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Five for Friday: Bands Influenced by MC5

Kick out the jams! Detroit's MC5 turns 50 in 2018. The politically minded rockers, along with Iggy Pop and his band the Stooges, are often cited as keys to the rise of punk rock and forefathers of what evolved into heavy metal. Issued this week, Rhino's new MC5: Total Assault box set collects the band's three albums – Kick Out the Jams, Back in the USA and High Time – on colored vinyl. It coincides with the release of a memoir from MC5 co-anchor Wayne Kramer, who, along with Rob Tyner, Fred "Sonic" Smith, Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson, lived a hard rock n' roll lifestyle while believing music could change the world. Kramer is currently touring with an MC5 tribute act featuring Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, Brendan Canty from Fugazi, Billy Gould from Faith No More, and Zen Guerrilla's Marcus Durant. As the lineup makes clear, MC5 claimed a diverse range of influences. Here, we look at five collectives swayed in some way by MC5. And since it's the group's 50th anniversary, we single out one band per decade.

The 1970s: Led Zeppelin
Critics have often written about MC5 and Led Zeppelin as if on parallel albeit divergent paths. True, but there's plenty of overlap. While MC5 placed a greater emphasis on socially conscious music – and seemed fine with appearing rough around the edges – Led Zeppelin, in the studio anyway, showed more polish and an understanding of mass appeal. Heavy, ornate, and never sludgy or overly showy, MC5 and its British contemporaries carved a new route for hard rock – one steeped in American blues and every off-shoot thereof. Listen, for instance, to MC5's "Starship," which draws the bulk of its inspiration from the lyrics, worldview, and avant-garde psychedelia of Sun Ra. It endures as a work of mysticism, and like many Led Zeppelin tracks, sets out to conjure a new musical world.

The 1980s: The Minutemen
The underground hardcore and hard-rock scenes of the 80s led to a birth of bands that in some way or another owed a debt to the MC5 and the Stooges. Southern California's the Minutemen – Mike Watt-led weirdos whose songs were often about a minute and always unpredictable – primarily get slotted in the realm of punk rock due to the brevity of their compositions. But the Minutemen capture the MC5 in spirit. The aforementioned Sun Ra shows up throughout the Minutemen's catalog. The band fondly referenced acid-jazz and psychedelic music, and the songs of late guitarist D. Boon often reflect a call-to-arms bent. And the Minutemen covered classic rock bands of the 60s and 70s, further driving home the point that rock n' roll is one big continuum.

The 1990s: Rage Against the Machine
If a phrase such as "kick out the jams" comes with a double meaning – a revolution-like slogan that also possesses a handy musical connotation – little remained open to interpretation with Rage Against the Machine. The Los Angeles band, whose guitarist Tom Morello has long pledged allegiance to music of Kramer and Co., took MC5's penchant for blunt-force anger and hard rock and re-imagined it for the hip-hop age. Just as MC5 rooted one of its many anchors in the hard-luck soul of Detroit and Motown, Rage Against the Machine dug into the fabric of its home city, too. Yet the band also incorporated cues from the confrontational hip-hop of N.W.A. and the latter's Compton peers. The result: A metal-edged mix of styles that, like MC5, dismissed genre barriers in its battle against inequality.

The 2000s: White Stripes
An easy, somewhat obvious choice, considering the White Stripes' Detroit lineage. But there's no denying Jack and Meg White knew their city's musical history. Heck, the White Stripes even had a penchant for covering MC5's "Looking at You," streamlining out some of the original grooves as they channeled the band's fiery, recklessly controlled playing. While the MC5's Tyner and Jack White can howl with the best of ‘em, and both bands tended to call on the blues, the biggest similarity between MC5 and the White Stripes relates to a shared sense of improvisation. Kramer and Smith were bold personalities who could shift the direction of a song without warning. The White Stripes felt built around Jack White's whims. And proving it's a relatively small world, Meg White went on to marry Jackson Smith, the son of Patti Smith and the MC5's Smith.

The 2010s: Thunderpussy
Relative newcomers, this Seattle quartet released its self-titled debut earlier this year. The record's 12 songs and nearly hour-long running time pack a wallop: rock n' roll like they used to make, only Thunderpussy gives everything a long-overdue female-first point of view. "Turn and walk away," the band hollers on "Gentle Frame," which harnesses the power of the #MeToo era to upend patriarchy. Members Molly Sides and Whitney Petty claim a dynamic similar to that of Kramer, Tyner, and Smith, with Sides' vocals coming across with ground-shaking force and Petty's guitar work ready to rattle the earth's core or send a song rocketing to the heavens. More importantly, Thunderpussy shows how an old formula can easily adapt to a new generation.

Photo credit: Jake Clifford

September 21, 2018

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