It’s fitting that the new retrospective/greatest hits compilation of the MC5 is coming out at the same time as the movie The Filth and the Fury. That movie is a bio of the Sex Pistols, the British band held by many to be responsible for the birth of punk music and all that followed. The Big Bang! Best of the MC5 (Rhino) shows that the beginnings of punk were happening way before the Pistols ever put a safety pin on.
In the late 1960s, while most of the rock ‘n’ roll world was celebrating peace and love, there was a handful of bands that were laying the foundation for the punk explosion of the late 1970s. One was the Velvet Underground. Sure, the group was more of an art-rock group (it even had Andy Warhol as a manager). But its combination of noise-melody and Lou Reed’s dark lyrics on drugs, nightlife, bondage and transsexuals would help set the tone of many of punk’s artier songs. In Detroit, the capital of industrial, blighted America, there were the Stooges. Fronted by Iggy Pop, the band was four guys who could barely play, but its shambling, chaotic rock and Iggy’s demonic on-stage persona showed how violent and dangerous rock ‘n’ roll could be. These two groups get the most attention, but also out of Detroit was the MC5. This album shows how the MC5’s garage rock ethos and lyrics that addressed both politics and all the frustrations of being a teenager put the MC5 firmly in this holy-trinity of early punk rock.
The album opens with a handful of early singles the band recorded in 1967 and 1968. Yeah, the sound is awful. But coming through is an unmistakable energy. While the rest of the music scene was drifting along in the hippie-filled West Coast, this was a band that could barely play, but out of that came a driving energy and force that made you take notice.
The next set of songs comes from the band’s debut Kick Out the Jams. For most bands, a live album is just a cash cow until you get ideas to go into the studio. For the MC5, having its debut as a live album was perfect. It’s an explosion of riffs and pounding drums, not the bloatedness of heavy metal groups such as Black Sabbath – this is rock as it was meant to be. Fast, powerful, energetic, explosive. Included here is the band’s high point, the live uncensored version of Kick Out the Jams. Vocalist Rob Tyner screams out Kick out the jams motherfuckers!!! before the band rips into the music. Back in 1968, this got the band censored and the album removed from many stores. Even today, it still wouldn’t get played on the air.
Other songs such as Come Together and Rocket Reducer No. 62 blast their way out of your stereo. No clean producer shine, no overdubs or multi-tracking. Just a handful of guys sounding like at any minute they’re all going to fly off the stage. Vocals screamed, driving guitar, feedback, noise, crashes – pure rock ‘n’ roll.
No band could keep up that kind of pace forever, and the MC5’s next album Back in the U.S.A., is slightly tamer than it’s predecessor. Here the band went into the studio, so the songs are cleaner and crisper. That doesn’t mean they are bad, they just pale in comparison to the tracks from Kick Out The Jams. The Big Bang! draws more from Back In The U.S.A. than from Kick Out The Jams.
While the sound may be crisper and cleaner, it’s the songs from Back In The USA that show the major debt punk owes to the MC5 for its lyrics. Tonight is about getting ready to go out on a weekend night, escaping the boredom of the week. Teenage Lust puts the sex back in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and is a great antidote to all the free love crap that was being tossed about at the time. Rock, like teenage lust, should be dirty. It’s the fun of it. High School again is about the boredom and frustration of being young. American Ruse, with it’s dopey surf-guitar riffs is a great blast on American culture: They told you in school about freedom/When you’re trying to be free they never let you/They say it’s easy, nothin’ to it/And now the army’s out to get ya.
The last part of The Big Bang! is tracks from the MC5’s last album, High Life. These songs lack the fire or drive of the stuff from the first two and by now the MC5 is a good, if not great, hard rock band. This album would be the band’s last. Like the Stooges and the Velvets, personality problems and, the great rock ‘n’ roll band killer, drugs would cause the band to fall apart.
Still, in the course of a few short albums, the MC5 painted a rock picture that was in direct opposition to what was going on at the time. Instead of the bloatedness of many 70s rock groups and the hippie stuff of the late 1960s, the MC5 exploded on stage and out of your speakers. It’s dumb rock – perfect for headbanging, getting ready to go out and cruising the streets looking for kicks. While the band did not receive the notice it deserved at the time, The Big Bang! proves that a lot of other people and bands were listening and waiting.