It was the birth of punk rock, the death of the Summer Of Love, and the beginning of the end of the public’s tolerance for the Vietnam War. Recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, the MC5’s seminal 1969 release Kick Out The Jams stands as one of the most ferocious and confrontational debut albums of all time.
Legends in the Motor City long before they had a recording contract, the MC5 was virtually the house band at the Grande Ballroom, where, as an opening act, they blew away a long series of unfortunate headliners with a politically charged stage act that teetered on the edge of anarchy every single night. Hotshot producer Jac Holzman signed the MC5 to Elektra Records in 1968 based entirely on the raw power of their live show, and subsequently asked the band to record their debut album at the Grande on Halloween weekend of that same year in an attempt to capture the awesome spectacle on vinyl.
Drummer Dennis Thompson was only 18 at the time, and remembers Holzman promising that they would get a second chance to record the album in a proper studio if the live recording didn’t live up to the band’s expectations. “Hmmm … first lie from the corporate system,” Thompson sneers. “We heard it and we said, ’We can do better than this. We want to do it again.’ A little bit of time lapsed and the decision came down: ’No, this will suffice.’ But now that I have the perfect vision of 20/20 hindsight, we couldn’t have made a record like that unless we did it exactly the way we did.”
And by today’s standards, they couldn’t have done it in a more unsophisticated way. “There were no monitors — you must understand this,” Thompson deadpans. “So you’ve got three guys with 100-watt Marshalls, two stacks apiece, they’re all pushing 200 watts, and there’s eight cabinets. I had to cut through that, so I played extremely hard. I didn’t do that because it was fun. I got blood blisters to prove it.”
Translation: Nobody could hear a damn thing onstage. But it almost didn’t matter. The MC5 had mastered walking the tightrope without a net. “We had all this energy coming from 2,500 people that were literally major fans of the MC5, so it was like a give and take between the band and the audience. And since we were recording live at the Grande, it really put us into a stratospheric energy zone.”
But despite the album’s ongoing influence (including reverential “Kick Out The Jams” covers by such bands as Rage Against The Machine, Monster Magnet, and Blue Oyster Cult), the biggest paycheck Thompson ever saw from the MC5 was a measly $1,000 advance. “It’s hard to believe,” he says. “I think that [the album has] finally gone gold, or whatever. We’re certainly not platinum. But I still do feel really privileged to have gone through it.”