Written by Eric Sperrazza
The Motor City Five may very well be one of the most important bands in rock and roll history. They have been an influencer to everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Ramones, The Cult, and even Rage Against The Machine. Although teased as a nominee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame a whopping six times, to no avail, real music historians know that a proverbial tip of the hat from a small handful of glorified museum curators is not necessary. The sheer impact the MC5 had and still has, on our world, is proof enough that they will echo into eternity.
Out of Lincoln Park, Michigan in 1963, the MC5 emerged with vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson. Immediately, the band adhered to a counter-culture movement with political undertones and anti-establishment lyrics challenging the system and even supporting the Black Panther Party; all at the forefront of their “back-to-basics” garage rock sound. The band also played mentor to a new up-and-coming Detroit band, The Stooges. But the 1969 album Kick Out the Jams, recorded live in October of 1968, at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, thrust the MC5 into the history books.
With one opening line, “It’s time to…KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!” The band gave record stores and radio stations all the fuel they needed to legitimately blackball the band. But, what fans saw was this raw, politically relevant, and foul-mouthed record being censored by “The Man” and thus made it even more desirable of a find!
By 1972, the MC5 had broken up and gone their separate ways. But had sent The Stooges to assail to continue on blazing trails and inspired a group of rag-tag misfits from Queens, New York – The Ramones. With that, the punk movement began to take its roots. Today, Iggy Pop, Marky Ramone, and many others genuflect at the feet of the MC5 as the forefathers of punk rock; a genre still romancing music fans and exacting rebel music onto the world, to this very day.
Recently, Kramer announced that in 2022 he was hitting the road under a project called We Are All The MC5 with a new album firmly on the horizon. Joining b on the road is singer Brad Brooks, guitarist Stevie Salas, bassist Vicki Randle, and drummer Winston Watson.
The project recently stopped at Underground Arts in Philadelphia last month and I had to go and be in the presence of musical greatness to see if that paradigm-breaking guttural sound still fuels those to raise a fist in the air and brave a path unknown.
It was my first time at the Underground Arts and just let me say that there is no better venue to witness counter-culture music take place! Underground Arts is a basement venue decorated with murals that light up with backlights, as you meander through the dark layer of the land. The space still has a punk rock, speakeasy vibe that gives you the impression you are in an exclusive club of music fans.
The show opened with a set from Philadelphia’s all-female rock band, Vixen77. The five-piece offered a lot to unpack. First, I can safely say that these five ladies had more talent in their pinkies than most bands on the road today. With shades of The Runaways, The Slits, L7, and more, their performance was a venerable thrash-fest with the electricity turned up to 11. Every single member of Vixen77 owned that stage like a goddamn lioness claiming her territory and the crowd was there for every second of it. For a moment in time, I thought I was at CBGB in The Bowery, one last time, having my face melted off by the sheer power of a band. Expect to see more of them in the future and you can absolutely expect to see more of them from me.
Next up were Kramer and the MC5. The set kicked off with “Ramblin’ Rose” and vocalist Brad Brooks left nothing to question. He emanated rock royalty, both owning and humbling himself to the gravitas of the vibe of the MC5, simultaneously.
For a stunning 90 minutes, Kramer tore apart his guitar through hits like “Come Together,” “Call Me Animal,” and, “Kick Out the Jams.” As Brooks went corner to corner on the stage and even dove into the crowd, Kramer played on with the fervor of an elated young musician getting his first showcase. At 74 years of age, he outworked musicians young enough to be his grandchildren, ever the essence of rock.
The show encored and closed with “The American Ruse” and “Sister Anne,” putting a period at the end of a sweltering night below the Philadelphia streets, where the tenets of society were still challenged through the majesty of three chords and the truth.
Before the MC5 left the stage, Kramer walked up to me and handed me his guitar pick. On the way home, I thought of a million different ways to frame and immortalize this special piece of rock history that I had been blessed with. But, as I opened the door of my home, my oldest daughter was there waiting for me. My oldest embraced all of my punk music and shared in the spirit of going against the grain with me. My child has been at Blondie shows, and Vans Warped Tours and has been with me while interviewing the next generation of punk rock artists. At that moment, I realized that my revolution is over. I am a middle-aged working stiff. My midlife crisis and Peter Pan complex may differ but the truth is I am the establishment, now. I am the “grown-up” in the room. It’s her generation’s turn to challenge the norms and pushback at antiquated ways of thinking. And so I opened her hand and I put Wayne Kramer’s pick in the center of it and then sent her to bed.
That is the spirit of punk rock. That is the legacy of the MC5. Go forth and break paradigms. That was the message I brought home from the Underground Arts. That is something that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will never get and, quite frankly, I hope those squares never do. This installment is dedicated to Ariana. Never lose the “riot” in you, Grrrl. That is how you change the world.
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