Spending High Time with MC5 -- A Guided, Stoned Tour through Motor City Mayhem
Listen to this while high: High Time by MC5.
Behind the buzz: Our recent visit to the Detroit retro-rock showroom sends us straight to the Cadillac of crunk rock, the Motor City Five. Elektra Records' overweening lust for a piece of the huge Midwestern rock LP market led to its short-lived association with this most avowedly left-political and revolutionary of American rock bands. Between the label's hype machine and the fervid agitprop of manager John Sinclair, the MC5's proto-punk sensibility and power chord hustle drew too little attention and even downright hostility from the anti-political hip-cred likes of Lester Bangs. By 1971, sadly, the public had been prodded away from their antics by the usual gatekeepers in the police and press. High Time, the band's third and final LP, didn't chart at all, and its reputation languished until Rhino's CD release in the early 1990s. It's isn't hard to imagine why, since this is music expressly designed to incite rock fans of that uneasy era to light up and Burn It All Down.
Today's weed: A Cheese/Sour Diesel hybrid bearing the unlovely name of "Cheisel.'
Acceleration: The album opens with "Sister Anne," a full-tilt rampager on Benzedrine par with anything off their influential 1969 debut Kick Out the Jams. The Salvation Army brass band intruding near the seven-minute mark is one of those perverse Sgt. Pepperisms dopers dote on. "Baby Won't Ya" is more riff-heavy boogie notching the sense of headlong abandon to house party levels.
Sidelong swerve: The idea of following two combustible Fred "Sonic" Smith rockers with "Miss X," a Wayne Kramer macho-romantic ballad, probably looked better on paper than it sounds with aid of the stuff you roll in it. Worthy enough as a very early example of Bon Jovioid angst, it ends in a nicely restrained frenzy, yielding to Dennis Thompson's "Gotta Keep Movin'," a high-octane prairie-leftist rant that gets us back on the throughway in a big damn hurry.
Cruise control: "Future/Now" is a frank call to arms. Legs, too, as vocalist Rob Tyner urges us to run, not walk, to the nearest riot. "Poison" is noble stuff from the Brother Wayne, with its jittery tension setting us up for the one-two finale. "Over and Over" would be the close-out showstopper on anybody else's heavy rock masterpiece. The creepy guitar intro builds into a coiled ferocious wallop, as Tyner howls of the bitter uselessness of working within the filthy factory-bound system he and his audience inherited and indicts Uncle Sam as the Big Pimp.
Liftoff: For a band that has only scant moments of recorded time to live, MC5 seem uncommonly eager to get on with the final detonation. There's a flurry of studio babble, some fool yells 'Hi-ho, Silver!' and "Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)" lurches forward on Thompson's furious drum solo. Indeed, these guys play as if they know this is the end of the line and the sheer welter of sound they kick up trumps anything thing in their short and raucous life. The Sun Ra-style horns suddenly rising up midway muscle us into the stratosphere just before album and group shimmer away to haze.
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