The MC5 are considered one of the most important bands to influence the punk rock movement of the late 1970’s. Their music has been retroactively labelled as proto-punk. The band was highly political and openly supported the Black Panther Party. Their manager was the famous activist and poet John Sinclair. Their fame peaked in 1969 with the release of their controversial live album Kick Out the Jams, recorded in 1968 at the Detroit Grande Ballroom. They recorded two more studio albums, 1970’s Back in The USA, and High Times in 1971. Neither album performed well on the charts but they proved highly influential on future bands. Their poor record sales combined with the member’s various drug and legal problems signaled the end of the band in 1972.
# 10 – Motor City Is Burning
This is an extended cover of the blues song by John Lee Hooker. The MC5’s version is much longer, heavier and more experimental than John Lee Hooker’s. The lyrics are highly political. The MC5 openly voice their support of The Black Panther Party in “Motor City Is Burning.” The song “Motor City is Burning” referenced the violent race riots that had occured in Detroit. The lyrics criticize the government while supporting the actions of the rioters.
# 9 – Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)
This song appeared on the MC5’s third album High Times. “Skunk “(Sonicly Speaking)” was written by Fred “Sonic” Smith. The introduction features an extended high speed drum solo performed by “Machine Gun” Thompson. Soon the bass, guitar, and vocals follow. Unlike their previous albums, High Times features multiple brass instruments throughout the record.
# 8 – Tonight
From their second album Back in the USA, “Tonight” is a straightforward, high energy rock and roll song. It was composed by the entire group. It was produced by John Landau. The lyrics are openly sexually in nature. “Tonight” is only two and a half minutes long but it packs a lot of energy into a short time frame. This would prove a major influence on the punk bands that came less than a decade after.
# 7 – Starship
Written by the MC5 and using some of Sun Ra’s poetry “Starship” is the final track on their debut album Kick Out the Jams. At over eight minutes it is the longest track on the record. Beginning with a surging noise the song coalesces into a hard rock tune with heavy riffs and wild, noisy lead guitar.
The second part is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd as the song slows down into an intense psychedelic soundscape. Eventually, “Starship” slowly begins to pick up again as random guitar and drum noises turn into a cohesive and abrasive beat. “Starship” stops suddenly and Tyner recites spoken word as Smith and Kramer create atmospheric effects with their guitars. “Starship” follows this pattern of heavy noise rock and slow psychedelia several times before the band finishes to loud applause.
# 6 – I Can Only Give You Everything
Based around a catchy guitar riff, “I Can Only Give You Everything” was an early single by the MC5. It was eventually released in 2000 on the compilation album The Big Bang!: Best of The MC5. With an edgy garage rock feel and proto-punk speed “I Can Only Give You Everything” had all of the elements that would come together to make the MC5 one of the most influential rock and roll bands of the 20th century.
# 5 – Shakin’ Street
Unlike most of their songs “Shakin’ Street” has an upbeat, catchy pop melody to it. “Shakin Street” was released on their second album Back in the USA. The record Back in the USA was the first MC5 album to be recorded in a studio. “Shakin’ Street” utilizes a softer approach than Kick Out the Jams, with acoustic guitars and a more mellow sound. Despite the change of style the song still contains MC5’s explosive energy. The lyrics are about a street where people go to be free from the constraints of American society. In place of Rob Tyner, Fred “Sonic” Smith sings the lead vocals on “Shakin Street.”
# 4 – Sister Anne
Composed by Fred “Sonic” Smith. It was released on the band’s third album, 1971’s High Time. “Sister Anne,” was a hard, fast rock n’ roll song. The lyrics reference sexuality. It features fast-tempo drums, rhythm guitar riffs and explosive solos by Smith. It was recorded in a studio unlike their previous live album Kick Out the Jams. This gave “Sister Anne” a slightly more polished sound. It was produced by Geoffrey Haslam of Atlantic records. The simple chorus has a catchy, pop quality that contrasts with the furious rock and roll energy of the MC5.
# 3 – Ramblin’ Rose
Written by Fred Burch and Marijohn Wilkin and made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis. “Ramblin’ Rose” kicks off the first MC5 album Kick Out the Jams. It is sung by Wayne Kramer the rhythm guitar player, instead of lead singer Rob Tyner. Kramer sings the vocals to “Ramblin’ Rose” in a falsetto. The MC5 version of “Ramblin’ Rose” is fueled with high energy and a rougher edge than the original. The whole group does backing vocals on the choruses.
# 2 – The American Ruse
Another tune from their second album, Back in the USA. “The American Ruse” is one of the band’s most political songs. The lyrics mention police brutality, conscription, the military and the general decline in order since the so-called Summer of Love in 1967. Tyner calls America a “ruse” and urges listeners to “take a look around.”
# 1 – Kick Out The Jams
The name of the first MC5 album Kick Out the Jams came from this controversial track. It was recorded live along with the rest of the album. It is infamous for Rob Tyner saying “It’s time to kick out the jams motherf***ers!” at the start of the album’s eponymous track. This caused a great deal of controversy around the band.
The song itself bristles with energy including a lightning fast beat from “Machine Gun” Thompson and loud, distorted guitar riffs. Halfway though the song Tyner yells “welcome back Sonic!” at which point the guitarist unleashes a brutal and vicious guitar solo. “Kick Out the Jams” has influenced dozens of bands. It has been covered by Rage Against the Machine amongst other notable groups.
Updated September 23, 2022
Top 10 MC5 Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2019
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