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Detroit’s MC5 are often labeled as precursors to the punk movement, but this is merely a superficial observation. They had a raw, thrashy sound to be sure, but this was also a band on a mission. They began, like many groups of the era, playing music for listeners to dance to. But they quickly established their own identity. Instead of “peace and love,” the MC5, in conjunction with activist John Sinclair, embraced radical left-wing politics in the late 1960s and were much more likely to espouse “Burn Baby Burn.” This and other such inflammatory rhetoric directly reflected the turmoil they were living through in Detroit. To understand where the MC5 were coming from, one must put their music in this context.
Detroit was an extremely volatile city in 1968, when the MC5 recorded their debut album. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4 of that year, Detroit’s police, fearing an escalation of riots in the streets, established a “protective curfew” in the city after dark. For the MC5, Sinclair and their collective, this essentially destroyed their ability to work, since their income was derived from concerts and related events that primarily took place at night. They were also regularly harassed by police, forcing them to relocate to Ann Arbor in May of 1968. It was in this highly charged climate that the MC5’s music was created.
The initial spark for the band was between guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith. As rebellious teenagers, they embraced music with speed, volume, and plenty of attitude. They were both fans of R&B, blues, and guitar-oriented rock ‘n’ roll like Chuck Berry and The Ventures, but they were also compelled by the free jazz of John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. By the time MC5 recorded their first album in 1968 at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, they had begun incorporating the squealing, abrasive sounds of free jazz. The left-wing politics of the band’s lyrics and these diverse musical elements combined to create the MC5’s explosive sound and politically provocative performances. They quickly earned a reputation for their high-energy concerts and began drawing local audiences of 1,000 or more.
On Oct. 30, 1968, the MC5 performed at their home base in the Grande Ballroom in one of a series of shows that would make up the music on their 1969 debut album, Kick Out The Jams. The autobiographical “Motor City Is Burning” is arguably more ferocious than the take ultimately used on the album. Essentially a raw blues-based number, it features Kramer and Smith seriously cranking it out over the deep undulations of bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson.
Listen to “Motor City Is Burning” below, and check out the rest of the concert in the Paste Vault.