Posts Tagged ‘John Lennon’

“Revolver” by the Beatles (1966)

Picture Beatlemania as it erupted in the United States in February 1964: Teenage girls screaming at four young “mop-top” musicians performing melodic love songs.

Two years later, the girls still were screaming. But John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard Starkey had been transformed far, far beyond the cartoonish – yes, there actually was a Beatles animated series – portrayal of the Fab Four phenoms.

The release of “Rubber Soul” in late 1965 demonstrated how far the band had progressed musically, the lyrical simplicity of previous songs supplanted by a newfound complexity, particularly on Lennon’s material. Under the guidance of producer George Martin, the Beatles were able to translate their musical aspirations to vinyl.

“Revolver” is a groundbreaking statement in that it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities as to how a popular band could present itself to its audience. Stylistically, lyrically and sonically, the album represents a major step in formulating what we now know as classic rock.

Proceedings began on April 6, 1966, when the band started work on a new composition by Lennon that carried the working title of “Mark I.” After experiencing a bad LSD trip the first time he tried LSD, unwittingly dosed by his dentist, John decided to try the drug on better terms, using Dr. Timothy Leary’s writings as a guide. That did the trick.

“Mark I” apparently represents Lennon’s sonic conversion of an acid trip, evoking Leary’s words to a backdrop of tape loops, many of them running in reverse. In an attempt to add to the sense of otherworldliness, he suggested that he should be suspended from a rope to spin around as he delivered his vocal. Nineteen-year-old engineer Geoff Emerick came up with the more practical solution of Lennon singing into a Leslie revolving speaker, which he hijacked from an organ.

In the original version of “Mark I,” as released three decades later on “Anthology 2,” Lennon’s vocal is thin and tinny, described by Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn as sounding like it was coming from the cheapest of transistor radios. By the time the song was completed as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the voice transmission is much higher fidelity, if hardly conventional.

According to McCartney and Harrison, Lennon drew the lyrics primarily from Leary’s “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” co-written by fellow LSD proselytizers Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner. The first couple of verses read much like their guide to a good trip:

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Although the Beatles started work first on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” it is the final track on “Revolver,” which contains 14 tracks on its British version. Unfortunately, Capitol Records still was playing games with Beatles records as of 1966, and the American release contains only 11 songs, clocking in at well under half an hour.

Either way, kicking off the album is one of Harrison’s best-known songs, and one that looks to continue to resonate long after all of us are gone, “Taxman.” Stewing at his native United Kingdom taking 94 percent at his earnings, he launches into a viciously cynical diatribe from the government’s standpoint:

Don’t ask me what I want it for
(Haha! Mister Wilson!)
If you don’t want to pay some more
(Haha! Mister Heath!),
‘Cause I’m the Taxman,
Yeah, I’m the Taxman

Now my advice for those who die, (Taxman!)
Declare the pennies on your eyes, (Taxman!)
‘Cause I’m the Taxman,
Yeah, I’m the Taxman.
And you’re working for no-one but me!

If Harrison’s attack on the tax structure was revolutionary for 1966, the song that follows it on “Revolver” is no less. “Eleanor Rigby,” of course, is McCartney’s nihilistic vignette set to a string quartet, ruminating on “all the lonely people” and, by extension, on organized religion: “No one was saved.” Many other artists covered “Eleanor Rigby” in various forms, including the overtly psychedelicized Vanilla Fudge version. But the Beatles’ original arrangement – the strings, Paul’s plaintive vocal, John and George backing him on the chorus – remains the strongest.

The U.S. version of “Revolver” omits three Lennon songs that appear on other American albums: “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert.” The first of those – a languidly paced number that abruptly drops out in places, as if the singer indeed has nodded off – is laced with many of the sonic effects of which John became enamored while recording “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Harrison returns with “Love You To,” the first of his three sitar-dominated compositions for the Beatles and probably the strongest one. Again, he expresses the cynicism of his worldview – “There’s people standing ’round/Who screw you in the ground/They’ll fill you in with all their sins you’ll see” – but this time he’s able to steer matters in the right direction with the love of his woman.

“Revolver” is an album of contrasts, and diametrically opposed to Lennon’s experimentation is McCartney’s penchant for straightforward love songs. “Here, There and Everywhere” is such an effort, presaging much of what has been criticized as fluff during his solo career, although this composition certainly has much more merit than something like, say, “Silly Love Songs.” (Although that Wings effort was the biggest hit of 1976!)

Speaking of hits, they don’t have much more staying power than “Yellow Submarine,” written by Lennon for Ringo’s vocal contribution to the album. The fanciful journey in what very well may be a barbiturate has been sung by children for a couple of generations now, enjoying the nonsense of claiming, “We all live in a yellow submarine!” Of note in the actual recording are the various nautical sound effects, which help keep the track sounding somewhat fresh as it plods along.

“She Said She Said” is another acid-influenced Lennon composition, this time based on a conversation he had with Peter Fonda when both were tripping. One drawback of the U.S. “Revolver” is that only this track and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were present to represent John’s work.

McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine” has been heard recently in TV commercials, but the original uses the Beatles’ inimitable harmony vocals to great effect in conveying a thoroughly uplifting message, one that might be needed after the listener mulls “She Said She Said.”

Lennon’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” features an exceptional guitar line, with Harrison playing his 12-string Rickenbacker and McCartney adding support. The lyrics are rather cryptic, but one entirely plausible suggestions is that they refer to Mick Jagger’s then-girlfriend (“bird”) Marianne Faithfull, who had scored a couple of mid-’60s pop hits despite a lack of prior performing experience.

“For No One” shows McCartney taking the opposite approach of “Good Day Sunshine” with a melancholy statement on the breakup of “a love that should have lasted years.” Given full credit on the album cover for his French horn playing was Alan Civil (1929-89), principal hornist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra until his retirement in 1988.

The popular story behind Lennon’s “Doctor Robert” is that he wrote it about a pill-pushing physician in New York. Certainly, the lyrics hint at some type of prescriptive shenanigans:

Ring my friend, I said you call Doctor Robert
Day or night he’ll be there any time at all, Doctor Robert
Doctor Robert, you’re a new and better man,
He helps you to understand
He does everything he can, Doctor Robert

“I Want to Tell You” is one of Harrison’s best Beatles songs, faded in with a stuttering, hard-rock intro that goes a long way toward defining the band’s sound of its proto-psychedelic period. Again, George is prone to ruminate: “But if I seem to act unkind/It’s only me, it’s not my mind/That is confusing things.”

McCartney does his best Motown impression on “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which became a hit U.S. single in 1976 after being re-released on Capitol’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” compilation. The song shows the Beatles as maintaining their strong R&B roots in the midst of their transformation to psychedelia.

The release of “Revolver” in August 1966 coincided with the start of a short tour, which wrapped up with a performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on Aug. 29. No songs from the new album were included, of course, as the band ripped through their usual Fab Four-type set, most of the sound drowned in screams.

And that, of course, was that.

“Rubber Soul” by the Beatles (1965)

A good argument can be made that every Beatles album, at least the ones over which they had creative control, should be on any list of the all-time greats. My erstwhile colleague Brad Hundt, a talented entertainment writer and lifelong Beatlemaniac, no doubt would do so on his list.

But as a reminder, Harry’s Hundred combines my respect for an album’s merits, my familiarity with its contents and how much I enjoy listening to it. So it’s not exactly a “greatest” list; if so, stuff like “Golden Earring Live” would be nowhere near it. But that ain’t a bad album, and I still like it a whole lot 35 years after its release.

So I’ve narrowed down my Beatles selections, and here’s where we start, at the juncture when the Beatles evolved from pop to art, when they demonstrated once and for all that they weren’t just some British guys with long hair and Edwardian suits making a bunch of noise.

What’s remarkable about “Rubber Soul” is that the Beatles and George Martin recorded it on deadline, trying to rush-release it before the holiday shopping season. The band had just returned to England from another North American tour full of fans screaming so loud that the musicians couldn’t hear themselves. Rather than take time off, as they’d do following their final tour the following year, they plunged headlong into writing new songs.

What emerged was a departure from most of the love-song music they’d made to that point. Sure, boy-girl relationships continued to be a prominent theme, but in a much more creative manner.

The opener, “Drive My Car,” is indicative of the new direction: John Lennon draws from the Robert Johnson “Terraplane Blues” songbook – Robert Plant later would use it to optimal effect on Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot” – to equate sex with operating a vehicle, and this time it’s the woman who’s enticing the man.

Lennon explores the male-female dynamic with sophistication previously unknown in the Beatles canon on “Norwegian Wood,” which turned about to be the veiled story of his affair with a journalist. Musically, the song also marks a major step forward, as George Harrison plays the sitar for the first time in rock music history. (Outtakes, such as the one released on “Anthology 2,” show the instrument to be much more prominent in the mix than on the official version.)

Paul McCartney joins the fray with “You Won’t See Me,” a commentary on his relationship with Jane Asher, one that would end a couple of years later when she caught him red-handed with an American woman named Francine Schwartz. As for the song, it displays a certain amount of petulance not found in previous McCartney compositions: “When I call you up, your line’s engaged/I have had enough, so act your age.”

“Nowhere Man” joins previous classics “I’m a Loser” and “Help!” as explorations of Lennon’s self-doubt, a condition that would manifest itself considerably in the coming years. The opening a cappella recitation of the lyrics stands as one of the most striking examples of the Beatles’ vocal abilities, and the song remains one of the most revered in the band’s catalog.

“Think for Yourself” demonstrates why George Harrison felt slighted when it came to the paucity of his compositions on Beatles albums. By any measure, it’s an exceptionally advanced composition for 1965: The lyrics resonate fully almost half a century later, what with the utter vapidness into which popular culture has evolved, and the frightening implications that has for the future of the world. Instrumentally, McCartney’s fuzz-toned bass guitar is at once innovative and another step toward what would become hard rock.

Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” became one of his best-known anthems. But he explored basically the same theme two years earlier with “The Word,” which also shows the Beatles’ overall sound becoming harder-edged as the ’60s progressed.

OK, so why do I rank “Rubber Soul” at a spot where 36 albums are ahead of it? Sorry, I’ve tried to warm up to “Michelle” for decades, but it’s one of the few Beatles songs that leaves me cold. Sure, it explores traditional French themes as opposed to the standard pop/rock of the time, which is interesting from a musical standpoint but hardly endears it to listeners who are prefer something a bit heavier.

Ringo Starr’s first Beatles co-composing credit appears on “What Goes On,” a relatively nondescript country-flavored tune that has its charms but isn’t quite the remedy for getting back on track after “Michelle.” Neither is “Girl,” though you have to like the “tit-tit-tit” backing vocals that escaped the censors.

McCartney redeems himself considerably with “I’m Looking Through You,” another jab at Jane through a relatively complex set of lyrics. Two distinct versions exist of the song, with the one that first was recorded serving as a sought-after collector’s item for decades, until “Anthology 2” made that moot.

Lennon’s much-heralded “In My Life” is one of the first of his many trips down memory lane, a bit more upbeat than, say, “Mother,” but still containing a fair amount of poignancy. “Some are dead and some are living,” for example, refers to Stuart Sutcliffe; it’s been conjectured that John always shouldered some of the blame for Stu’s early death.

When the Beatles were writing and recording what became “Rubber Soul,” they managed to come up with 13 new songs. The 14th, “Wait,” was an outtake from the “Help!” album, but the track tends to mesh seamlessly with most of the newer material.

Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” while not quite reaching the heights of “Think for Yourself,” still shows that he would have been the chief songwriter in just about any other rock band of the era.

The album closes with the tongue-in-cheek “Run for Your Life,” which is about as far removed thematically as you can get from tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Lennon, who admitted nicking the opening line from Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” (as sung by Elvis Presley), ended up despising “Run for Your Life.” We’ll blame that development, like many others, on Yoko’s influence …

For the record (pun intended), the American “Rubber Soul” LP is a substantially different album from its British counterpart, containing two songs from the U.K. version of “Help!” – “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” – while jettisoning “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone.”

By opening the album with “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” which sounds somewhat like Paul Simon compositions of the period (or vice versa), Capitol Records made the U.S. “Rubber Soul” appear to be more of a folk-rock album, to compete commercially with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds on Columbia. Like the Beatles needed help with sales!

Seriously, whatever the version, “Rubber Soul” went to the top of the charts around the world, proving the Beatles could appeal to a more serious, mature audience than the screaming teeny-boppers who packed their concerts. In turn, that made the band members realize they probably didn’t need to be trying to perform in front of screaming teeny-boppers.

But that’s another story.

“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek & the Dominos (1970)

Superstardom may have seemed inevitable for Eric Clapton, but for a while he did his best to avoid it.

Having gained international fame through his work with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and especially Cream, Clapton seemed to want to ratchet it up a notch after the latter band splintered. Joining with Traffic’s Steve Winwood, Family’s Ric Grech and Cream associate Ginger Baker, Clapton formed Blind Faith, for which the term “supergroup” was coined.

That project didn’t work out as well as expected, so Clapton decided to ditch the spotlight and play guitar for an American husband-and-wife team, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Then there was the show he played as part of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band on Sept. 13, 1969, as captured on the “Live Peace in Toronto” album and D.A. Pennebaker’s “Sweet Toronto” movie. Proceedings go well until Yoko starts doing her thing all over the audience, as John so aptly puts it, but it’s kind of fun to watch the guys flailing away on their guitars as she caterwauls.

Back to Delaney and Bonnie: Clapton liked the other members of their band so much that he drafted them to play on his first solo album, “Eric Clapton,” recorded November 1969 through January 1970. Then bassist Carl Radle, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon teamed up with Clapton to tour as Derek & the Dominos, which represented an attempt to keep a low profile.

Other “Dominos,” including George Harrison, went into the studio to record a couple of songs for a single, “Tell the Truth” and the lascivious “Roll It Over.” The single was released but quickly withdrawn, and the four regular members of the band subsequently traveled to Miami to work with producer Tom Dowd on a full album.

Dowd happened to also be working on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Idlewild South” at the time, and he invited Clapton to check out the Allmans at a Miami concert. Members of both groups headed back to Criteria Studios for an all-night jam session, and Clapton promptly invited Duane to sit in on laying down tracks for the album.

The result generally is regarded as the pinnacle of Clapton’s half-century of recording, a combination of original songs and blues covers, most drawing on the theme of unrequited love. Of course, much of that stemmed from Clapton’s own unrequited love for Harrison’s wife, Patti, the “Layla” of the album’s classic title track.

At first glance, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” seems sprawling, with its 14 songs spread over two albums in its original incarnation. And some critics at the time thought they detected some filler among the compositions.

That might be true for the album’s closer, “Thorn Tree in the Garden,” which is Whitlock’s song. Otherwise, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” stands as a statement by musicians putting on a clinic.

Several of the originals – “I Looked Away,” “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Keep on Growing,” “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” and a slowed-down “Tell the Truth” – have become classic-rock standards, while the covers as just as scintillating, especially Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.” On the album, the song fades in, as the engineers didn’t quite capture the beginning of what started as an informal jam.

Clapton had been performing Billy Myles’ “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” since his Blues Breakers days, but the song takes on particular poignance in the “Layla” setting, nailing the Eric-Pattie relationship: “all the time you know she belongs to your very best friend.”

The LP’s fourth side opens with a hard-edged cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” which was was recorded right around the time of Jimi’s death. And the call-and-response vocals of Clapton and Whitlock are put to effective use on Chuck Willis’ “It’s Too Late,” as witnessed in the band’s appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV show.

The Clapton-Allman collaboration culminates with “Layla,” with its blistering dual-guitar attack leading in to Eric’s definitive tale of woe. The song eventually segues into a piano coda, composed and played by Gordon with the guitarists adding their flourishes.

The album reached No. 16 in the United States but failed to chart in Britain, probably because of Clapton’s muted presence. Thanks to the title track’s re-release as a single a few years later, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” eventually went gold. Twenty years after its recording, it was released as a three-CD “deluxe package” featuring two discs of instrumental jams and outtakes, the first of its kind and still one of the best.

As for Derek & the Dominos, they toured the U.S., then started working on a second album before the inevitable breakup. Clapton went into a drug-induced seclusion for a couple of years before finally producing the top-selling “461 Ocean Boulevard,” his solo masterpiece.

Radle rejoined Clapton for that album and was part of his band through the ’70s. Carl died in 1980 from a kidney infection.

Whitlock recorded four solo albums in the ’70s before spending much of the next two decades out of the music business. He returned to recording, performing and songwriting in 1999.

Gordon remained a sought-after session drummer, playing with the likes of Lennon, Harrison, Traffic, Steely Dan, Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa. Unfortunately, he developed schizophrenia and was eventually was convicted for the 1983 murder of his mother.

Allman was riding his motorcycle in his hometown of Macon, Ga., on Oct. 29, 1971, when he ran into a flatbed truck carrying a lumber crane. He died a few weeks short of his 25th birthday.

He never knew what his collaboration with Eric Clapton would mean to rock music’s legacy.

“Procol Harum” by Procol Harum (1967)

Lyricist Keith Reid told author Claes Johansen about his inspiration for what stands as one of the most recognizable, respected and oft-played songs in rock history:

“Some guy looked at a chick and said to her, ‘You’ve gone a whiter shade of pale.’ That phrase stuck in my mind. It was a beautiful thing for someone to say. I wish I’d said it.”

And so it was that later, the band he wrote for, Procol Harum, combined Reid’s words with a melody reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major.” Released as the band’s debut single, the song went to the top of the charts in most of the civilized world. And none other than John Lennon took to playing the tune constantly in his Rolls-Royce.

Suddenly the band with the odd name – the group’s manager, the late Guy Stevens, named it after a friend’s cat – was in high demand; its live debut was opening for another hot act at the time, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

To capitalize on the success, Procol Harum entered London’s Olympic Studios for a coupe of days in June 1967 with new members Robin Trower on guitar and B.J. Wilson on drums to record on album’s worth of material.

The result is a collection of songs that display an impressive amount of diversity, melodicism and maturity for a band that had been together only a couple of months. True, several of the members had played together previously as the Paramounts (and as such had opened several shows for the Beatles), but that aggregation’s forte was rhythm and blues.

Procol Harum combined elements of the nascent psychedelic scene, particularly Reid’s often-arcane lyrics, with a sophisticated instrumental approach spearheaded by Trower, lead singer Gary Brooker’s piano and especially Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ, the dominant instrument on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

The debut alum opens with “Conquistador,” which became a major hit several years later via a live version recorded with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. The original studio version, though, conveys a similar theme of urgent grandiosity using only the instruments available at Olympic.

Reid remains well-known for his morbid sense of humor, as his lyrics to “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” attest: “And though I said, ‘You don’t exist,’ she grasped me firmly by the wrist/And threw me down upon my back, and strapped me to a torture rack.”

The sense of foreboding continues with “Something Following Me,” with Trower’s guitar driving hard-edged instrumental backing for a tale about a man who keeps encountering his fate: “I went into a shop, and bought a loaf of bread/I sank my teeth into it, thought I’d bust my head/I dashed to the dentist, said, ‘I’ve got an awful pain’/The man looks inside my mouth and screams, ‘This boy’s insane!’/Imagine my surprise, thought I’d left it at home/But there’s a lump in my mouth with my own tombstone.”

“Mabel” seems to lighten the mood with a short burst of music-hall cajolery, but Reid sneaks in this line: “In the cellar lies my wife/In my wife there’s a knife.”

Ouch.

Trower really cranks up his Stratocaster on “Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of),” getting a distinctively distorted sound by running one amplifier (Selmer Little Giant) into another (Fender). Lyrically, Reid creates a fantasy world complete with his own characters, such as Sousa Sam, Peep the Sot and the immortal Phallus Phil.

The LP’s second side starts with “A Christmas Camel,” which despite its title never seems to make it onto holiday compilations. That’s no wonder, with lyrics like “While some Arabian oil well/Impersonates a padded cell.”

“Kaleidoscope” always has been one of my favorite Procol Harum songs, with Fisher’s organ the dominant instrument on a catchy slice of hard rock. Reid doesn’t kill anyone off in the lyrics, but the paranoia remains: “Still out in the dark I grope/The key’s in my kaleidoscope.”

Reid returns to a favorite subject in “Salad Days (Are Here Again),” writing of a couple: “The sun seeps through the window to see if we’re still dead/To try to throw some light around the gloom upon our bed.”

OK, then.

The brief “Good Captain Clack” leads into the apogee of “Procol Harum,” if not the band’s entire career: Fisher’s epic instrumental “Repent Walpurgis,” which begins as another Bach-inspired melody before Trower steps in with his raging Fender fury. Brooker takes the foot off the accelerator with a relatively light piano arpeggio before the full band returns with a vengeance, finally wrapping up proceedings with in an extended, highly dramatic fashion.

It’s no wonder Procol Harum often played “Repent Walpurgis” as an encore, even into its 21st-century incarnation.

One knock against “Procol Harum” – and I’d have ranked it higher if this weren’t the case – is that the album exists only in monaural form. The situation was rectified somewhat by the 1999 CD release of “Pandora’s Box,” which contains true stereo versions of several songs, and also features two versions of “Repent Walpurgis,” the latter clocking in at more than seven minutes.

“Pandora’s Box” also features a stereo mix of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that sounds infinitely superior to the single version and plays out to its natural conclusion instead of fading in the middle of Brooker’s vocal on the chorus.

Procol Harum went on to record a series of highly regarded albums – “Shine On Brightly,” “A Salty Dog,” “Home” and “Broken Barricades” – before Trower left to pursue a successful solo career. Reid and Brooker continued to write music together, and probably still do ’til this day.

But they and the rest of the band may have peaked right there at the very beginning, certainly commercially and perhaps artistically.

“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.