I decided to go to Third Man Records. I live about 15 minutes from downtown Detroit and was, at the time, the sweaty kind of “embarrassed” because I hadn’t yet visited Jack White’s hot new music shop (and soon-to-be record factory). So I went, a good month after its opening.

The place is loaded with vintage knick-knacks, guitar-heavy vinyl and other Nashville-punk impedimenta — so, yes, it reeks of White. But that’s a damn sexy smell to emit, if I should be so bold. A series of headphones and small screens popping out of the wall at the back of the shop drew me in like a weary sailor to a mermaid — what was there to listen to, to behold? Unreleased White Stripes stuff? More face-melting guitar solos? Clips of White eating his breakfast (I imagine he starts his day off right with cigarettes, whiskey and blues progressions), a la DJ Khaled? I intended to find out.

My father beat me to the punch and was taking off his headphones as I arrived at the last station.

“That was so cool,” the suburban gent that spawned me exclaimed.

I looked at his screen and saw a handful of scraggly-looking dudes in black and white, performing some explosive live outdoor concert in Detroit in, like, 1969. The lead singer was way too into it.

“Who the hell are they?” I squinted at the screen. “What is MC5?”

Dad was shocked to find out about my lack of musical knowledge. (Why is he still smarter than me? Is college working?) He explained how crucial the band was, how amazing, how crazy-long-lasting-influential their music was on the rock genre and especially the punk scene. Punk rockers. From Detroit. In the ’60s. Okay, I could wrap my head around that — but legends? I didn’t know. They must be good, I thought hesitantly, if White devoted a little corner wall and headphone set to their legacy in his slightly self-indulgent shop. There must be something there.

So, naturally, I put off listening to them for a few days. Part nervousness, part embarrassment, again — but if it wasn’t too late to go to Third Man Records, it wasn’t too late to start listening to MC5, alone, in my room, a few days before school started back up again. Cue: “Kick Out The Jams (Live)” and the beginning of a Spotify-driven, MC5 introductory shuffle session.  

“Kick Out” is the one they’re known for, and that’s completely as it should be because the song could demolish a building after one play, probably. Ramming guitars, white-knuckles-on-the-dashboard drums with melodious lines, it begins — ever-so-subtly — “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” Um, MC5, your punk is showing.

I was hooked. I am hooked. I can try to blame it on the voice — the late Rob Tyner’s pipes are both soulful and edgy, passionate and hard, crunchy with a little bit of chocolate syrup deftly drizzled into the mix. But then I can also blame it on the instrumentation — it’s tough to dispute the virtuosity, the raw emotion of Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith on the guitar. There wouldn’t be an MC5 without that six-stringed goodness. And then, of course, I could talk about the oft-overlooked backbones: Michael Davis’s intricate bass riffs, Dennis Thompson’s ramming drums. With any band, though, it’s the combination of all those elements that’s ultimately the culprit, the reason for excellence and listen-ability, and MC5 is no exception to that rule. They just worked.

But then, a song emerges from the rock ‘n’ roll fog and clangs at the elusive tuning-fork artery in your heart. A case like this is rare. And it makes you cry and smile and it lets you know that the band you’re listening to — MC5 — is anything but just another rock group from the ’60s. “Miss X” starts up easy, some thudding piano chords occupying its first few precious seconds, but then gun-gun-gun-gun-gun —“Oh, now, yeeeah!” It starts for real, oozing sex and angst and frustration at an exponential punk-rock rate. A tonally descending background singers mirror Tyner’s dilemma, his own descent into the body of the woman that makes him weak. He pushes and pushes, with “undulating hips,” until one final yawp to end all yawps ever yawped is yawped. It’s desperation; it’s love; it’s pain; it’s love. And damn it, isn’t that what all musicians have been banging on about, for all these years?

I don’t know when this affair will end. It’s not under cover of darkness, nor is it shameful. I’ve been telling everyone I’ve run into the past few weeks about my burning obsession, but no one seems to understand how badly I want to be Miss X.

***

Dad called me the other night, and I told him what this article was going to be about.

“Oh, so now you’re a fan?”

Well, I’d like to thank Jack White for introducing me to the backbone, the invisible inspiration behind so many bands that have existed post-MC5. And Detroit, for housing the shaggy-headed gang that birthed Kick Out The Jams (Live), Back in the USA, and High Time, three of the most important albums since ’69. Together, they’ve made the new semester a little less lost, a little less listless and a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.

So sonically speaking, I’m in love.