n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
It’s been over ten years since the Velvet Underground made their dent in my psyche. Hell, it’s almost been a decade since the Stooges did. So why haven’t I heard the MC5 till now? I caught “Kick Out The Jams” in I Shot Andy Warhol, I’ve probably heard tracks at parties and I read all about them in Please Kill Me, but they’ve always been the one ‘proto-punk’ band I never got around to hearing. Between their political connections and retro reputation they just seemed too butch, too trad, for me to want to bother with. Plus I heard their free jazz wasn’t all that great anyhow.
Normally I wouldn’t think of reviewing something on first listen, especially if its music that comes with any degree of critical baggage. The first time you hear something you’re reacting to what it is compared to what you thought it would be. On consecutive listens you can actually judge it for what it is. Nonetheless, here’s my initial reactions to the MC5’s three full-lengths: Kick Out The Jams, Back In The USA, and High Time, played in consecutive order.
Kick Out The Jams opens with a sub-James Brown gospel-soul testimonial, a bad omen of the mild minstrelsy to follow. “Ramblin’ Rosie” is a fine rave-up, a nice split between Steppenwolf and the Stooges, but I’m surprised by Rob Tyner’s struggling falsetto. Maybe this is why nobody gave a shit what he did afterwards.
Compared to that primal Stooge spooge, this album, while supercharged, sounds a little ordinary. It’s not destructo-nihilism so much as wigged out Woodstock wooly booly. Tyner’s White Panther sounds more than a little Blues Brother, with little of Iggy’s idiosyncrasy or wit. Iggy says “LAWWWWWWD,” MC5 says “HEY LAWDY MAMA” (or might as well). Fans of garage bash-out will be satisfied, but curious kids under the impression that punk meant a break from hippie blooze will wonder why they should put up with these rama-lama thank-ya come-togetha’s and post-Hendrix pyrotechnics. To the unknowing underground would-be scholar, it sounds more like the Cream album you haven’t heard than the Sex Pistols track you know by heart. This isn’t to say these guys aren’t GOOD at the supersonic sho-nuff; you just might not care.
I had to skip two minutes of “Motor City Is Burning” (ultra blooze ballad, got it) and hopped through “I Want You Right Now” (ultra Troggs, got it). Is that against the rules? I know “Starship” swipes from Sun Ra, but I ended up thinking about that song “Vehicle” until I started thinking about bad Hendrix.
The claim that producer Jon Landau drastically changed the MC5’s sound and aesthetic with Back In The U.S.A. appears to be very, very, very true. Now they’re a good-time old-school rock combo with a much more restrained sense of freakout, like an aggro NRBQ. Where those guys and the Flamin’ Groovies get by on off-the-cuff geniality, Tyner sounds like a Moody Blue trying to be Fonzie and Landau’s so clearly warming up that 50s/60s good ol’ days mindset the Boss would later ‘perfect’ (Yech!) that I can’t help but recoil. By the insufferable “Let Me Try,” it feels like the Commitments have started writing originals. There are just way too many soul and early rock’n’roll albums I haven’t heard to get excited about pompous nostalgiacs, even they were better than 90% of the retro-macho blowhards that followed.
That said, the first MC5 track to really impress me is “American Ruse.” It’s Eddie Cochran after a few history books, with Rob Tyner dropping the self-adoring croon and digging into the lyric. Somebody else sings “Shakin’ Street,” and while the newbie’s bland, he’s bullshit-free so I guess I can see why people cover it. Then Tyner comes back and I think about how I really should check out a Steppenwolf comp if I’m going to bother with this. I really need to get some old school ZZ Top, too.
High Time splits the difference between the two poles of their work and is the better for it. It’s got tighter songwriting than on Jams, a less restrictive concept than Back In The U.S.A.—good times and revolutionary politics. The opening “Sister Anne” and “Baby Won’t Ya,” written by Fred “Sonic” Smith (suppose I should check out his Rendezvous), smokes anything from the previous albums, with Tyner actually telling jokes, guitars chugging with glee and some hellacious harmonica. “Anne” goes on two minutes too long (what’s with the marching band?) but I almost can’t blame them for not wanting to let go of a good thing.
The mood is almost shattered by Wayne Kramer’s “Miss X,” a guttural piano slog that will be enjoyed by people wondering what the hell that ‘yech!’ was doing next to Springsteen’s name, but “Gotta Keep Movin’” bops along like the Plastic Ono E Street Band ditty that never existed: “Atom bomb, Vietnam, missiles on the moon! And they wonder why the kids are shooting up so soon?” I can’t remember if Richard Meltzer or Lester Bangs compared these guys to the Max Frost’s band in the 60’s political exploitation flick Wild In The Streets, but they probably should have. I can see why cynics back in the day would grumble but I’m not offended since this stuff is thirty plus years old and more rock bands should be ripping off “Ball Of Confusion” anyhow. Tyner’s “Future/Now” starts out all right but then he gets all magisterial at the end (surprise).
Smith’s four tracks, which bracket the album (according to Allmusic, this is the only album with individual songwriting credits), are so spirited and memorable that I have to assume he’s the one behind “American Ruse” and that they’re the reason this band has the reputation it does—only allegedly nobody paid attention to High Time when it came out. I guess it was just that Landau hype and Fred’s wife we can credit for how ‘seminal’ they are.
By: Anthony Miccio
Published on: 2005-07-26