“High Time” by the MC5 (1971)
For those who associate ’60s-era rock with flowers, beads, incense and peppermints, I present the MC5.
The Motor City Five, as the Lincoln Park, Mich., band once was known, melded overt political rhetoric with what probably was the loudest music of their day: If you’re discussing the roots of heavy metal, the MC5 had better be prominent in the conversation.
On Oct. 30 and 31, 1968, the tape recorders rolled at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for what eventually became the MC5’s first album, “Kick Out the Jams,” which at the same time represents one of the few live debuts and one of the most incendiary. If John Lennon’s “Revolution” poked fun at would-be subversives, members of the MC5 – and particularly their manager, John Sinclair – were serious.
If you’re connecting the dots, you’ll recall that Lennon later recorded a song called “John Sinclair,” who indeed was the victim of “10 for two”: a decade-long prison sentence for two marijuana cigarettes. That was the price paid for expressing radical views at the time.
Along with running afoul of the “establishment,” the MC5 managed to alienate a much more important entity with regard to its short-term interests.
When Elektra Records released “Kick Out the Jams” in 1969, the introduction to the title track contained a certain term, the first half of which was “mother.” As a result, Hudson’s, a major Detroit department store, refused to carry the album. And as a result of that, the band took out an ad to the effect of “Stay alive with the MC5 – and @#%& Hudson’s.”
Hudson’s responded by refusing to carry any Elektra products, which meant big-time sellers like the Doors weren’t going to move as many units in Detroit. So Elektra settled the matter by dropping the MC5.
Atlantic Records promptly signed the band, and its first studio album, “Back in the USA,” was on par with its live predecessor on several levels. The political commentary still was there, albeit in a more subtle form, and the sonic quality was muted somewhat by producer Jon Landau’s decision to mix everything with high-end equalization; you can hear Michael Davis’ bass playing, but it doesn’t exactly boom through the woofers.
“Back in the USA” didn’t sell particularly well, and Atlantic gave the MC5 one more chance to redeem itself. The result was yet another stylistic departure.
“High Time” – yes, the cannabis-oriented magazine takes its name from the album title – veers away from the metallic assault of “Kick Out the Jams” and the trebly roots rock of “Back in the USA” by incorporating a variety of elements that were rather innovative for 1971.
Along with the core quintet – Davis, guitarists Wayne Kramer and the late Fred “Sonic” Smith, drummer Dennis Thompson and the vocalist, the late Rob Tyner – the album is augmented by more than a dozen musicians, including keyboard players, female backing singers, a horn section and (listed as playing percussion) future truck-commercial staple Bob Seger.
No, it’s not your imagination: Jennifer Aniston sports an MC5 T-shirt on an episode of “Friends.”
The band gives no quarter with its subject matter, as the kickoff track, “Sister Anne,” amply illustrates: Smith writes about a nun who “never tries to tease, she always aims to plase/She’s gonna squeeze you tight and make you feel all right.” To provide the song with a quasi-religious element, it wraps up with the horns playing rather loosely in the manner of a Salvation Army band, reminiscent of what Syd Barrett incorporated into his Pink Floyd swan song, “Jugband Blues.”
If “High Time” had a chance of yielding a hit single, it might have been “Baby Won’t Ya,” which kind of cops Eric Clapton’s “Crossroads” lick, although nowhere near blatantly as Steve Miller later did with “Jet Airliner.” And the chorus is as catchy as they come. Then again, the lyrical content would have stood in the way, with Smith penning such lines as “Sweetly, serenely, she showed me her gun/Baby let’s go get high.”
“Gotta Keep Movin'” hearkens back to the rhetoric of “Kick Out the Jams,” as Thompson pulls no punches regarding his worldview: “Presidents, priests and old ladies, too/They’ll swear on the Bible, what’s best for you/Atom bombs, Vietnam, missiles on the moon/And they wonder why their kids are shootin’ drugs so soon.”
“Poison” continues in the same vein, with the guitar interplay of Smith and Kramer providing a suitable foundation for the shared vocals of Kramer and Tyner, who sound rather desperate as they recount the plight of many of their contemporaries, including Sinclair: “Used, abused, locked up, beaten and fined/But I got free, copped a plea, and i can see/That there ain’t no freedom bell gonna chime this time.”
“Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)” wraps up the album with an appropriately heavy jam augmented by the horn section, as Smith seems to sum up the band’s career at that juncture in time: “Oh, baby, off we go, headin’ for a brand new place/The song’s been sung, the deed’s been done, staring you right in the face.”
The high point of “High Time,” though, probably is the song that opened the LP’s Side Two, “Future/Now.” Tyner continues in a paranoiac vein but offers a way out: “If you’re drifting or wandering lost, you’re perfect for the double cross/Freedom is yours right now, if you rule your own destiny.”
The first part of the song rocks along at the MC5’s usual furious pace, until that’s supplanted by subdued guitar arpeggios and Tyner’s spooky incantation: “And our mind will explode in a post-atomic dawn/The future breaks like a tidal wave, engulfing everyone/Confusion and chaos, the trauma of birth/A strange new day for the people of earth/Traditions burned away by that rising sun.”
The “Future” quotient of the song wasn’t in the cards for the MC5. “High Time” failed to make the charts, and Atlantic dropped the band. An attempt to keep going in Europe failed, and by 1972 the MC5 was history. It wasn’t until later that the band’s influences, especially on the sonic and political aspects of punk rock, gained widespread attention.
I’m not a great believer in the concept of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but sometimes I really pull for certain artists to receive their due recognition. And the MC5 deserves a place of honor in Cleveland.