Today we celebrate one of the most incendiary events in rock’n’roll history – for it was on this day in 1968, within the hallowed walls of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, that the MC5 ignited the Zenta New Year. Cosmically calculated by the Five’s Trans-Love Energies commune to signify the dawn of a bold new era, Trans-Love leader and MC5 manager John Sinclair made clear the lofty aims of Zenta when he wrote: ‘“The duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution. The duty of the musician is to make the music. But there is an equation that must not be missed: MUSIC IS REVOLUTION.” And so, for the 2,000+ rabid fans whose loyalty had been rewarded with free entry to see the greatest live band in the world, this brand new year represented the possibility that, as participants in a unique alchemical experience, they could change the world. For the MC5, the responsibility as vanguards of the revolution was all the more intensified by a huge added pressure. For this date would also see the live recording of their debut album, the soon-to-be legendary Kick Out the Jams.
Like all genuinely revolutionary organisations, and certainly like many utopian communes of the late ‘60s, the real heavy heads of Trans-Love Energies – that is to say John Sinclair’s TLE intellectuals concerned with the esoteric side of the revolution – would no doubt have given extreme consideration before they dared impose a new calendar upon their prospective congregation. But as William Burroughs attested in his novel, The Revised Boy Scout Manual: “To achieve independence from alien domination and to consolidate revolutionary gains, five steps are necessary: 1 – Proclaim a new era and set up a new calendar…”
We can dispense with those other four Burroughsian points, knowing that John Sinclair alone was arrogant enough – in those highly revolutionary times – to assume he could come up with far better ones. Having already survived nights of National Guardsmen aiming the cannons of their tanks at the Trans-Love Energies house during the ‘67 Race Riots, it can be assumed that many of Trans-Love were sure by this time to be in some kind of marijuana-informed state of Permanent Revolution. And it was as revolutionaries that John Sinclair accepted the MC5’s invitation to play at the Yippies’ “Festival of Life’ in Chicago, craftily organised to coincide with the mass protests planned for the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. Every politicised musician and band in the country had been also been invited, but only the MC5 showed up. The Grateful Dead, Country Joe & the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills & Nash: where were they? Probably happy to escape the heavy tactics employed by Chicago’s police force, for this infamous event escalated into one of the ‘60s most notorious confrontations between demonstrators and authorities. After finding themselves at the epicentre of another riot where the police response was disconcertedly out of proportion, John Sinclair concluded that the counterculture must mobilise with urgency to defend itself and present a viable, youth-led alternative. Trans-Love set about creating its political wing: the White Panther Party. Formally announcing their formation just two days after the Zenta New Year, the White Panthers responded to Huey P. Newton’s call for whites to support the Black Panther movement – and introduced hedonism and high-energy rock’n’roll as a revolutionary means of liberating young people from the conventional program. And the MC5 were to be the very “weapon” of this cultural revolution.
Meanwhile, Sinclair’s ‘total assault on the culture’ had been given a significant boost when, in September 1968, the MC5 received $25,000 for signing with Elektra Records. Since fleeing from the Detroit authorities’ incessant hassling to their new communal Ann Arbor digs some 40 miles west, the Five had been working hard at honing their avant-rock act, incorporating imagination, improvisation and intelligence. When Sinclair and Elektra’s Jac Holzman agreed that the MC5 would be best represented by capturing the renowned kinetic energy between the band and its audience with a live album, the imminent Zenta New Year was chosen as a serendipitous recording date. Bassist Michael Davis described 30th October 1968 as “the single scariest night of my life. So much was riding on that chance, and only one shot at it.”
But take their chance they did and then some, bringing forth on that single night one of the greatest rock’n’roll LPs of all time. Was Kick Out the Jams’ greatness due to the New Year celebrations? Was all of that planning and all of that Utopian dreaming and concentrating what brought forth such riches? What seals the album’s enormity is its extraordinary introduction by the band’s ‘spiritual adviser’ Brother J.C. Crawford:
“Brothers and Sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there. Let me see a sea of hands. I want everybody to kick up some noise. I wanna hear some revolution out there, brothers. I wanna hear a little revolution. Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution. You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds, five seconds of decision. Five seconds to realize that it’s time to move. It’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify and I want to know, Are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial: THE MC5!”
For anyone who has ever been compelled to rebel against injustice, these crazy, portentous, beautiful words will never fail to stir. So, to all of you Motherfuckers, Happy New Year!