MC5 – High Time Revisited

by Rik Mercaldi on January 27, 2017

When the MC5 came storming out of Detroit in the late 1960s, the praise bestowed upon them by both fans and the press was practically evangelical. A lot had happened in just a few short years. By the time their third and final album High Time was released in 1971, their once revolutionary stance was old news, and disillusionment with the music business combined with increasing drug dependencies were beginning to cripple the momentum of this once powerful band. The world wasn’t exactly waiting with bated breath for another MC5 record, which was unfortunate because High Time would prove to be their most fully realized album. It encompassed their individual and combined strengths in an adrenaline rush that was spirited, defiant and confident. It was a testament to what the band were truly capable of.

Kick Out The Jams, their pulverizing 1969 debut, is an absolutely incendiary document of the live MC5 experience, presenting a band firing on all cylinders in front of an adoring crowd of admirers on their home turf of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. The revolutionary rants, high decibel jams, free jazz improvisations and raucous energy is positively infectious. The follow-up, Back In The USA was a more refined and structured, song-oriented approach. It showed the band playing tighter, more streamlined material but lacked the adventurous spirit and attitude of its predecessor. Although both were extremely influential, they almost seemed as though they were made by two different bands.

Detroit, Michigan in the 1960s was the epicenter of the automobile manufacturing industry, and if you were a young man growing up there, your future lay just over the horizon, where grey clouds of factory exhaust poured endlessly from the smokestack towers dominating the skyline, while the metronomic clang of assembly line steel rang through the air 24 hours a day, every day. To the five young men who would eventually become known as the MC5, this was not an option. Their restless spirit and rebelliousness was fueled by music, the momentum of societal evolution, and a burning desire to be true to themselves. The world was changing fast, and the preconceived notions and expectations of the previous generations were irrelevant. There was no room for complacency, this was their time.

Formed in the Lincoln Park suburb of Detroit in 1964, the band was started by school buddies Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith on guitars, and later adding Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson on drums. They met Rob Derminer while looking for a manager, and he very briefly played bass in an early version of the group, but when his talents as a vocalist and frontman were discovered, he was made their lead singer, and bass duties were handed over to another local musician named Michael Davis. Derminer, heavily involved in left-wing politics as well as the burgeoning Jazz and poetry scene, changed his last name to Tyner (after Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner) and was the one responsible for coming up with the band’s name. An abbreviation of the Motor City Five, MC5 was a reflection of where they were from and partly chosen because it sounded like a car model or part. They were, after all, in the automobile manufacturing epicenter of the country where cars and girls were fighting for space in the minds of most young men.

While playing gigs locally they caught the attention of poet and left-wing activist John Sinclair, who offered his help and guidance. Not a traditional manager by any means, it was Sinclair’s influence that led the band to become more politically charged and become included as part of the new militant, anti-racist, White Panther Party started by Sinclair and his Wife Leni. The Black Panther Party, originally started to challenge police brutality and discrimination as well as help to create social programs in the black community, was co-founded by Huey P. Newton. When asked what white people can do to help support their cause, Newton replied that they should start a White Panther Party. In addition to supporting the Black Panther’s 10 point program, the White Panther’s 10 point agenda included the declaration: “Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.” This defiant confrontational declaration was, of course, a threat to the conservative ruling authority at the time. The band along with other members of the White Panthers, many of whom shared the house where they lived communally with partners and spouses, were constantly under surveillance and routinely searched.

The band took part in a protest of the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The tension in the air was palpable leading up to the event and most of the artists who promised to appear were suspiciously absent. The MC5 were the only act to perform on that day and they played for several hours before helicopters started swarming above them and the police started to intervene. The band saw what was happening, the roadies pulled up their van to the stage, threw all of their gear in and got out just before riots started and everything broke down into total chaos. Government surveillance footage was actually taken of the band while they were performing, clips of which can be seen in the film, “MC5 A True Testimonial”. The counter culture cavalry they expected to be there with them in united solidarity, never even showed up to the party.

The band’s following had been steadily growing locally and after independently releasing several singles on their own Trans Love Energies label. They embarked on an East Coast tour in the Summer of 1968. It was during this tour that their reputation really started to blossom. Word started spreading about this band from Detroit that would blow headliners off the stage. Crowds chanted for multiple encores when they opened up for other bands, and rumors of them upstaging the mighty British power trio Cream spread, leading to a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine. Record labels had also started to take notice and Elektra Records sent A&R man Danny Fields to Detroit, Fields was completely blown away by their show and the adulation the band received from their fans who packed the Grande Ballroom that weekend, and he offered them a recording contract on the spot. Guitarist Wayne Kramer told Fields that “if you liked us, you’ll really love our little Brother band, Iggy and The Stooges”, and by Monday both bands would be signed to Elektra Records.

MC5 Fuck Hudsons PosterKick Out The Jams was released in 1969 and worked it’s way to the top 30 in the Billboard charts. From the screaming declaration of “kick out the jams motherfuckers” to the yearning sexuality of “I Want You Right Now”, and exploratory jams of “Starship”, the full effect of their rapturous live performance was captured to full effect. Due to what they labeled as obscene in the previously mentioned declaration (as well as in Sinclair’s album liner notes) Hudson’s, a local department store chain, refused to carry the record in their shops. The band responded by placing an advertisement in an anti-authoritarian publication called the Fifth Estate which stated, “kick out the jams motherfuckers, and kick in the door if the store won’t sell you the album, Fuck Hudson’s!”. Seeing the Elektra Records logo prominently displayed in the band’s ad, Hudson’s removed the entire Elektra catalog from all of their stores, resulting in Jac Holtzman, the head of Elektra being forced to drop the band from their contract. Although initially supportive of the album’s content, the potential loss of revenue for the Elektra could have been devastating.

Soon after the band were signed to Atlantic Records and began work on what would become Back In The USA. Jon Landau was brought in to produce and very quickly fell out of favor among the various band members. Although relatively inexperienced at the time, Landau would later go on to produce Bruce Springsteen’s massively successful, “Born in The USA”  album released in 1984. Landau’s almost militaristic approach, which required a seemingly endless number of takes, to keep the songs short and tight, stripped away the band’s improvisational instincts, and the spontaneous energy and fire from which their reputation was built, quickly evaporated. Often, when a band plays together, tempos naturally fluctuate slightly as they feel their way through a song’s changes, creating dynamics and a more natural feel, but Drummer, Dennis Thompson was forced to play to a click track in his headphones to keep their tempos regimented.  Although very common today, this was anathema to a band used to spontaneously playing off of each other. Another victim of the extreme quest for perfection was that guitarist Wayne Kramer had to play bass on a couple of tracks when bassist Michael Davis started to crack under the pressure and couldn’t nail the desired parts.

The album contained some classic MC5 songs including “Looking At You”, “Shakin’ Street”, and “Human Being Lawnmower”, demonstrating that their songwriting was in peak shape. The result was short, tight songs with a thin, bright and edgy sound.  It was, in fact, these qualities that contributed to it’s being considered a kind of prototype Punk record that would go on to become very influential to the artists of that genre a few short years later. It’s still considered a favorite among some MC5 fans, but to the people who were familiar with them at the time, this was a very different sounding band. The album stalled at number 137 on the Billboard chart and the experience left the band exhausted and frustrated. When they reconvened to work on their next album, they decided to produce the record themselves, and with the help of an Atlantic staff engineer named Geoffrey Haslam, that’s exactly what they did.

Guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith was especially prolific, bringing some of his as well as the band’s strongest songs to date, including the explosive album opener “Sister Anne”. Jumping out of the gate, we get classic MC5 dual guitar riffage (listening with headphones, you can really hear the guitars playing off each other) and tinkling R&R piano that literally leaps out of the grooves. Set to an ode about a liberated, promiscuous nun with “the ten commandments tattooed on her arm” the song also features an explosive harmonica duet played by Smith & Tyner.

“Baby Won’t Ya”, another terrific Smith penned rocker, shows the band’s R&B roots coming to the fore and features Kramer and Smith playfully taunting each other in an explosive dual guitar solo, topped off with an absolutely infectious, fist-pumping chorus. Combined with the opening track, it’s a double shot album opener that’s practically impossible to sit still through.

Segueing perfectly to the next track is the anthemic, Miss X. Written by Wayne Kramer, who also plays the piano on it, it’s a perfect breather for singer Rob Tyner to step back, just slightly, and reveal the hidden crooner behind the wailing anarchist. If it didn’t already exist, and carry the questionable connotations and fodder for heated debate among the music intelligentsia, the term Power Ballad would describe this song perfectly, and that’s meant as a compliment.

MC5The track that follows clearly shows that the band had lost none of their anarchic spirit. Drummer Dennis Thompson’s sole songwriting contribution to the album “Gotta Keep Movin'” is a classic rave up and wake up rallying battle cry against complacency that calls out parents, priests, politicians, and anyone else foolish enough to get in their way.

“Future/Now” continues in a similar venomous, revolutionary us versus them vein, reinforcing their status as a band for the people, not “the man”. The dark and moody tremolo effected guitar outro adds an ominous sense of foreboding to the proceedings.

“Poison”, another strong offering by Wayne Kramer features Wayne on lead vocals and a driving guitar riff that builds to a climactic chorus that dynamically shifts to a spoken word interlude, framed
beautifully with slippery, expertly executed cascading minor key guitar licks before releasing itself back with the delicately delivered statement of “beauty & perfection are my attack!” The results are powerful while still demanding introspection.

The pulsating tremolo guitar that ended “Future/Now” pops it’s wobbly little head back into the intro of “Over and Over” before launching into the climbing riffs and frustrated rants about topics ranging from ecology, cops, and the Love Generation, to Vietnam. The shouting refrain of  “over and over”, an angst ridden plea to anyone who will listen, that things have got to change. This was the high energy Five doing what they do best, with Dennis Thompson’s powerfully frantic drumming driving the song to an absolute frenzy.

A pounding drum beat starts ominously, augmented by percussion and voices into an almost tribal sounding brew, slowly building with a smoldering intensity. This leads us into the album’s final track, “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)”. The guitars soon join in with a raunchy intensity with Smith’s heavy riff providing the springboard for Kramer’s incendiary lead work, with Tyner’s pleading wail draped over the top. Eventually, a horn section creeps in to accent the proceedings leading to a cacophonous blasting of Free Jazz experimentalism with echoes of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. How better to end a record. The band firing on all cylinders, embracing their wide range of influences, performing to their fullest potential, and delivering an album that was true to what the MC5 was all about.

Unfortunately, it was all a little too late. Atlantic Records’ interest in the band was waning by that point and they did little to market the album. Even Lenny Kaye’s glowing review in Rolling Stone Magazine couldn’t give the album the boost it needed, and sales of the record were disappointing. The spiraling heroin use among some of the band members was also becoming a problem. They booked a small tour with dates in the U.K and Europe, during which bassist Michael Davis decided he’d had enough, and quit. The band acquired a replacement and soldiered on for a bit longer, but it was clear that the end was imminent. The spirit and chest pounding camaraderie that had fueled the band was dissipating fast, and the once defiant wind that filled their sails had given way to a breathless, narcotic whisper.

The original five reunited one last time to celebrate the reopening of the venue where it all started, the Grande Ballroom. It was New Years Eve 1972, and by all accounts, the band phoned it in that night. They got through the gig, took their money, and went their separate ways. In 2006 Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer, and Dennis Thompson reunited for the first of what become several successful DKT/MC5 shows with various auxiliary players subbing for fallen comrades Rob Tyner (1991) and Fred “Sonic” Smith (1994). I was able to catch one of these shows when they came to New York and it truly was an uplifting and inspired celebration of all that was great about the MC5. They really looked like they were having a blast.

Although not appreciated at the time, High Time has gone on to become a much cherished classic, not only among MC5 devotees but among the band members themselves. As of this time, only Dennis Thompson and Wayne Kramer are still with us (Michael Davis passed away in 2012) but High Times still stands as a high watermark, and a true testimonial to this remarkable band. Kick out the jams, Brothers and Sisters!

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