The year was 1968 and America was on the brink of socio-political upheaval. Two of its brightest visionaries, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, had been assassinated; the war in Vietnam was proving tougher than anticipated with rising numbers of U.S. casualties; President Lyndon Johnson had opted not to run for re-election, thus opening the door for Richard Nixon; the Democratic National Convention turned riotous when the Chicago police implemented their own brand of community outreach. The youth of the nation were pissed off and disillusioned, and the establishment was growing more paranoid and oppressive. The climate was tense, angry, and volatile, and the government seemed ready to impose martial law at any moment. What better setting for the major label debut of music’s most incendiary band, the MC5, and what more appropriate album than the ferocious Kick out the Jams?
With the exception of the Who’s Live at Leeds, no live recording has captured the primal elements of rock more than the MC5’s inaugural effort. Gaze at the album cover adorned with its star spangled excess; read the revolutionary liner notes by White Panther Party guru John Sinclair; listen to the fiery opening rhetoric of spiritual advisor Brother J.C. Crawford; then buckle up and get ready for a mind blowing sensory assault, as the album presents the Five at their musical peak, headlining and uncensored at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom . . .
Kick out the Jams is eight songs, comprising 40 minutes that embody all that was the late 1960s: Rebellion, anarchy, psychedelia, sex, drugs, and of course aggressive rock ‘n’ roll . . . Side 1 opens with Crawford’s infamous “testimonial” rant, a rousing introduction that brings the faithful to their collective feet. Segueing into the set opener “Ramblin’ Rose”, the Five launch their first aural attack, exerting maximum effort with every note and drum beat. The tone has been set, and the band tears through the song with calculated abandon. As the crowd goes wild, the album’s title track is ready to be unleashed. Hang on tight as vocalist Rob Tyner yells, “It’s time to . . . KICK OUT THE JAMS MOTHERFUCKERS!” Kick ’em out indeed. The band’s musical calling card is evidence of the Five’s potency as a live act and its reputation for taking no prisoners.
What follows is a two-song salvo, the sonic brutality of which is unforgettable. “Come Together” is punctuated by Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith trading rapid fire guitar licks, while bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson battle each other for low end superiority. Not to be outdone, Rob Tyner remains center stage, working the crowd into a frenzy with his impassioned vocals. As powerful as this track is, the subsequent “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)” is the album’s shining moment. Tyner informs us that “it starts out with Brother Wayne Kramer . . .” and he’s not wrong. Kramer’s lead playing is flawless, as Smith dutifully follows, creating a whirlwind of howling feedback and crunching chords. Davis and Thompson are again unrelenting with their rhythmic foundation, and Tyner is thoroughly immersed in the moment. Kick out the Jams‘ first side is as exhilarating as it is exhausting.
The album’s remaining four songs present an intriguing contrast as they serve as an exploration into the Five’s more diverse musical influences and interests. “Borderline” continues with Side 1’s torrid pace, but displays the band’s dexterity in melding scorching instrumentals with Tyner’s soulful vocals. While not as bludgeoning as “Come Together” or “Rama Lama”, it is nonetheless a vigorous performance.
“Motor City Is Burning” is the album’s greatest deviation as it serves as a genuine period piece, highlighting the discontent of the times. Tyner’s words exude anger and frustration as he takes listeners on a guided tour of enraged Detroit. Rioting had gone on in numerous major cities nation wide during ’67 and ’68 and the song’s smoldering blues provides a perfect backdrop for the ever-present social unrest.
Continuing in low gear, the Five launch into “I Want You Right Now”, a heavy grind soaked in sex drenched overtones. Tyner brings the audience to fevered pitch with his imploringly aching vocals, then lulls them into a false sense of security as the band completely shuts down. On Tyner’s shrieking cue, everything explodes at once, culminating in a massive climax of energy between group and audience.
The album’s final track, “Starship”, is a spectacular kaleidoscopic head trip, underscored by its cosmic lyrics and instrumental freak out. The song is somewhat incongruent with the rest of the album, but it is an appropriate reminder of what the MC5 and many of their contemporaries were all about: expansion of the mind through the power of music. While the track may not be as noteworthy as the others, it is no less potent and must have been something to experience first hand.
For my money, Kick out the Jams is one of the greatest records ever pressed. It is a magnificent time portal into the past, a fleeting glimpse of a band that actually had the balls to walk it like they talked it. No pretension, no bullshit, just flat out high octane rock music. It is one of those rare albums that captured the essence of a moment; a set of songs meant to be played loud and proud. The MC5 showed us all how to kick ’em out, all right.
One of my favorites? You know it . . .