ROCK and ROLL DOPE
BY FRANK BACH
HIGH TIME--MC5; Atlantic Records
It was a Friday night back in the fall of 1966 when Gary Grimshaw, myself and some brothers and sisters from Detroit set up some overhead projectors and movie machines on a rickety little platform we had built about six feet off the floor in back of the old building in the west side ghettoes along Grand River--we were getting ready to do the first psychedelic light show ever seen in public in the Motor City. And, even though we didn't realize it then, we were getting ready to do a lot more than that--we were about to take part in what was to become a landmark occasion in the history of a whole new lifestyle and music that was sweeping the country and changing every person that it came in contact with. It was the opening night of the Grande Ballroom, the birthplace of high energy Michigan music.
Back in those days we didn't even use that term, "high energy, " but even so we found out what it was going to mean that night--we heard it and felt it and it started to change us, just as it was going to shape the lives of literally millions of our sisters and brothers in the months and years to come. If you were one of the hundred or so people that were at the Grande you HAD to hear it, because the band on stage that night was smashing out the kind of rock and roll that eventually had to find that name--it HAD to be called high energy because it made you stop whatever you were doing and get up and move and dance in it and with it. I didn't even know how to dance back then myself, but by their second set the force of the music had me down off the light show platform and jumping around and shouting with the band that called themselves the MC5.
Yeah, the MC5 have changed a whole lot of people in the last few years--they changed John Sinclair, who was there that night, too, so much that a few months later he had decided to start managing them himself. And all of us who have been affected by the 5 know they, themselves, have changed a lot, too.
Although quite a few of us got to know the MC5 back in those early days, most people got their first good chance to check out the band with the release of their first album, KICK OUT THE JAMS, in 1968. By that time John Sinclair, the MC5, and their music had spent a lot of time together, and together they had become what John called (on the liner notes to that album) a "whole thing." The 5 were more than just a good rock and roll band--they played every note and sang every word with as much meat energy that they could find in their bodies and the sacraments they used, the psychedelic chemicals of the new age and the holy weed marijuana. The music was so high that it had to take you with it to a realization of the message of total joy and liberation which the lyrics told you about:
"Kick out the jams, motherfucker!" The 5 lived with John Sinclair and the entire Trans-Love commune for two years, honing their sound and purifying their energy and attack to the point that, when it exploded into being in homes all over the country in the form of KICK OUT THE JAMS, it started a tidal wave of effect never before experienced in the music industry. People all over the world heard the 5, picked up on the message, loved it, and demanded MORE--and the whole Michigan music scene began gaining the fame and recognition it had waited for for so long.
The 5 led the way for high energy rock and roll, and they had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of ground that they gained against the uptight honky biz that controlled (and still controls) every note of music recorded and played on every radio station in Amerika. The 5's record company, Elektra, gave them almost no help, but their single shot to a high spot in the national charts in a matter of weeks because it was the kind of music that the people had to have. When it became known that there were what the honks considered "obscenities" on the record and the liner notes, the programmers in the radio biz put out the word that airplay of the record was dangerous (as indeed it was!) and Elektra freaked. After an insane attempt at "censoring" the "dirty words" on the album, Elektra fired the MC5.
The so-called "hip" writers at the "pop" music magazines fought against the new wave of high energy music as exemplified by the 5, too. They didn't even understand what was happening on the record at the time, and almost every one of them joined Lester Bangs at Rolling Stone (who now works at Creem magazine and is a high energy addict whose favorite album is KICK OUT THE JAMS) in bad mouthing the record and calling it stuff like "just a bunch of psychedelic noise."
As John Sinclair explains in his column in this week's SUN, the MC5's first big wave of recording success went to their heads, and their heads weren't at all prepared to deal with the big-time put downs of the music that they had dared to make in Michigan for so long. Although the music was right where the people were at, or at least wanted to be, the personal commitment of the musicians to the people just wasn't strong enough to see them through the hassles they had to face. Although John signed them to a new contract with Atlantic right away, the 5 got scared of what they were doing, moved away from the Trans-Love commune, and cut off all ties with John by the time he went to jail for possession of the righteous dope they had shared so often with him in the years they were together.
On the 5's second album, on Atlantic,
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the over-reaction of the band to their high energy roots is right there in the grooves. The music is thin and weak, put together with such painstaking and time-consuming care in order to not be "too far out"--"just a good rock and roll record," is the way the 5 put it themselves--that record sales have only made the slightest dent in paying back the enormous cost of making the record. This wasn't the stuff the people wanted to hear, especially from the MC5. This wasn't the MC5 that the people had met and come to love so much with KICK OUT THE JAMS. (And in fact it really WASN'T the 5 as they played on stage, because they got so uptight about their ability to play the music that guitarist Wayne Kramer played bass on most cuts, as they felt bass player Mike Davis, couldn't do the job well enough himself.) If you knew the 5--and who didn't?--you didn't even wanna get up and dance.
Last week we got a chance to listen to an early edition of the new MC5 album that should be on the streets any day now--it's called HIGH TIME and I wanna tell you how GOOD if feels to be up and dancing with the Motor City Five once again. The 5 have spent a year thinking about their last album and their sound; and they've spent several months getting together this new record, which has them finding again the secret of their early success: high energy music!!
HIGH TIME is full of brand new tunes, which over half the time rock on beautifully with a full, powerful sound that is entirely missing on their last record. Rob Tyner is singing hard and from the middle of his gut once again, Fred Smith and Kramer combine guitars to make the smashing waves of rock and roll rhythm that made them famous, and Davis and Dennis Thompson are holding it together, too, pounding and thrashing away like crazy. Considering the stuff that's played on the radio most of the time, we have to recommend that you go out and get a copy of this record for yourself and your friends as soon as it's available--and considering their last album, we have to say that the MC5 have made a brilliant comeback.
But the story doesn't end right here--it can't because everybody knows that the MC5 on HIGH TIME are the same five musicians that blew out our brains and wore out our record needles with the famous KICK OUT THE JAMS record. So let's take HIGH TIME off the record player for a few minutes and give JAMS a spin, just to see how the revolutionary MC5 of the old days makes the new improved version sound by comparison.
First of all, JAMS is the highest energy record the 5 have ever made--it's still the highest energy rock and roll record ever made anywhere--and the existence of HIGH TIME doesn't threaten it's position as "best ever" one bit. When JAMS was released back in 1968, it was clearly the farthest out thing happening at the time. The music was not only a concentration of everything that WAS rock and roll, but the lyrics were just as right on, another part of what made the 5 the "whole thing" that they were. The lyrics of HIGH TIME, on the other hand, don't give you very much new to think about when you're up there dancing. Too bad. . .but it's a necessary result of being "just rock and roll musicians," which is what the 5 obviously want to be now that they're all living alone in their own houses, separated from each other and from where the people are at.
The lyrics of "Sister Ann," the stomp down rocker that opens the album, are actually ridiculous in comparison to the killer music that Smith has put together for it. The whole SEPARATION ruse is really obvious right from the bat--the tune GETS DOWN but the words are some kind of weird joke--they're about this crazed nun whose "got the ten commandments tattooed on her arm" and "After Sunday Mass/She goes to see her man/She always does the best/That she can/She never tries to tease/She always aims to please/She's gonna squeeze him tight/And make him feel alright." Huh? All the other references to women are the usual "Come on baby let's go get high" stuff--as a matter of fact that actually is one line out of "Baby Wontcha," which is full of cliches like "The lovely senorita/Took me by my hand," but nothing at all anywhere about women as REAL sisters, full and equal to their brother musicians.
The only references to the people's righteous sacraments, or any dope at all, are Thompson's lyrics on the last song on side one, "I get stoned boy/And I go out of my mind." Then there's the reference to bogus drugs: "Atom bomb, Vietnam/Missiles on the moon/And they wonder why/The kids are shooting dope so soon," which we would assume are elaborated on in "Poison," but the words on that tune are recorded so fuzzily that it's impossible to tell anything the 5 are saying. The only other significant lyric we were able to pick up on was this one from Tyner's metaphysical "Future Now"
"Freedom is yours right now
If you control your own destiny" Gee whizz, Rob. Better not try and tell that to John Sinclair up at Jackson Prison.
Unfortunately, the non-revolutionary content of the 5's new lyrics isn't HIGH TIME'S only drawback. Like we said, the 5 have really made some righteous improvements in their music since we last heard from them--but in half the tunes no sooner do they get a solid groove going, then they lose it again. "Sister Ann" degenerates into a boring pun when a real Salvation Army Band (wowee!) starts HONKing away at the end, and three out of four tunes on side two stop for what are supposed to be scary, eerie, weirdly dramatic little interludes but turn out to be tiring passages where you wait for them to get back into the rock and roll again.
You should really check out, though, the last tune on the album, "Skunk." Detroit trumpet man Charles Moore (who plays in the Contemporary Jazz Quintet and who, strangely enough, was also managed by John Sinclair back in 1965) and some other horns join in on "Skunk" to really get it smoking. It's one of the highest energy tunes ever recorded on a rock and roll jam--and the fact that it ends so sloppily is just another reminder of what's wrong with the MC5 on HIGH TIME. As John Sinclair points out in this week's Dragon Teeth, our bands can do the job of playing the music, but most of them just don't take their jobs as seriously as the people's musicians must.
HIGH TIME has shown that the MC 5 can get us dancing again, and that's right on anyway. But we know from KICK OUT THE JAMS that the 5 can be a beautifully WHOLE THING, too--that's what the people need--and, while there's still time, I know we would welcome them all the way back to it. KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKER!
MC5 AT BUFFALO DOPE CONFERENCE IN 1969
MC5 FREEKOUT AT WSU COMMUNITY ARTS AUDITORIUM IN 1967