The story of the MC5’s 1968 album, Kick out the Jams, serves as the original cautionary tale about what happens when a group mixes radical politics with hard-driving rock and roll and major-label backing. The working class Detroit headbangers played loud and raw music during an era where peace and love reigned o’er the charts. The MC5 joined up with activist White Panther John Sinclair and called for revolution. The band’s posturing turned out to be their downfall, as audiences viewed it (somewhat correctly) as a publicity stunt more than an authentic, principled stance. The much-hyped album—the band was on the cover of Rolling Stone before the disc was even released—flopped badly in the marketplace. For years it was best known as the first record to be released in two versions, one with the swear word “motherfucker,” the other sanitized.
Since then the Motor City combo and the disc’s reputations have grown. The MC5 are considered the godfathers of punk. Groups like the Ramones and the Clash have admitted to be greatly influenced by the Detroit rockers, and as if to confirm the connection, punk priestess Patti Smith married former MC5 front man Fred “Sonic” Smith and gave up her musical career to be his wife. Since then Kick out the Jams has been re-released and remastered in a deluxe version for newer generations to enjoy. Jennifer Aniston wore an MC5 T-shirt on an episode of Friends and Justin Timberlake recently sported one on the cover of Vibe.
Former rock journalist and current associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, Don McLeese, does a good job of researching and telling the story of the MC5 and the group’s legendary live album. He doesn’t romanticize what happened or heap false praise on the quality of the music. The author doesn’t even consider the MC5’s best record. He says the follow-up disc,Back in the USA, was much more artistically satisfying. However, McLeese chose to write about Kick out the Jams because of what it revealed about the nexus of hard rock, radical politics, commercial hype, and our national life during that time period, and the record’s iconic status in rock lore.
The author keeps things honest by utilizing two strategies: he writes the narrative as a personal memoir and, as befits a teacher, he does his homework and checks out the facts. The book begins with McLeese’s memory of being an 18-year-old suburban Chicago youth headed for the 1968 Democratic National Convention because rumor had it that there might be some good rock to be found there. Maybe Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, or even the Beatles would show up for this pivotal moment in the nation’s history. Alas, the negative press that preceded the event may have scared off the musicians. No big names showed up, but the MC5 did and played so loud that their sheer force of energy scared many people. The hard-rocking Detroit boys’ aural assault changed the way McLeese perceived rock. He no longer merely appreciated the popular music of his time for the poetry of its lyrics or as a sunny soundtrack for good times. McLeese discovered the value of volume and the power of amplification, and he illustrates this by insightfully analyzing the significance of the group’s legendary record as noise.
In addition, McLeese also investigates the history of the band, its connections to the Detroit music scene and John Sinclair, how others perceived the group at the time (McLeese cites a lively, stream of consciousness account of MC5s’ 1968 performance in Chicago by Norman Mailer), and what followed for the group in a brief, 122 pages. In other words, he treats the story as a reporter and provides an accessible journalistic account of who, what, when, and where things happened. McLeese’s personal narrative supplies the why.
The author put his individual experience of the MC5 in the forefront so that one could understand the history of the group as well as the band’s effect on its audiences. On one level this is a morality tale of how the MC5 tried to exploit radical rock into record sales, and how the backlash crushed the band’s career. However, that’s only part of the story. It doesn’t end there. The Motor City proto-punks’ music went on to inspire countless others. Kick out the Jams may not have kicked up much dust when first issued, but this thin volume helps explain the fuss that followed.