MC5: Kick out the Jams

Adam Williams


Kick out the Jams

Label: Elektra
UK Release Date: 1969-12-31

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.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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