I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

MC5: The Spirit of Punk in the Motor City

by Nicholas Shapiro
Jan. 14, 2013

Before punk was punk, MC5 were rearing back and lashing out electrified haymakers, giving the state of psychedelic music a righteous punch to the stomach. Their name stood for “Motor City Five” to represent their indebted roots to the city of Detroit. Formed on a mutual love of R&B, blues, garage rock and even free jazz, their definitive sound echoed all those things to make for a very rebellious brand of hard psychedelic music. Most famously, they are musically branded as godfathers of punk. They were one of the first punk bands to perform the genre before the genre had a name or a more concentrated sense of the word.

Before punk, MC5 were essentially a “back to basics” rock ‘n’ roll band of the mid 1960’s that took many of their peers to the side and beat them for their lunch money. They had quickly gained notoriety for being a local, livewire act that married in-it-to-win-it attitude with Satan’s gift of hellishly talented musical ability. Your usual MC5 jam typically sounded like all five members were soloing together, and if they weren’t soloing, they were setting the stage for another member to do so. And while they were more popularly known for their faster numbers, MC5 bared their true blues when they loosened the reigns and let their souls shout out.

The Detroit group is held highly in regard of musical history because of an ideal they represented and an ideal they represented well. It’s no mystery that the 60’s were a time of great rebellion, but MC5 sounded what many felt like in America’s rougher times of political and social turmoil. Founding member and lead guitarist, Wayne Kramer, confided that his band was politically influenced by Marxism, the Black Panther Party, poets of the Beat generation and leftist, militant organizations. Such White House-busting beliefs led the band to perform at protests of the Vietnam War, many of which were broken by riot police. Where branding is needless for a band who’s sound transcended themselves at their most animalistic, MC5’s most radical, political affiliations gave musical historians a reason to refer to them as “proto-punk” when establishing their cultural value. Or rather, this is what made them punk before punk.

MC5 were not the first to be considered the fore-bearers of punk. Before them, came the Sonics of the early 1960’s, most infamously known as the “first garage/punk” who’s style was so bastardly and raw, they knocked the hell out of “white” music and made listeners question what tribal spirit was trapped in their recordings. By comparison, MC5 can very much be considered their distant, spiritual successors at the turn of the decade. Like the Sonics, who’s sound had a borrowed sense of “black” music, such as the blues, R&B, soul and jazz, MC5 were more refined in their debts to African-American music. Yet, their extreme leftist political values during the Vietnam War gave them their counter-culture edge much like the Sonics, who represented wild teenage lust at a time when Happy Days-era America was at its most innocent. The idea of rebellion through music served both groups well and served the American people a soundtrack they could get angry to. Their feelings, rather than their direct messages, are what carry on.

In the scope of music history, MC5 will always be remembered as the upstarts that bred the upstarts of decades to come. They are influential much as they are integral to the feral side of the human spirit. Their music is immortalized in an era, much like today, of great political frustration. Their message was in their energy and for that, many cherish them in their red-blooded souls. As for others who don’t, its best not to think so deeply about a band that doesn’t think so deeply itself. They were a musical group of action. MC5 were meant to put fire in your belly. They were meant to open people up and shut the oppressors down. And most notably, they were meant to kick out the jams, motherfucker, because that’s what people need in times of disconcerting uncertainty.

My name is Nicholas Craig Shapiro, I'm 22 from New York, New York and I just graduated from SUNY Purchase. I'm currently a janitor/pool attendant/freelance writer/single woman trying really hard to keep busy for on the off chance that I'm not, I will get bored and explode into glitter. I maintain a twitter and that's about it https://twitter.com/glennfeathers