Kramer vs. Kramer

MC5 founder Wayne Kramer constantly competes with his revolutionary past and can still kick out the jams

"Against our wishes," Kramer points out. "I have no way of knowing [how many copies escaped with the mother-enabling word]. If there are 100,000 out there, they choked real quick, once the record sellers started to get arrested for selling the record."

Even after Elektra washed the MC5's collective mouth out with soft soap, Hudson's, one of Detroit's largest retailers, still refused to stock the Kick Out the Jams album. This galvanized the band into taking out a "Fuck Hudson's" ad, and putting Elektra's logo at the bottom without the label's permission. And then these hooligans sent Elektra the bill for the ad! That's balls-a-rama. Makes you wonder why folks lionized Jim Morrison for allegedly pulling out his dick onstage, when his Elektra labelmates in the MC5 were constantly laying their dicks on the line and having them run over.

Of course, that little ploy got the band dropped from Elektra. By then, the band was already having serious quality-control concerns. Elektra acquiesced to the band's wishes that its first album be recorded live, but reneged on a promise that it could be rerecorded if the performance was not to the band's satisfaction.

"No one in the band approved the record," Kramer says. "It's too raggedy. We were too intimidated by the fact of 'This is it, we're making our record, it's live tonight! Play it right!' The MC5 was a band that could rise to cosmic heights on a good night but the band was also inconsistent. On a bad night we could be pretty fucking annoying, and I didn't think that was a good enough night to put on a record. And Elektra took the tapes back to New York and put it out anyway.

"In the end, what they did let us do, they changed anyway. They took John Sinclair's liner notes off the record. John had a great Chairman Mao-for-the-hippies message there. He was appropriately incendiary."

In one of rock's more painfully obvious splices, Elektra substituted the fabled "motherfucker" with "brothers and sisters" from another part of the record. Even this co-option didn't result in any additional airplay. Neither did the recording quality, which often sounds as if someone is sharpening a pencil in your ear. The live mistakes also left some to question the band's musicianship.

"We had been criticized for not being able to play our instruments, and we knew that beyond all the hype, we were a great rock band. We could tear the place up. Jon Landau fit into our quest to make the perfect rock record."

With the band's figurehead Sinclair in prison, rock critic (and future Bruce Springsteen manager) Jon Landau entered the picture and got the band signed to Atlantic.

Landau saw his rock 'n' roll future and imposed it on a shaken MC5 for Back in the USA. As he would do with Bruce, Landau streamlined all the excesses. Gone was any White Panther rhetoric, gone were Brother J.C. Crawford's James Brown-inspired revolutionary raps at the MC5 live gigs, gone were any recorded instrumental breaks longer than 15 seconds, and forget any tips of the hat to Sun Ra. So long, Ra; hello, rah rah rah sis boom bah!

With songs like "Teenage Lust" and "High School" filling out Back in the USA, the MC5 may as well have taken out a "Fuck you" ad for all its old fans. Few could comprehend coming on like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels three years too late, or like a better version of The Flamin' Groovies six years too early. Even mini-manifestoes like "The American Ruse" and "The Human Being Lawnmower" (which invents punk within 2:22 minutes of nihilistic fervor) were received with distrust when surrounded with "Tutti Frutti" and Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA." Not to mention originals complete with "rah rah rah sis boom bahs!"

Perhaps producer/dictator Landau studied Chuck Berry records too carefully, because he mixed the record with less bass presence than most air conditioners give out. Whether this influenced the Stooges' Raw Power is anyone's guess. Today it's revered as a punk-rock milestone that clocks in under 28 minutes, a welcome plea for brevity in a music scene being killed by 20-minute drum solos.

"There are the pundits now that say this one was better than that one at this point, it's so long ago," Kramer says. "I'm proud of all three records. High Time is my personal favorite. It's the one where we had learned enough about how to work in a recording studio to be true to the spirit of the band and still be creative and make records. High Time pointed the direction to the future for a band that had no future."

Imagine the Live at Leeds-era Who, playing at their speed-gulping Mod-era best, then graft on the twin lead-guitar attack of Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith, the kind of interplay the Stones and the Yardbirds had for a short while, but never could maintain. Then you have Rob Tyner's incomparable vocals, always singing at the top of his range and making similarly timbred Roger Daltrey sound like he's faking an orgasm.

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