Tuesday, June 21, 2011

June 21: MC5, "Kick Out The Jams"

Artist: MC5
Song: "Kick Out The Jams"
Album: Kick Out The Jams
Year: 1969

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Certain moments in music history simply defy all attempt to properly put them into context.  Whether they are good or bad moments, they almost always served dual duties; both defining an exact moment in history, as well as having a massive influence for years to come.  While such incidents can be found throughout the history of recorded music, a large concentration of pivotal moments happened during the short period of time from 1968 to 1972.  Perhaps due to the massive changes in society as a whole, as well as the complete shift from "singles based" artists to full length albums, many still cite this time frame as the most important and exciting in the entire history of music.  Though it is perhaps best known for the emergence of the psychedelic movement, it was the few bands that stood in defiance to the entire counter-culture that were just as important in the development of new music, and hardly any other bands were as essential in this as Detroit, Michigan's MC5.  Taking the slowly rising hard rock sound and turning up both the volume and attitude, along with fellow Detroit natives, The Stooges, it is in these bands where one can find the most vital building blocks of what would become punk rock nearly a decade later.  Pushing music forward right out of the gate, few songs in history hold as pivotal or absolutely unmistakable spot as one finds within the title track to The MC5's 1969 debut album, Kick Out The Jams.

Following the songs' iconic and controversial introduction, the band wastes absolutely no time in setting the tone for "Kick Out The Jams," as they jump in at full speed and energy.  The guitar riff from Wayne Kramer remains today one of the most memorable ever recorded, and one can find variations on it throughout much of the history of the early punk scene.  There is an attitude and urgency within his playing that makes the song impossible to ignore, and the way in which Fred "Sonic" Smith compliments this sound pushes the song far beyond anything else being recorded at the time.  This dual sound has a presence that seems to swell larger as the song continues, and in both the tone as well as the actual progression, it is clear how much MC5 wanted to separate themselves from other bands of that era.  Bassist Michael Davis injects one of the most unique grooves of all time into the song, and it is his efforts that enable "Kick Out The Jams" to take on a swirling, almost hypnotizing tone.  Combined with the brilliant drumming of Dennis Thompson, one can hear the song whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and this amazing exchange of energy can still be felt through hearing the recording more than four decades later.  The fact that this power remains even after repeated listenings is a testament to the raw talent and spirit of the band, and it is much the reason that "Kick Out The Jams" stands today as one of the most important songs in the development of new musical trends.

Along with the music, "Kick Out The Jams" was responsible for setting new standards and approaches through the vocals of Rob Tyner.  The moment when he yelled "kick out the jams, motherfucker!" in the songs' opening was met with a great deal of controversy, and many stores even refused to carry the album due to this word.  Though there are many theories as to why this was left on the recording, the fact of the matter is that it fits perfectly, and shortly after its release, such language would become commonplace on many records.  However, in the case of "Kick Out The Jams," it was clearly not being used for "shock value," but instead conveying the emotions of the song.  This is the key to Tyner's performance, as the energy and emotion that he brings to the entire song remains largely unrivaled to this day, and his sound and spirit would become the blueprint for the entire punk rock movement.  Pushing himself to the point of almost being out of breath, he delivers each line as if it is his last, and this sense of urgency easily leaves nearly every other song of the era in the dust.  Furthermore, it is the straightforward nature of the lyrics that have enabled "Kick Out The Jams" to retain its iconic status, as the song nails down the essence of "real" rock and roll better than any song ever recorded.  From the sweat on stage to the reactions of the audience, MC5 delivers "the truth" on "Kick Out The Jams," and Rob Tyner's vocals were rarely better or more fitting of the subject matter.

As the decades have passed, the meaning behind the phrase "kick out the jams" has been debated and discussed, with many interpretations coming to light.  While the most popular theory is that it is simply a phrase to signal the beginning of high-powered, uncompromising rock and roll, the band members themselves have stated that it was actually a phrase they used to encourage the "jam bands" that often preceded their shows to get off of the stage.  It is the fact that as time has passed, so many people have given their own meaning to the phrase that proves what an iconic statement it was, and the fact that it is still relevant today is a testament to the unique brilliance behind the entire song.  Since its initial release, scores of groups ranging from Rage Against The Machine to Africa Bambaataa to Jeff Buckley have recorded their own version of the song, and yet it is the almost primal, raw energy of the original that manages to stand above every one of these covers.  It is the sense of urgency and frustration found in the MC5 version that makes it still stand out, and even when compared to almost every song from the punk movement, it remains unmatched in terms of honest energy and emotion.  The feeling of controlled chaos that runs throughout the song remains just as exciting and invigorating today as it did more than forty years ago, and this energy, combined with the unrelenting musical performances from the entire band is what enables MC5's legendary 1969 song, "Kick Out The Jams" to stand today as one of the greatest and most important songs ever recorded.

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