Initially punk was unique in its Britishness. Yeah I know Richard Hell of Television wore ripped clothes and the Ramones wore leather jackets and New York had developed an urban attitude well before Strummer and Jones had started to write about the Westway. All those things mattered in an intellectual rather than a visceral sense. It might seem ungrateful for the Clash to sing ‘I’m so bored with the USA’ but for a while we were. The USA meant the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, Grease, Happy Days, perfect teeth and beautiful tanned people. We had been sold the image of America as the land of plenty and we were sick of it just like we were sick of just about everything that had gone before.
On a musical level punk didn’t just appear out of the ether but, irony of ironies, it was not greatly influenced by British bands or at least no one was admitting it. So Mick Jones loved Mott The Hoople and Steve Jones might admit an affection for The Faces and everyone admired Bowie (pre white soul period at least) but none of the new movement were queuing up to praise the British Bands.
There was a reason for this which I have touched on before and that was the fact that the great British Rock bands were now becoming part of the problem. The Who, The Stones, Led Zep had a proved they had feet of clay by producing stuff that wasn’t very good, not only were they becoming flaccid and uninspired they were now charging us a fortune for being part of their audience. British bands had the misfortune of being both inaccessible and overly familiar they had, in popular parlance done ‘a shit on their own doorstep’.
Clearly like all musician’s the punks had to have some influences so instead of citing The Pretty Things or The Stones or even Slade the bands that were on the tips of everyone’s tongues when it came to seminal influences were from the hated USA. These were bands that were relatively obscure and had slit up but they had never let us down in the same way as the Stones were at the moment and never would because they had ceased to exist.
How anyone got to actually hear these bands was a mystery, there was a faint chance Peel would play them but for a long while he tended to avoid the heavier acts for the likes of Brigit St John and Ivor Cutler. The only other radio hope was Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman (the man who told Johnny Rotten to ‘shut up on TV) who played rock (with a capital R) on Saturday afternoons. Fluff was likely to play you Bachman Turner Overdrive, Peter Frampton or Rush and like most of the elder statesmen of the airways was wrong footed by punk.
The only chance I would have if was to hear these legendary bands would be if I was to buy a record by them, this was a significant financial investment so they had better be good.
Charles Shaar Murray of the NME had been raving about ‘The Five’ since the early 70’s possibly due to the fact that singer Rob Tyler like Murray and just about no body else had cultivated a white boy afro. Former manager John Sinclair had been writing his memoirs in Zig Zag magazine and I was intrigued. The MC5 were renowned for their incendiary live show and souped up no holds barred rock and roll. They had a reputation for blowing bigger names off the bill in their home town of Detroit, hence their anthem ‘Kick out the Jams’ in which the word ‘Motherfuckers’ had been replaced by a clumsy edit of ‘brothers and sisters’.
Well they sounded like they should be great and I had to hear them. Their first album was recorded live and contained the legendary ‘kick out the jams’, the second ‘Back in the USA’ was tight and punchy but rather brief and their final record ‘High Times’ was regarded as their weakest. Fate dealt me a lucky hand when the shop next to Robin’s Records,my record shop f choice, caught fire and Robin’s Records were able to sell their entire stock half price as fire damaged. I pushed the boat out and bought 4 records at the same time. And so I got to hear ‘Kick out the jams’, I had considered ‘Back in the USA’ but it only had a playing time of just over 30 minutes and I wanted quantity as well as quality.
The first track as soon as needle hit the groove was a complete shock, in fact I had to check that I was playing it at the right speed so awful did it sound to my untutored years. Little was I to know that the first track, ‘Rambling Rose’ is sung in guitarist’s Wayne Kramer faltering falsetto which personally I wouldn’t consider the best way to start a gig if you want to impress.
This is a great performance though
Anyway the album progressed with sludgy rock blending into attempts at freeform jazz. I wasn’t that impressed myself.
Of course over the years I have listened to their other records through the miracle of Spotify and there are a few clips of them on You Tube. Visually they are a stunning live act and Wayne Kramer is a particular charismatic performer. In the studio they can whip up a storm when the material is strong enough and they are altogether a mightier band today in retrospect than I considered they were 40 years ago.
By the time a got to hear the MC5 ‘Kick out the Jams’ was almost 10 years old and the band was long dead. And that another reason that it was cool to like them, they weren’t going to record a ‘Black and Blue’ and let you down. The band had in fact become victims to very problematic drug use which had been eating away at their creativity. Bassist Michael Davies had been kicked out of the band only to meet up with Wayne Kramer in prison years later. The heroes of Detroit had disbanded after a new year’s eve gig at the end of 72 which was only attended by a handful of supporters.
But being British we love a plucky looser and we preferred to champion the underdog rather than admit to liking some British dinosaur. And so in 76 and 77 it was pretty cool to namedrop the MC5.
It does rather beg the question though, were is the MC5 influence in British punk? The rhythm section had a certain frantic vibe to it but Wayne Kramer was a far more skilled player than most British musicians and the guitar solo was still regarded with a fair degree of suspicion in 1977.
Possibly the Dammed came closest and covered the MC5’s classic track ‘Looking at You’ on their ‘Machine Gun Etiquette ‘ at which point they were moving away from classic punk anyway.
Here’s the original
More than most bands of their time the MC5 were mortal. The relatively clean living Rob Tyler was the first to die of a heart attack in 1991. Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith who had settled down to domestic life with Patti Smith followed him in 1994 and Davis died of liver failure in 2012. Prior to this the band had managed the inevitable reformation minus two of its members and of course were far more in demand than they were first time round.
So here’s Wayne Kramer still doing his thing,low on hair, high on talent.