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Mo' Town Sound

Bootleg anthology testifies to MC5

By Karl Byrn

The history of hard rock has mistakenly failed to afford the MC5 the same reverence that's heaped on their brethren in Detroit's late '60s rock scene, the Stooges. The Spin Alternative Record Guide correctly lists the MC5 in a trio of protopunk fountainheads with the Stooges and the Velvet Underground, but it dismisses them as the so-called marginal third. Martin Popoff's exhaustive guide 20th Century Rock and Roll: Heavy Metal correctly notes that the MC5 and the Stooges are the start of metal in America, but then only includes the Stooges in a list of its top 50 most influential heavy bands.

The Stooges did have a nihilism that has fed a certain hip aesthetic of dissolution in punk and metal, and singer Iggy Pop's status as a surviving rock icon does merit some godfatherly awe. This almost makes the MC5 underdogs; they preached activism and idealism. Today, singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith are both in rock 'n' roll heaven, leaving guitarist Wayne Kramer as the only functional original member of the once inflammatory Motor City Five.

With the increased presence of political energy in rock music, history may be ready for a second look at the MC5. They were clearly better musicians and songwriters than the Stooges, but moreover, where Iggy's band offered boredom and destruction, the MC5 had a game plan that included revolution and success as an important rock band. The timing is right for the release of Are You Ready to Testify? The Live Bootleg Anthology (Sanctuary Records), a three-disc set (priced like a single disc) that captures the best of the Detroit punk-metal pioneers at three key shows during their explosive and inspiring career.

If Iggy and the Stooges articulated an inevitable schism that rejected hippie idealism, the MC5 embraced idealism but rejected complacency and tyranny, channeling a desperate gasp of antiestablishment fury meant to finally rally the freaks. A notable part of their story includes association with Detroit's radical poet-Svengali John Sinclair and the White Panther Party.

Apart from aligning themselves with radical ideology, the MC5 weren't really hippies, but rather a classic rock band at heart. Early efforts found the band amping up the tough R&B guitar energy of the British Invasion. With nods to both Chuck Berry and Little Richard, as well as the abstractions of free jazz, the band forged a loud and fast high-energy sound that pushed rock's sonic envelope way ahead of contemporary psychedelic bands. Their sound wasn't about the West Coast's Summer of Love but, rather, the riotous Midwest Summer of '68, replete with chaos, urgency, blues, good times and social unrest exploding into a frenzy of screaming, riff-heavy rock.

Are You Ready to Testify? is a decent slice of the MC5's power in spite of the bootleg-at-best sound quality. The notes tell their familiar story with a few twists (such as Kramer relating that the band strove to play, write and perform with the same dynamic skill of the Motown session players and writers who worked a few blocks away). But this bootleg collection isn't the place to start if you don't already know the material.

Disc one is more or less the same set as their incendiary 1968 live debut Kick Out the Jams, taken from the show at which they were supposedly first seen by Elektra talent scouts. Disc two is more or less a live 1970 set of their second (and first studio) album Back in the USA. Disc three hosts other crucial live cuts from this era, such as their cover of Ray Charles' "I Believe to My Soul" and the noise-epic "Black to Comm."

The place to start, of course, is with the classics: Kick Out the Jams and Back in the USA themselves. The live debut is the deep legacy, a fireball that has scorched over the sound of the Sex Pistols and the polemics of Rage Against the Machine, and has found its current home in the sheer distortion of Wolf Eyes. On their second album, Back in the USA, the band pursued the tight power-pop sound of hyper teen anthems, basically presaging the Ramones. That leaves their third, final and most developed disc, High Time, which Are You Ready to Testify? doesn't represent at all. It's my favorite of the three original releases, on which they pursue boogie and community, laying the groundwork for AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd. High Time isn't a punk-metal standard, but it's a loud and living testament to the MC5's influential substance.

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From the May 25-31, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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