Sunday 11th November 2018 will live long in the memory for two reasons: it was not only the 100th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in World War One, but it was the night that Wayne Kramer generously celebrated the 50th anniversary of the recording of the MC5’s seminal album Kick Out the Jams with us.
Although Jams was released in January 1969, it’s live recording at Detroit’s historic Grande Ballroom took place on October 31st,1968. Tonight’s venue is the equally historic and grand Albert Hall in Manchester, which was formerly a Victorian-era church. It still has many of the original staircases and absinthe green-tiles in place, and as we queued in the chill, night air there we instinctively knew that it was going to be one of those nights.
Support came in the energetic form of the toxically tanned Hanoi Rocks singer Michael Monroe, ably backed by a rag-tag bunch of rock ‘n’ roll outlaws, whose number included the New York Doll’s gun/guitar-for-hire, Steve Conte This hard rockin’ outfit shamelessly piled cliché upon cliché – both musically and stylistically – and by the way, this is a compliment not a criticism! They really did look and sound like they had been beamed-in from L.A.’s Rainbow Bar and Grill in 1988, only to be inelegantly dumped inelegantly into a slightly incongruous Manchester venue. They really were a hoot, and clearly a sizeable minority of the audience were familiar with Monroe and his band’s oeuvre. That being said, virtually everyone seemed to respond to the familiar strains of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Around the Bend’
Thirty exceptionally long minutes later and with a pleasing lack of fanfare, MC50 come literally bounding onto the stage; to an ecstatic reception. And as is only right and proper, considering that he was the MC5’s principal driving force, it’s Brother Wayne who initiates proceedings by picking out the iconic riff to ‘Ramblin’ Rose’ from his handsome signature Stratocaster – and we’re off! And what becomes readily apparent just from a few bars in, and this is clearly because of all the shows they’ve been playing, is that (and if you’ll pardon the expression) Wayne & the MC50 are as tight as a camel’s assh*le in a sandstorm!
After the last resounding crash of both drum and guitar chord, and with barely time to draw breath, the five decades-old ‘Are you ready to testify?’ speech by the band’s ‘spiritual advisor’ J.C. Crawford enigmatically reaches out from the satisfyingly loud P.A. After his part-statement part-direct challenge utterance, as one both band and audience collectively bellow out the now (in)famous ‘oedipal expletive’ which would eventually lead to the 5 losing their contract with Elektra Records: ‘..and now it’s time to..It’s time to…kick out the jams motherf*ckers!’ It was both revelatory and profound to hear one of the 1960’s ‘counter-culture’ anthems not only played, but virtually eviscerated. It really was: A Moment.
Admittedly, the thought did cross my mind at this point that Kramer’s choice to open the set with perhaps arguably the 5’s two finest songs might prove to be a mistake – after all, and with particular emphasis on ‘Jams’, both songs have that climatic last-song-of-the-night feel to them. I needn’t have troubled myself though, because what proceeds to happen, and what Wayne knew all along of course as he planned the set, is that the remainder of the set is so full of powerful dynamics, artful purpose and inspired improvisation, that any concerns that I or indeed anyone else might have, are about to be rendered as meaningless.
One of the many USP’s that the MC5 had was that they were fearless when it came to push-and pulling the sonic envelope. So, while their supposed contemporaries of the day busied themselves trying to assimilate some of the more commercial aspects of the ‘British invasion’, with bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the omnipresent Beatles, the 5 opted instead to immerse themselves in the ‘avant jazz’-stylings of much looser artists such as John Coltrane, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis and the atonal aspects of the Sun Ra Arkestra. And so there follows an incredible musical passage where the 5’s more musically outré compositions such as ‘Starship’ (“We’re going to Venus!” says Kramer), ‘Rocket Reducer’ and ‘Borderline’ re broken down to their constituent parts, and then assiduously re-assembled in new and interesting ways. This was true psychedelia –fearless, unrestrained and, yes, mind blowing!
For the home stretch Kramer adopts the position that one can have too many space jams, and so swaps his Strat for an acoustic, and we’re treated to an insistent and tough=sounding version of ‘High School’, which was one of the band’s best and most commercial tunes – not that they’d care either way! Like the Velvet Underground, the MC5 sold relatively poor amounts of records during their lifetime, but their influence in terms of inspiring nascent musicians, designers and writers is simply incalculable.
And so, and all too soon, they’re gone, but we know they’ll be back, because they ended the set and vacated the stage like a band who still had unfinished business. And so, when they do return they are accompanied by a sax-wielding guest – why its Michael Munroe. He’s so happy he looks like he’s about to spontaneously combust, which is exactly how the rest of us feel when we hear the driving, opening strains of ‘Sister Anne’ ; which to the uninformed is a ribald riot about a ‘bride of Christ’ who is anything but sexually abstemious!
As soon as we hear the explosive two-chord charge of ‘Looking at You’ fire up, we instinctively know that this is probably going to the last song, but thankfully Brother Wayne and his fellow sonic explorers proceeded to extemporise over its (deceptively) simple structure, and in doing so we are thus treated to another magnificent wig out. And then, all-too soon, they were gone..
Be in no doubt, Brother Wayne Kramer & MC50 gave absolutely everything to us, not only at this show, but when: he, along with Rob, Michael, ‘Machine Gun’ and ‘Sonic’ were Detroit’s Motor City 5.
I’d like to think that as these extraordinary musicians left the stage at Manchester’s Albert Hall tonight, that as the resounding cheers began fade in their ears, that they felt that they too had been give something – from us. We should never underestimate, or indeed forget, the transformative and redemptive power of rock & roll.