BLM and the Summer of the MC5

The MC5’s debut album — and one of the Greatest Live albums of all time

In May of 2020, mobilized by racial policing, oppressive housing policies, an uncaring medical industry, and over three hundred years of state sanctioned violence and injustice, Philadelphians seized their streets. A myriad of protests would follow over the next year, and for several months swathes of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway would be reclaimed by homeless encampments. The city was set ablaze by radical direct action.

The protests gathered much attention and were joined by an influx of support from traditionally ambivalent groups, in particular the White middle class. That is not to say that these semi-affluent Whites formed a significant driving force but that they were attending protests and events in record numbers. I suspect the reasons why had less to do with a surge in virtue and more with the specific historical conditions facing us. We were to varying degrees disillusioned with the state of politics, bored and cramped by quarantine, and utterly engrossed by a revolution in media distribution the likes of which today’s social experts are totally unequipped to describe.

The unexpected rise in White involvement in anti-racist politics was initially quite well received. And yet problems very quickly began to present themselves. It was, in the first place, difficult to assert how much support was genuine. Within the weeks of the first few protests in May, more than a few stories of bad faith actors were exposed, including those who were actively racist and sought disguise, as well as those who quite transparently viewed the entire endeavor of protecting Black Lives as simply another fashion trend.

Setting aside those who could be quite easily categorized as disingenuous only opened a larger question of performativity among White protestors. In many cases, it proves to be a quite pertinent question too: it is not inconceivable that, deluded by fantasies of grandeur and savior complex, that a White protestor might incite a conflict which could place hundreds of people in danger. At any rate, I personally knew one such person who entered the front lines under the pretense of “getting to the action”.

At a more abstract level, one has to wonder if there is any possibility of protesting as someone whose rights are not play without at some level engaging in social performance. One might then be led to the nihilistic conclusion that, because of their privilege, they will never be able to contribute meaningfully to the anti-racist movement. And this perspective has equally been met with criticisms of White self-flagellation, itself arguably a form of performance.

At the time this whole discussion was going on I was growing increasingly concerned with a different kind of performance, which is to say a certain live album recorded in Detroit on Halloween of 1968 — Kick out the Jams by the MC5. I’d been introduced to the album in a seedy used record store earlier that year as the cashier attempted to explain to the guy in front of me that ‘yes, live albums really are decent, quality recordings, and no, they aren’t just lazy, unproduced cash grabs’. Though I found the interaction amusing, I didn’t really think much of it or the album in question until that June when my friend gifted me a copy of punk’s unofficial history textbook, Please Kill Me. Enthralled by descriptions of the MC5’s wild performances, including their 8 hour long performance at the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, I began listening to their debut album.

Though the album is arguably remembered for their hit title track, it was when I heard their cover of John Lee Hooker’s The Motor City is Burning that I became aware of why the band was so special. Covers of African American Blues tracks by White artists were nothing new in the sixties, but White rock bands usually stuck to edgy jams that could be feasibly separated from the racial context of their origin — which is why they covered “Killing Floor” and “Back Door Man” rather than “The Natchez Burnin’”. Hooker’s protest blues would have been especially off limits, given they refer directly to the severe outbreak of violence against Black protestors by Detroit police. But the MC5 went there.

The genius of the song is in Hooker’s version, in which his slow but intricate instrumentation couple with his mournful, confrontational tone to convey the real gravity of the events. The MC5 certainly pay their dues to Hooker, refraining from the kind of intense, fast paced proto-punk guitar solos which define the rest of the album in order to capture what’s at stake. The MC5’s version also features added lyrics, emphasizing the racially charged nature of the protest:

It started on 12th and Clairmount that morning

It made the beat cops all jump and shout

Ah said, it started on 12th and Clairmount that morning

It made the pigs in the street freak out

The fire wagons kept comin’, baby

But the Black Panther snipers wouldn’t let them put it out, wouldn’t let them put it out, wouldn’t let them put it out

The MC5 also venture into our earlier discussion of performance. Addressing their intent in participating in anti-racist politics, Wayne Kramer sings:

I’d just like to strike a match for freedom myself

I may be a white boy, but I can be bad, too

It’s an honest statement — Kramer owns up to desiring the ‘bad’, cool social status afforded by the Black Activists. But the important point is in the first line — Black Liberation opens up the possibility of other forms of liberation; in a way, it lends a deeper meaning to the statement that “All Lives Matter” once “Black Lives Matter”, since it is through the latter that radical action on the part of the former becomes possible.

Here, I think the MC5 demonstrate what it means to be a White ally, answering our earlier questions. They don’t worry too much about the specific details of their involvement, but they get involved, signal boosting Hooker and vocalizing their commitment to liberation.

And, of course, the song retains the punk attitude the MC5 are known for: refusal of standard, hegemonic, racist politics. It’s that bold, earnest sentiment which really makes them a “proto-punk” band — and, by the way, one to which the members have remained true, nowadays playing at prisons and for prisoner’s rights.

Maybe they weren’t as inventive as the Velvet Underground, or as balls to the wall insane as The Stooges, but I think the MC5 are the most deserving of the moniker “Proto-Punk”, at least because their commitment to anti-racist politics makes them a valuable origin myth for a movement which has been corrupted by fascism and nationalism. In an era where Donald Trump is being deemed a populist, “punk rock” icon by some, I think we ought to turn back to the MC5.

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Justin Cannan

Justin Cannan

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