The MC5

Gavin McNett reviews The MC5's "Ice Pick Slim".

Published February 20, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

It's surprising there wasn't more confusion at the time. There were, of course, two distinct bands by the name of "MC5" performing in Detroit in the late '60s. The MC5 that everybody reveres nowadays was the harder of the two, with ace protopunk songs like "Kick Out The Jams" and "Shakin' Street." This was the one that used to wipe the stage of the Grande Ballroom with the likes of The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service; and whose radical politics landed their manager in the slammer, and their picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. This was, according to the way we now reckon things, the good MC5.

But in the late '60s things were reckoned differently, and it was apparently the other, bad, MC5 that was the more highly respected. This was a kozmic-hippie band -- often spotted on the very same stage as the other, on the same nights, and wearing their very clothes -- known for parlaying three-chord blues progressions into 20-minute "improvisational" mud spirals; for issuing manifestoes that said things like, "The music is the source and effect of our spirit flesh"; and for the habit of its singer, Rob Tyner -- the bad, other Rob Tyner -- of walking stage center, putting a flute under his nose, and toodling on it forever and ever. This was the "Canned Heat" MC5 -- the "Moby Grape" MC5. They've been a source of much disappointment to folks who've bought MC5 repackagings, wanting to see what all the fuss was about. Labels often fail to distinguish between the two -- sometimes, one suspects, by design.

If "Ice Pick Slim" had had any song information visible on the outside, it would've been easy to tell right off which MC5 we were dealing with. As it was, the only clue was the phrase, "historical document" stuck sideways on the front cover. That's a bootlegger's term for "not much fun to listen to," much the same as "official fan club release" generally means, "not even remotely legal." It was a bad sign. Records are called Historical either when they have rough sound quality, which would be more-or-less okay in the present case, or when they're of questionable performances, which kinda writes the book on whether or not an "MC5" recording is worth hearing.

The sound quality here is, in fact, pretty rough. But the real caveat comes sooner, when one spies the track listing on the disc. "Motor City is Burning," a John Lee Hooker cover, is the shortest of the three tracks, clocking in at 4:22. "Ice Pick Slim," the second-shortest, is 18:09. That leaves "I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver," at 19:07, to round out the set. A blues cover and two improvisational mud-spirals. And Rob Tyner is credited with "lead vocals and flute." No, no, no! They got the wrong band AGAIN!

We could talk about how exciting it must've been in the '60s, when the Revolution was sweeping the land, and new, exciting vistas were opening up everywhere, and people could do anything if they only set their minds free and all that. Really; it must've been quite something. Imagine how vivid life must've been. Imagine the thrill of exploration. Think Vaneigm's "Revolution of Everyday Life." And imagine that once, during that mythic time, people used to listen to this kind of stuff and dig it more than they dug "Kick out the Jams," or the Stooges. Go figure. All I know is that if these hippies tried to pass themselves off as the MC5 today, they'd get stomped.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

Related Topics ------------------------------------------