10 May 2009
WHAT A difference a year can make.
In 1969 "The MC5" were riding high on the crest of the biggest hype in the business. Granted that they were not really the source; the hype was created principally to justify their weird existence to the mass market.
Revolution as very much in vogue, and "The MC5" seemed tailor-made for the role of standard bearers.
"Kick Out The Jams Motherfuckers!", and "John Sinclair" sat back and smiled.
The "White Panthers" were vaulted into national prominence, perhaps the underlying explanation for the swollen proportion of the whole affair.
The result: 200,000 albums sold, and a wonderful fantasy for anyone quixotic enough to blindly accept the hype.
But, as all fantasies must, this one ran its course.
"John Sinclair" in 1970 rots in prison, while his "White Panthers" have merged with the hippies in an obvious survival move.
"The MC5", on the other hand, are thoroughly alive.
Once dangerously close to the brink of camp oblivion, they have at last caught hold of their destiny.
Their new release, "Back In The USA", will do much to amend the damages suffered in 1969's meleee, and firmly establishes "The MC5" as a superlative Rock and Roll band.
Their new-found direction results from the fact that they now have a solid working definition of who they are and what they're about.
"The MC5" have finally come to grips with the realization that they are a Rock and Roll band, not the musical guerrillas they once thought they were, and are acting accordingly.
No small credit is due their producer, "Jon Landau", who impressed upon them the importance of their profession and the responsibilities it entails.
The "Elektra Records" "Kick Out The Jams" album was characterized by an excessive looseness and sometime sloppiness that often counteracted gains made in terms of Power and effect.
Unquestionably exciting, yet potential unfulfilled.
They appeared too caught up in their roles to ever get down to the business of perfecting their art.
Happily, all that is now changed.
Discipline is the watchword of the band these days, and as "Ronnie Hawkins" would say, "they're tighter than an eleven year old virgin".
A band in the truest sense of the word.
"The MC5" have eliminated the excess baggage, their sound now streamlined for a more immediate, direct impact.
In addition to their pure energy control they now stun you with sheer finesse.
Perhaps the most dynamic improvement is that of "Rob Tyner", who emerges on this record as a superior vocalist.
His voice, 1969's howling confusion, is 1970's controlled orgasm.
Guitarists "Wayne Kramer" and "Fred Sonic Smith" form the most potent guitar due ever.
One of "Wayne Kramer"'s former theatrics was to hoist his guitar to his shoulder machine-gun style and proceed to blast away at the audience.
The drumming of "Dennis Thompson", the epitome of the 5's earlier sloppiness, now exemplifies their present tightness.
He doesn't attempt anything too fancy, relying mostly on sharp rolls for effect, but forms an impeccable rhythmical foundation.
"Michael Davis"' bass patterns are strong and sure.
Put all this together and you have a unit capable of tearing down walls the politicos never knew existed.
Gone is "Kick Out The Jams"' overblown rhetoric, the music now speaks for itself.
"Tutti-Frutti", the "Little Richard"'s classic, is the perfect opening number.
It's short but sweet, striking with deadly accuracy, a splendid illustration of the gains "The MC5" have made.
Flawlessly constructed and executed, it is the model of basic drive and direct assault.
"Wayne Kramer"'s guitar slashes cleanly and evenly, like a sharp sabre.
"The MC5" start "Back In The USA" in high gear and never let up.
The trademark of "The MC5" has always been driving intensity, and this record is no exception.
But whereas their prior excesses were often liable to diffuse this quality, it has now become inescapable.
"Teenage Lust", rumored to be the follow-up single to "Kick Out The Jams" when the band was on "Elektra Records", is an incisive frustration release number. Not so much a plea ("Help me, help me baby..."), though, as a forceful command.
"The MC5" always make a point of assuming the dominant sexual stance.
"The American Ruse", while re-asserting the 5's radical (i.e., political) perspective, establishes their affinity with the grand Rock and Roll tradition. It is, however, affinity with vision; a reflection of the past but a look to the future.
A more manifest declaration of this is the title tune, "Chuck Berry"'s "Back In The USA".
Designed by "John Sinclair" to be a satirical observation, it is now a musical position statement of the band as artists.
The past united with the future in explosive fusion.
Brute force characterizes "Call Me Animal". "Dennis Thompson"'s drumming is hard and aggressive in an uncluttered way, and the guitars are superbly guttural, almost savage. It's the kind of song that knocks you down and refuses to let you back up again.
A large part of "The MC5" charisma is that they make it a pleasure to be thus assaulted, not an imposition.
We are introduced to a previously dormant phase of "The MC5" on "Let Me Try".
It's a soft ballad, and they carry it off well, thanks to the urgency of "Rob Tyner"'s vocal that maintains its balls in this subdued setting.
The guitars, while not venturing too far, discipline themselves to "Rob Tyner"'s disposition excellently. "I'll be your singer, you'll be my song. I'll lay you down gentle, I'll love you strong".
Hard to believe this is "The MC5", but it surely is, and a beautiful surprise to boot.
The new application of "The MC5" has been critically equated with commercialism; but if coherence and taste constitute commercialism, then I say right on.
The two songs most susceptible to the 'commercial' label ("Tonight" and "Shakin' Street", both written by "Fred Smith") are in many ways the most pleasing.
"Tonight" was the pre-album single release, and never went anywhere.
I fail to see why, though; it's a captivating tune with a bouncy, contagious drive that should have held wide appeal.
The spoken intro ("Allright kids...") of the single version is left out here, and it's probably just as well.
"Fred Smith" takes over the vocal on "Shakin' Street", and handles it marvelously.
The song could have easily been one of those delightful Who Rock and Roll tunes that we all loved so much in the days before "Tommy".
MC5: "Tonight" / "Looking At You", Atlantic DT 1144, Japan 1970
I consider "Looking At You", one of the first songs "The MC5" ever wrote, to be the finest cut on the album.
It adapts itself perfectly to the "The MC5"'s revamped style, driving relentlessly yet allowing for instantaneous relation.
MC5: "Looking At You" /" Borderline", A Square Records A2 333, 1968
"Rob Tyner"'s vocal is strong, controlling and directing the movement of the song as a good lead vocalist should: "Fred 'Sonic' Smith"'s solid rhythmical base serves as a launching pad for "Wayne Kramer"'s solo flights.
This is "The MC5" at their best: exciting, alive, vibrant. One of their oldest songs, it's certainly still one of their best.
It has been stated that "The MC5"'s present tightness is a regression from the looseness and spontaneity of their previous music. But "Kick Out The Jams"' 'spontaneity' all too quickly lapsed into insipid redundance.
It became too easy to predict when "Rob Tyner" would pull a split or "Fred 'Sonic' Smith" would bash an amplifier, stagnation had set in.
"The MC5" are headed directly for the pinnacle of American Rock and Rolls.
MC5: "Tonight" / "Looking At You", Atlantic 650 179, France 1970
"Back In The USA", was generally ignored, peaking at #137 on the Billboard charts.
It's obvious the public wasn't ready for a clean, tight "The MC5".
"Dennis Thompson" claimed, "The bottom line is that we cut our audience in two, didn't have an audience to replace it, and didn't do enough touring to back up that album".
See also "MC5 - Kick Out The Jams" (Powerful Rock'n'Roll US 1969)