The Making Of… MC5’s Kick Out The Jams
The August 2012 issue of Uncut features the MC5’s guitarist, Wayne Kramer, telling the full, wild story of the Detroit revolutionaries. Here, then, is a complementary archive feature, from Uncut’s May 2007 issue, which chronicles the creation of the group’s best-known song. “Right now… right now it’s time to…”
Along with Detroit sparring partners The Stooges, The Motor City Five were an anomaly in the peace-and-love hippy climate of the late 1960s. Under the guiding hand of poet and politico John Sinclair, the MC5 mixed the incendiary White Panther ethos of “Rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets” with high-energy garage rock and Sun Ra riffs.
In addition to their White Panther polemics, MC5 established their own religion, Zenta, and it was on the Zenta New Year in 1968 – Halloween weekend to the rest of us – that the band recorded the Kick Out The Jams album at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, a former big band agora from the ’40s that became the first psychedelic ballroom outside of San Francisco. The 5 – vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson – had gigged there weekly since it opened in 1966, acting as local support for whichever headline act was passing through town. In fact, the phrase “kick out the jams” was originally a heckle, deployed to harass the night’s star attraction if they were turning in a less-than-stellar performance.
That first single, “Kick Out The Jams (Motherfuckers)”, became something of a battlecry back in 1968. And that use of the “M” word got them into a lot of trouble: police raided MC5 shows, record stores were cited for selling their album, and the group was dumped by its record company even as Kick Out The Jams stormed up the charts.
“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Hey, “Kick Out The Jams” changed my life,’” says Wayne Kramer. “I usually tell them: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t change it back.’” Jaan Uhelszki
We picked “...Jams” as a single because it best summed up what we were doing at that moment. Most of that generation of songs, Rob [Tyner] and I wrote in the kitchen at our house near the John C Lodge Expressway in Detroit. We had this kitchen that used to be a dentist’s office. I had a little amp and we would sit there and I’d throw riffs at Rob and chord changes, and he would usually have a couplet or two of lyrics and we’d just try to fit them together. We just tried to knock something out pretty quickly. Which we did. The song came out of bandspeak. Tyner heard the expression and it fitted in with this idea of total commitment, total assault on the culture. So we used the expression to harass other bands. I couldn’t tell you which bands, because we harassed every band we played with. Well, if they were losers, we let them know that. We’d stand by the edge of the stage and holler: “Kick out the jams or get off the stage!”
So it was like an expression, and Tyner crafted that into a tune. He talked later about how he was writing it to us in the band. He was telling us, “Don’t try and change me, let me be who I am.” He was framing it like the story of what happened on a night when we played. We all got in tune. When the dressing room got hazy, it got hazy with reefer smoke. And then we got crazy. And those other lines, Miss McKenzie, that just rhymed good with leaping frenzy. There was no Miss McKenzie. Hate to deflate the thought, but that’s how it is in the songwriting business.
Everybody got credit on the songs because, you know, we were communists. It can work out well, like some bands, REM and I think U2 do that. It’s a way to keep a band together. I think the reason the song lives on is because it seems to sum up that slightly over-the-top enthusiasm that youth have, that 19-year-old punks on a meth power trip have? I say that quoting [legendary rock journalist] Lester Bangs. We were 19 years old and we were punks, but we weren’t on a meth power trip. We were just on a power trip.
It’s hard to separate recording the song “Kick Out The Jams” with the album, since we did it all at once. We recorded it over two days and I don’t remember much difference between the two days. We had our heads in the clouds. I think we probably thought that we did great, and didn’t really have to change much. Personally, having gotten over the first night jitters, you come back the next night and remember where the rough spots were before and you attack it a little stronger, you feel you’re more confident. We probably came back the second night and played a better show, but I don’t know. Sometimes you think the first stroke you lay down is always the best, then you always try to fix things that you weren’t satisfied with.
The night we recorded “Kick Out The Jams” was actually the end of the band for me. Before that night, the MC5 was totally experimental. Every time we went up onstage, it was like we were making the sound up for the time. It’s a gig, so you never heard it back after we played it, if you follow me. We never really knew how we sounded, so we had greater freedom to experiment more. After October 31, 1968, the MC5 would forever be molded that way because now we knew what we were supposed to sound like. We were like Play-Doh before that, and then we were an actual form after it, and we were expected to be like that from then on. Although we never got any more experimental, we got better musically. We were better musicians, better writers, we were able to make recordings that sounded more professional and more advanced. It’s kind of a bittersweet victory, in a way.
The song that gets us in trouble, because of that one word. Here’s a live band – with a live record – that’s being introduced with “fuck” in the liner notes, and “motherfucker” in the single, and yet it’s rising up in the charts on AM radio. The word is considered an obscenity. When we did it in public, the police had an excuse to harass us and throw us in jail. Some gigs we didn’t even go to because we heard the cops were waiting for us. The political right was horrified of us, the political left was never happy that we weren’t revolutionary enough. And the corporations were deathly afraid of us, because we were the real thing.
Did I play any differently that night we recorded “Kick Out The Jams?” Yeah, I played harder than I ever played in my life. I don’t know, it was so intense, like we’d been waiting for that moment to get recorded. We’d played so many places in the couple years prior, and worked at the Grande without much recognition at all. So inside my heart, it was like: “Ow, you know, finally this is it. Making a record, this is what we’ve been doing this for. This is what I dropped out of college for!” I think I broke 10 sticks each performance, at least. I had calluses on all of my fingers, and the forefingers of both hands and the index finger had blood blisters underneath them. They’d break open every time I played. And it was just raw.
I remember both nights were kickass. It was magical, because we knew we had something. I was taking a lot of LSD at the time, and smoking massive quantities of sacrament, as John [Sinclair, MC5 manager] would say. I played high onstage all the time. But it wasn’t the kind of a high like doing heroin or doing coke where you played too fast or it affected the physicality of the show. It was more mental.
But those two nights we just calmed down. We didn’t take the normal quantities that we would take. ‘Let’s just low-key it tonight’, so instead of smoking 15 joints we probably smoked 10. The energy was harnessed.
We did it over two days, October 30 and 31. We didn’t think it was at all strange that we were going to record “Kick Out The Jams” live. We thought it was the way we should do it. Over the years, Wayne has made comments that he didn’t like the way it turned out, but you couldn’t have a more accurate representation of how the band sounded. It was bold to do a live album as a first album, but that was our aesthetic. We were a band that put on a show when nobody put on a show, except for The Who. We cut two nights at the Grande. It was a free concert, so our fans were there. We wanted everybody to enjoy this with us. We felt they brought us there. If it wasn’t for that fucking Lester Bangs, it might have been interpreted in an entirely different way. But what he wrote in the Rolling Stone, claiming it sounded like The Seeds, it kind of poisoned the well. In later years, he’d come up to me in a drunken frenzy and say, “That’s my favourite record of all time.” I’d say, “Well then, thanks for ruining their career. That’s a strange way to show your love, fucking ponk.”
I liked “Kick Out the Jams” then, I like it now. I still get excited when I hear “Now it’s time to…” I like that moment. I always like that moment.
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