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From the Vaults

A Look Back at Bad-Boy Pioneers MC5, Stooges

Recordings of these two Midwest rebel bands reveal the huge influence their language and sound have had on current acts.

March 25, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When modern-day Detroit bad boys Eminem and Kid Rock head out to shock the nation with their limit-testing antics and language, they are really honoring a tradition of outrage that was rooted in their hometown more than three decades ago.

The original Rust Belt rebels--the MC5 and the Stooges--were untamed forces whose impact on rock is hard to comprehend in a time when the music has lost most of its power to shake the culture's foundations.

But in the turbulent, polarized America of the late '60s, the politically charged MC5 seemed absolutely dangerous--or heroic--depending on which side of the barricades you stood. A little later the Stooges detonated a liberating, feral expression of Mid-American ennui and release, writing the book that rock would follow in the coming decades.

The first-ever MC5 anthology shows that the short-lived band was erratic, but its most influential recordings retain their power. An amazing addition to the ever-expanding Stooges universe, meantime, demystifies some of the legend while reinforcing the band's standing.

*

*** "The Big Bang! Best of the MC5," Rhino. When this flashy quintet harnessed its energy to the radical polemics of political activist John Sinclair--head of the dissident White Panther party and the MC5's manager--they created a brief but incandescent chapter in American rock.

Pairing smash-the-system rhetoric with a supercharged version of the R&B-rock style later popularized by the likes of Bob Seger and the J. Geils Band, the MC5 (for Motor City 5) cranked the PA to unprecedented volume and delivered their signature message--"kick out the jams"--with evangelical force.

They could be as commanding onstage as they were inexperienced in the studio (three energetic but amateurish early singles open this collection), so it was a no-brainer to make their debut album for Elektra Records a live concert set. The four tracks collected from that 1969 record, "Kick Out the Jams," support their reputation as a torrid act.

But it wasn't easy going for the MC5. The album reached the Top 30 and the group built a following in the Midwest and New York, but as guitarist Wayne Kramer (who's now in L.A. making records for the Epitaph label) recalls in the album booklet, "power to the people" didn't mix with flower power.

"Here comes the MC5, from Detroit, with our sequined stage outfits and 100-watt Marshall stacks blasting," Kramer writes of an ill-fated visit to California. "We just couldn't connect with our leaping, spinning, knee-dropping stage show, ranting and raving about gun-toting politics. . . . We opened a free concert in Golden Gate Park with a . . . version of 'Tutti-Frutti.' The crowd stood there transfixed, dumbstruck."

The band left Elektra after the one album and moved to Atlantic Records. With rock critic Jon Landau as novice producer (warming up for his role as Bruce Springsteen's producer and manager), they turned out the more accessible studio tracks of 1970's "Back in the U.S.A.," which form almost half of this 78-minute anthology. There isn't much fervor in the sound of this sometimes catchy but conventional soul-pop.

The five songs here from their third and final album, 1971's "High Times," are actually the most intriguing. Pretty much left to its own devices for this one, the band finally got to capture a bit of the experimental side that it had always espoused but rarely recorded.

The MC5 didn't last long, but its impact resonated through the early '70s and was transmitted by the New York Dolls, Patti Smith and other bands into the punk-rock ethos. In fact, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith married Patti Smith in the early '80s. (He died of heart failure in 1994.) The band's example lives loudest today in the one high-profile band that carries a radical political agenda, Rage Against the Machine.

*

**** The Stooges, "The Complete Fun House Sessions," Rhino Handmade. Who in the world would want to pay more than $100 to own the entire, seven-hour-plus recording session that produced one of rock's underground landmarks?

How about 3,000 people? That's the calculation made by Rhino's Handmade division, a new specialty wing of the company that issues numbered, limited-edition packages, producing just enough copies to meet the projected demand and selling them via the Internet only. (The Web site is http://www.rhinohandmade.com).

The Stooges, fronted by the confrontational Iggy Stooge (born James Osterberg and later to be known as Iggy Pop), were regarded as the MC5's "baby brother band," and they signed with Elektra at the same time. After debuting with an album produced by former Velvet Underground member John Cale, they flew to Los Angeles in 1969 to record 'Fun House," an album that, in the words of the authoritative "Trouser Press Record Guide," "comes as close as any one record ever will to encapsulating what rock is, was and always will be about."

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