Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

MC5—
High Time


Released 1971 on Atlantic
The Seth Man, September 2002ce
The title of The MC5’s third and final album “High Time” was well-chosen for the group was long overdue in releasing a studio album that reflected their own vision. The cover’s battered and burnt clock that references the back cover of “Let It Bleed” was a fair representative of where The MC5 themselves were at politically, financially and spiritually so they had no reason to whip out such greasy, kick-ass rock’n’roll as they did on this album. Despite their scant studio experience that amounted to only the “Back In The USA” album and three pre-Elektra singles (two of which shared the same A-side) their sizeable chemistry and experience with literally hundreds of concert performances under their belt saw the band evolved far beyond their past efforts. As luck would have it, Atlantic staff producer Geoffrey Haslam gave them an expansive free hand that allowed them to surge and channel forth an album that resulted in one of the most defiant swansongs in Rock Music.

On “High Time” The MC5 finally found an environment in which to cut loose exactly as they pleased. Each track collides off into separate cataclysms that are all their own, loose as hell with an ever-uncoiling energy that oftentimes explodes without warning. For the first time, The MC5 credited songs individually and not collective to the group, and one glance at the songwriting credits reveals the ascending star of guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith as he wrote half of the album’s eight tracks (Wayne Kramer contributed two and Rob Tyner and Dennis Thompson one apiece.) Their former revolutionary stance had reduced sizably since the time of their involvement with John Sinclair’s White Panther Party, but they sustained throughout the myriad Mongolian Cluster Fucks they faced from both of the furthest ends of the political spectrum. Still feeling a responsibility to address political and social issues, they did so without the pressure of either revolutionary rhetoric or record industry kowtowing. So they just called it like they saw it, and then played the fuck out of it.

The testifying begins with “Sister Anne” as Dennis Thompson belabours his no-frills and completely explosive drum kit with cascading, pounding drums and ringing cymbals over twin-engine guitars firing up a Chuck Berry crosstalk. It’s a brilliant cacophony until hired piano begins tinkling and Tyner steps up to the microphone to begin vocally giving it up as only he can. Fred “Sonic” Smith burns down in the chorus with further full-tilt riffing that anchors everything to a main rhythm axis that rotates continually throughout a series of twists in this depiction of a streetwise nun. “Sonic” then turns up the heat with a blistering solo like Chuck Berry harnessing a lightning storm while visions of unleashed bladders dance in his head and the following Tyner harmonica soloing keeps the pressure mounting until the break back into his previous begged question: “Sister, won’t you tell me where I went so wrong?” The band keeps nailing it for 7 minutes 23 seconds as though making up for their previous album’s majority of 2 and a half minute pop chart hopefuls. The track soon draws back into the introductory strafe run but with additional female voices and soon crossfades into a rickety Salvation Army band outro. Before you can figure out why, Tyner has already yelped again and it’s straight into another “Sonic” Smith composition, “Baby Won’t Ya.” A drunk as a skunk and wimmen-chasin’ thang, it’s as tight and greasy as a groupie spread on a hotel bed for Fred against a celebratory ’71 Stones groove meets Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born On The Bayou” sans all the voodoo but plus twice the mojo and every bit as slinky. The twin guitar duels between “Sonic” and Kramer reach a repeating crescendo of unflagging intensity and minimalism pushed to the end of their guitar necks. The (comparatively) romantic “Miss X” follows and this time it’s Wayne Kramer singing of love on the road. Its sound oddly pre-dates Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” and is heartfelt to the point of bursting while its slapback drums, rudimentary piano and organ make it a highly atypical MC5 moment and indeed it’s the only place on “High Time” to even approach ballad terrain. “Gotta Keep Movin’” by Dennis Thompson draws down side one to a speedy end and it’s one of the most kick ass studio MC5 numbers ever as “Sonic” burns the end of a Chuck Berry cigarette down to a half-melted filter with singed fingers. The remarkably flexible musical reflexes shown here are powerful, totally out of control and yet stable as hell all at once (as they are for most of the album, come to think about it.) “The future is now/Yesterday is gone” sings Tyner, referencing his own epic “Future/Now” that will soon enough crack open up the seething second side...

“Future Now” starts with a hypnotically slow bass line and the grinding of harshly funked up, mid-tempo cog-turning of drums and vertigo-inducing, rotary twin guitars that weave and bend as Tyner’s lyrical visions of the here and now get punctuated with funky “Huhh!”s and “Yeaugh!”s. The drums get sucked into a weird, metallic effect for no reason at all only to return back to normal and the twin guitars keep zipping past and into each other, trading off and generally becoming equal parts of the same overall pattern. All dissolves with the last sung line of “The key to the mystery...” which trails off as the song falls away almost completely. A single guitar emerges to echo in a large, darkened space as Tyner returns, now intoning in a voice he’s never explored before: “Confusion and chaos/ The trauma of birth” as “traditions burn away” in a projection of a future beyond words. The guitar silently strums a melody sad with experience, balanced by Tyner’s low, muted vocals reaching for hope. The quiet volume and aching vision are slammed shut with “Poison” erupting with a simple and recklessly yanked out guitar rhythm behind a wall of hissing amps poised to blare. The track gets spat out like blood between broken teeth in a final holdout up against the wall with no backup plan for surrender. Heading towards an imminent, death-grip squeeze until a guitar solo from Kramer releases a furious burst of flurry-fucking rage that has nowhere to go so it just fucking explodes instead. Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson truly lives up to his name by unleashing tersely economic rolls upon his kit with tight expertise as the melancholic, rapid-fire turn of the guitar’s melody in the chorus is trapped desperation itself. “Over And Over” is “Sonic” Smith’s fist- and consciousness-raising observation of the 1970 America landscape but it’s no lame lost revolution lament. More a recounting of vicious, confusing times with simple clarity, and they’re all arranged into one of the most realised songs on the album. Tyner’s vocals give it all up throughout but during the middle breakdown when his voice clambers up the soulfully ascending string of “No, no, no, no...!” he's just pushed himself over the wall forever while the rest of the band is totally locked in and are rockin’ up a tight but loose shitstorm. “Skunk (Sonicly Speaking)” begins after a minute of getting all shook up with a loose percussion jam with war whoops joined by members of The Rationals and The Bob Seger System. Once more, those Thompson machine gun-like drums rolls spark off his small kit throughout and “Sonic” truly lives up to his name from the moment he first roars into the fray of this album-ending noise-up. The words “Smash it up/Break it up/Start all over again” seems to predict their own imminent split by the following year preceding the counterbalance of lyrics that proclaim, “Oh, baby off we go/ Headin’ for a brand new place.” And with The Contemporary Jazz Quartet contributing a blaring squad of trumpets, trombone and tenor saxophone to shore up The ‘5’s rhythmic racket for the ending instrumental section, it's apparent they already have: kicking it all out in a joyful, chaotic and rambunctious racket and spraying it straight down the line.