From its affiliation with the White Panther Party to its political platform that called for "Rock and Roll, Dope, and Fucking in the Streets," Detroit's MC5 was among the most incendiary rock and roll bands of the Sixties. As both harbingers of Seventies punk and a group whose taste spanned the gamut from Little Richard and Sun Ra to Chuck Berry and John Coltrane, the members of MC5 brought visionary intensity and bottomless passion to everything they recorded. Their legacy included only three official longplayers -- Kick Out the Jams, Back in the USA, and High Time -- which were preceded by a handful of singles and followed by a mass of posthumously issued live bootlegs, compilations of rare tracks, and the kind of alternate-take ephemera that separates the mildly interested from the fanatically devoted. The group never had a hit, but like the Velvet Underground and the early Modern Lovers, the 5's influence far eclipsed its commercial impact.
Rhino's The Big Bang! Best of the MC5 is the first-ever attempt to glean the cream of the group's output, and it's an exasperating failure on so many levels it's hard to believe former 5 guitarist Wayne Kramer had a hand in its assemblage. Given the number of bootlegs and semilegit comps on the market, The Big Bang! could have pulled the few gems from otherwise-disposable live discs such as Teen Age Lust and Do It. But it doesn't. Given the number of early tracks that are crucial to the band's history, The Big Bang! could have rounded up errant non-LP masterpieces such as "Borderline," or at least salvaged some of the vintage stuff from the intermittently available Babes in Arms disc issued in the Eighties by ROIR. But it doesn't. Nor does it include live staples such as the self-explanatory "I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver" or "Black to Comm," a slice of pile-driving brilliance that never found its way on to one of the band's studio albums.
What The Big Bang! does do is present the A-sides of the 5's first two singles -- "I Can Only Give You Everything," the old Them song; and "Looking At You," which shreds the later version from Back in the USA -- in genuinely stunning remastered fidelity, an old B-side in "I Just Don't Know," and a fine previously unissued live cut, "Thunder Express." Beyond that The Big Bang! merely rounds up only the most obvious highs from the 5's three albums. Meaning you get the thunderous "Kick Out the Jams" complete with the infamous "motherfucker" intro from vocalist Rob Tyner, almost all of the horribly produced Back in the USA (home of the 5 anthems "Shakin' Street," "Teenage Lust," and "The Human Being Lawnmower"), and enough cuts from High Time to make the case that it was the group's most ambitious piece of work.
Make no mistake, everything great about the MC5 is here: Tyner's wailing vocals; the lacerating twin-guitar work of Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer; the blistering free-jazz experiments; the riotous rock and roll anthems that defined the music's visceral and sociopolitical power. Yet so much is missing that, ultimately, The Big Bang! is nothing but a sampler, an invitation to dive headfirst into the band's voluminous catalogue. And as this thumbnail glance makes clear, it's a jump worth taking.
Related Stories Panther, Panther Burning Bright
MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things
By John La Briola
Panther, Panther Burning Bright
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.