Thirty years on, it's only now apparent that this ultimate defeat was really victory. Unbeknown to them, they'd become one of the best rock'n'roll groups of all time.
The idea of music as a force for social and political change might now seem naive or even risible, but in the mid-’60s that hope had yet to be extinguished. The story of the [a]MC5[/a], though, is both an indication of how seriously countercultural politics were taken by the US authorities, as well as what the ultimate fate would be for anyone who embraced such revolutionary ideals.
Not that it started out like that for Detroit’s [a]MC5[/a]. Their first three 45s, collected here for the first time, showcased a high-energy rock’n’roll group, not significantly removed from such local acts as Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. It wasn’t until the arrival of the maverick John Sinclair that their ethos began to change into something more pointed.
Sinclair was the head of the White Panthers – a group closely affiliated with the anti-segregationist Black Panther movement, whose manifesto of “dope, rock’n’roll and fucking in the streets” inevitably aroused interest with both the FBI and the CIA. Sinclair became the band’s manager- and it was him who steered the group in a more overtly political direction, so that by the time they were signed to Elektra in 1968, the sound and content of their shows had developed into a genuinely radical fusion of jazz noise and insurrectionary sloganeering.
This was all captured on their debut LP ‘Kick Out The Jams’ – a live set recorded at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on October 30 and 31, 1968. ‘The Big Bang’ preserves four tracks from there – including the record’s contentious title track, the introduction of which (“Right now, it’s time to… kick out the Jams, motherf—er”) was to cause the [a]MC5[/a] the first of many problems which were to dog them throughout their career.
The use of this expletive prompted a local Detroit chainstore, Hudson‘s, to ban the record from its shops. When the [a]MC5[/a] responded by placing an advert in a local fanzine stating “Fuck Hudson’s”, Elektra moved to drop them. Given that at the same time the FBI were filming their shows (a forthcoming documentary on the band makes full use of this footage) and that a year later, Sinclair himself was handed a ten-year prison sentence for the possession of two joints, you begin to realise the band were victims of terminal misfortune from the outset.
Of course, in the middle of all this, the [a]MC5[/a] also happened to be making some of the greatest rock’n’roll music ever committed to tape. Post-Elektra, the band managed to record two more raucous LPs for Atlantic. The first, ‘Back In The USA’, is often considered to be their weakest – and while it suffers both from a dearth of political focus and a thin, edgy sound (it was recorded by rock critic Jon Landau, who’d never produced a record before), its concise, commercially skewed sound was a profound influence on punk groups like The Clash, while songs such as ‘The Human Being Lawnmower’ offered a radical rewiring of the old bubblegum rock blueprint.
The band’s masterpiece, though, was undoubtedly 1971’s ‘High Time’ LP. Stung by the failure of ‘Back In The USA’ and with no viable commercial future, the [a]MC5[/a] made it on the verge of disintegration. It’s the only [a]MC5[/a] record to contain individual songwriting credits, but it still manages to fuse together all the disparate elements of their sound. Its wired twin-guitar assault and riotous free-jazz detonations (check out the nervy repetition of the two Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith contributions – Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)’ and ‘Over And Over’) ensured it was the one true encapsulation of the [a]MC5[/a] aesthetic.
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Unfortunately, ‘High Time’ was an even bigger commercial disaster than their previous two albums. The group’s espousal of left-wing political doctrines meant that they were not only treated with intense suspicion by corporate record labels, but that their righteous rock’n’roll energy was greeted with distaste by the prevalent flower-power movement of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane on America’s West Coast. Thirty years on, it’s only now apparent that this ultimate defeat was really victory. Unbeknown to them, they’d become one of the best rock’n’roll groups of all time.