The MC5 at their peak were the probably the most genuinely threatening of the American Proto-Punk/Garage bands of the late 60s and early 70s.
The Velvet Underground could tell disturbing stories, sometimes even based on real life experiences, but Lou Reed’s stories were always that – wonderfully told, detached, stories.
The Stooges’ main man, Iggy, was an onstage, dangerously out of control, force of nature, but his self-abusive live performances were always more disturbing spectacle than threat to the audience. In fact Iggy’s audiences in the early days were often more threatening than what was happening on stage.
In contrast, the MC5 were, at times, genuinely scary.
They were involved in radical and physically threatening, left-wing, political activity. Alongside their political-active manager, John Sinclair, they were involved with the White Panthers – a sister organisation of the revolutionary Black Panther movement, created for whites. And whatever you thought about the Black Panthers and their ideology, you could never doubt that they were in it for real - supporting arming black communities, espousing violence at times and being described by the FBI as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security of the country’.
So there was always a sense of real, imminent danger and unease in the air when the MC5 were in town.
And that was before they plugged their amps in. Because whilst The Stooges and the Velvet Underground could generate a live racket that could clear a venue - and sometimes did - the MC5 were always ear-bleedingly louder and more brutal in their sonic assault.
All of which resulted in two things:
First of all, trouble. Unsurprisingly, the MC5 attracted attention from above. Barred from many states, told that they would be immediately arrested if they entered others and constantly harassed by the police over what would nowadays be regarded as fairly minor drug issues, it would be fair to say that the authorities were not big fans.
Secondly, tragically, their brutally loud live sound assault that always - deceptively – seemed to be on the verge of spinning out of control (yet never did because they were actually very talented and practiced musicians who had been playing together almost constantly for three or four years by the time they became a band to watch out for) proved impossible to replicate in the studio. Which is why they released a live album - ‘Kick Out The Jams’ – as their debut in 1969.
That album sold surprisingly well and went on to make the MC5 a key touchpoint for the development of all alternative, anti-establishment, guitar-based music through Punk and Nirvana and beyond. But by 1970, a year after its release, the band had been dumped by Elektra because of the (bad) attention and negative retailer reaction they were generating for the label. And just for good measure the authorities had finally nailed manager John Sinclair and jailed him for 9 and a half years for the heinous crime of possessing two spliffs.
Which is when they were signed by Atlanta and, with John Sinclair otherwise engaged, assigned to future Springsteen producer Jon Landau whose mission was to finally capture - and clean up in the process – the band’s live sound in the studio. Given that, in 1974, Landau would claim that ‘I’ve seen rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen’, it’s not surprising that his relationship with the actual future of rock and roll was a little tense. But that’s another story.
The closest they ever came to replicating the sheer assault and threat of their live shows on vinyl was - ironically - way before Landau got involved – in their pre-fame, pre-major label, pre-expensive recording studio and pre-famous producer days. When, in 1968, they recorded their second single, ‘Looking At You’, for indie label, A Square.
Recorded in one-take, with no overdubs, ‘You’ is so monstrously alive that it sounds like the grooves on the vinyl are genuinely struggling to stop the thing breaking free.
More (barely) caged animal than 7″ record, it somehow manages to capture the experience and assault of the live MC5 by, apparently, ignoring all the tools and secrets of the modern day recording studio in favour of one simple principle – turn everything up to max and watch every single dial in the studio glow red.
Originally released as a very limited 7″ vinyl it is now available on various MC5 compilations. The ‘best’ sound is probably on ‘MC5 – Purity Accuracy’: Amazon