Protest 100: MC5 – ‘Motor City Is Burning’

Artist:          MC5

Song:           Motor City Is Burning

Album:        Kick Out The James

Producer:    Jac Holzman, Bruce Botnick

Label:          Elektra

Year:           1969


Originally released by John Lee Hooker in 1967 and recorded by him just two months after the Detroit riots it describes, ‘Motor City Is Burning’ fit like a glove as part of the live set captured for MC5’s debut album, ‘Kick Out The Jams.’ The no-holds-barred narrative-grit of its lyrics could also teach a thing or two to aspiring 21st century protest rockers. Then again, most have yet to get the kind of seat Hooker had:

“I know what they were fightin’ for,” he said. “I feel bitter about that. A big city like Detroit… you know, racial like that. It wasn’t like Mississippi, but… they hide it under the cover there. In Mississippi they didn’t hide it, they just come out with it, and that’s the only difference. It finally got so hot, people got so fed up, that the riot broke out, with all the burnin’ and the shootin’, the killin’. I could just look at the fire from my porch or my window, outside in my yard… I could see places goin’ up in flame, hear guns shootin’, robbin’ stores, runnin’ the business people out of they stores. There was a lotta lootin’ goin’ on, y’know… the po-lice was even lootin’. They like to have burned the whole city down. A kid brought me a new git-tar, a Gibson 12-string. Cost about $1,500… I got it for five dollars. The kid didn’t know what he had!” Hooker laughs in memory. “‘You wanna buy this?’ ‘Oh yeah!’ ‘You got five dollars?’ I say, ‘Yeah!’

“You could see the fire burnin’. You could see the bombs, the smoke, buildin’s goin’ up. You see the people runnin’ out the stores, the business people leavin’ everythin’ in there. Stuff was layin’ in the streets, man. Clothes, brand-new shoes, just layin’ there. Couldn’t tell no-one not to pick it up, and some people did pick it up. Went to jail for stealin’ stuff. Two policemen… found a whole lotta stuff that they done took. They suspended them, and put them in jail. Everybody was lootin’. The white, the black…”

“After that, the whole country went. Watts got burned down. A lotta other places got burned down. Like a cancer. You hear everybody say, ‘Burn, baby, burn.’ That’s what they said. ‘We gon’ burn, baby, burn.’ They was burnin’ three or four blocks over, but they never come down to where I was.”

–(Murray, C.S., ‘Cuttin’ Heads: Motor City Is Burning,” Louder, May 20, 2014)


Excerpt from ‘Unreality’ 
“There was a good deal of smoke coming up as a result of the now smoldering bedding, but most of the flames seemed to be burning themselves out. ”



Ya know, the Motor City is burning, babe
There ain’t a thing in the world they can do
Ya know, the Motor City is burning people
There ain’t a thing that white society can do

Ma home town burning down to the ground
Worser than Vietnam

Let me tell you how it started now

It started on 12th Clair Mount that morning
It made the, the pig cops all jump and shout
I said, it started on 12th Clair Mount that morning
It made the, the pigs in the street go 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

Get it on

Well, there were fire bombs bursting all around the people
Ya know there was soldiers standing everywhere
I said there was fire bombs bursting all around me, baby
Ya know there was National Guard everywhere

I can hear my people screaming
Sirens fill the air, fill the air, fill the air

Your mama, papa don’t know what the trouble is
You see, they don’t know what it’s all about
I said, your mama, papa don’t know what the trouble is, baby
They just can’t see what it’s all about

I get the news, read the newspapers, baby, baby?
You just get out there in the street and check it out

I said, the Motor City is burning, people
I ain’t hanging ’round to fight it out
I said, the Motor City is burning, people
Just not hang around to fight it out

Well, I’m taking my wife and my people and they’re on TV
Well, just before I go, baby, [Incomprehensible]
Fireman’s on the street, people all around

Now, I guess it’s true
I’d just like to strike a match for freedom myself
I may be a white boy, but I can be bad, too
Yes, it’s true now, yes, it’s true now


Let it all burn, let it all burn, let it all burn

‘Protest 100’s mission is two-fold: dispelling the myth that heavy metal is a brainless, socially unaware music genre, and raising awareness of the issues facing our country in the Nov. 3, 2020 election. The path won’t be exclusively metal—some punk and rap and other stuff will be in here too, including the classics—and is not a ranking. All songs are songs I’ve heard while putting this list together, ordered in a manner designed to entertain and educate.


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