There’s a certain symmetry to this cover – a tribute to the premier, righteously angry, White Panther-affiliated, garage punk band of the ’60s by the premier, righteously angry, ‘political action through music’, alt-rock/rap band of the ’90s.
MC5’s brazenly confrontational Kick Out The Jams was first released on their debut LP of the same name in 1969. The album was recorded live in October 1968 over the course of two shows at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom where MC5 had been the house band since its reopening as a psychedelic venue in 1966. MC5 were the default support act for visiting bands and when their local fans felt that the evening’s main attractions were underperforming they would demand that they ‘Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!’. MC5 appropriated the phrase for their most famous song.
Bassist Michael Davis had mixed feelings about the impact of their debut album. “The night we recorded Kick Out The Jams was actually the end of the band for me. Before that night, the MC5 was totally experimental. Every time we went up onstage, it was like we were making the sound up for the time. After October 31, 1968, the MC5 would forever be moulded that way because now we knew what we were supposed to sound like. We were like Play-Doh before that, and then we were an actual form after it, and we were expected to be like that from then on.”
As well as setting the template for the band’s sound, Kick Out The Jams, and specifically the use of the word ‘motherfucker’ increased MC5’s notoriety massively. Though it was a big hit they were dropped from their record label, record stores were banned from selling the album and the band was constantly hassled by police at shows. As a way of introducing the world to a resolutely anti-establishment band, it was a big success.
The way Rage Against The Machine announced themselves to the UK on the (notorious mess of a) TV show that was The Word in the early-’90s was similarly effective. Channel 4’s The Word is remembered for a few musical moments, most famously Kurt declaring Courtney to be ‘the best fuck in the world’ before launching into Teen Spirit and Donita from L7 dropping her jeans during Pretend We’re Dead. Both of these events are regularly dredged up and labelled as shocking, when they really weren’t. Nirvana and L7 were well-known before these appearances and their unpredictability was pretty, er, predictable. RATM meanwhile were virtually unknown when they took to that stage and the power of their heavy riffs, tight rhythms, hip hop beats, intense, lucid anger and repeated ‘fuck yous’ was totally unexpected and truly exhilarating. The performance ended in suspiciously unspontaneous looking chaos – under the watchful eye of super-middleweight world champion, Chris Eubank – but they’d made their impression by then.
Rage Against The Machine’s cover of Kick Out The Jams appeared on their final album, Renegades (2000). Their blistering, self-titled 1992 debut album had shot them to alternative rock royalty but their follow up, Evil Empire wasn’t released until 1996 and was a disappointment. 1999’s Battle Of Los Angeles was a slight return to form but by the time Renegades was released the band was fizzling out. Renegades features a number of cover versions of songs by artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Cypress Hill, Minor Threat, The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, Bob Dylan, Afrika Bambaata and Devo. Kick Out The Jams was the best of these. It doesn’t capture the sweaty, spontaneous energy of the original but it does fill it with the intense, tightly-harnessed power that Rage Against The Machine always did so well.
Though Kick Out The Jams had been covered lots of times before – by Jeff Buckley, Bad Brains and The Mono Men, among many, many others – you could argue that it should’ve been left alone. MC5’s will always be the definitive version – there’s no way to improve it – and it defines the band, in the same way that Killing In The Name Of defines Rage Against The Machine. But RATM’s cover is a bold attempt to do it justice and it’s a high point on Renegades. Maybe it’s also helped to keep MC5’s legacy alive, meaning sights like this can become more common:
Remember that? I don’t know how to feel about Rachel from Friends wearing an MC5 t-shirt. Maybe this fictional character was a fan? Why shouldn’t she be? But it doesn’t feel right, somehow. Who knows, maybe it doesn’t even matter. But I bet Rage Against The Machine wouldn’t be happy about it.