Thursday, February 14, 2008

Motor City Is Burning

Berry Gordy and his Motown Records put Michigan's major city on the musical map (literally, if you look at the old record labels), and hits by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Supremes still are frequently heard four-plus decades later.

Giving Motown some competition for a time was Detroit's rock 'n' roll scene of the late '60s, a sonic breeding ground that planted many of the roots for what later became known as heavy metal: the ear-shattering sounds of the Stooges, punctuated by the self-destructive tendencies of the man eventually called Iggy Pop; Grand Funk Railroad, from nearby Flint, which became the second band after the Beatles to sell out Shea Stadium; the Bob Seger System, which featured a no-holds-barred approach before the leader ended up on Chevy commercials; and the original Alice Cooper Group, which found its formula after relocating from the hippie ethos of Southern California.

At the top of the hard-rock pyramid was the Motor City Five, or as their fans knew them, the MC5. Featuring a deafening twin-lead-guitar attack, give-his-all lead vocalist and earthquake inducing rhythm section, the MC5 melded its musical persona with a political agenda that stopped at nothing short of social revolution: the band's motto, in so many words, was rock, dope and @%&ing in the streets!

Give Elektra Records credit for recognizing the value of capturing the MC5's stage show, as the tape recorders for the band's debut album, "Kick Out the Jams," ran during a show at its home base, Detroit's Grande Ballroom. The end product certainly was a departure from flower power, and a decade later the heavier bands still were trying to catch up with the intensity captured in the record's grooves.

Elektra had only so much patience, though. The intro to the album's title track contained the line "kick out the jams, mother------s!" And in 1969, mainstream America wasn't quite ready for a public utterance like that. Many of the stores that sold records weren't, including the Detroit-based department store chain Hudson's.

When Hudson's refused to stock "Kick Out the Jams," the band retaliated by taking out an ad in the Freep (Detroit Free Press) that encouraged fans to "Stay alive with the MC5 -- and @%& Hudson's!"

The suits at the department store threatened to carry none of Elektra's product if the MC5 remained on the label. And money, of course, talks.

The band had the opportunity to make two more albums for Atlantic Records, "Back in the USA" and "High Time," but neither lit the sales world on fire, and the MC5 called it quits after touring Europe in early 1972.

In the meantime, the band gained almost mythological status as being among the forefathers of both metal and what evolved into punk rock. The reverence for the Five has not diminished in the digital era; numerous concert recordings from the band's heyday have been committed to compact disc, sound quality notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, only three of the Five are with us today. Singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith (longtime husband of fellow musician Patti Smith) died in the '90s. The three survivors -- guitarist Wayne Kramer, bass player Michael Davis and drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson -- have toured together as DKT as recently as 2006.

The sounds of the '60s weren't all flowers and sunshine, incense and peppermints. Listen to the MC5 for proof.

BTW: I thought I was imagining this, but I looked it up. Jennifer Aniston, indeed, wore an MC5 T-shirt on "Friends." Why didn't she wear it on the cover of one of those millions of magazines in the supermarket checkout line that have her on the cover??

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