<MC5 album reviews>
by Ken Shimamoto
DECEMBER,28 2001

The MC5's recorded legacy is a problematic one. All three official albums came with built-in flaws. The band felt betrayed when Elektra wouldn't allow them to re-record the exciting but flawed "Kick Out the Jams" performances, and the limitations of conventional LP length prevented the inclusion on that debut album of some of the R&B covers that were staples of their set, not to mention their set-closing free-form excursion "Black To Comm." On "Back In the U.S.A.," producer Jon Landau eviscerated the band's sound, and while "High Time" was probably their best representation on disc, its recorded sound left a lot to be desired (if you disagree, just listen to it back-to-back with the Stooges' "Funhouse," recorded around the same time, by way of comparison).

The years since 1987 have seen the release of a plethora of archival recordings which serve to fill in some of the gaps from their stage repertoire, and enable the devoted fan to hear the band at various stages of its development.

Several of the releases document specific performances. Total Energy's "Teen Age Lust" (1996) is from a show in Saginaw, MI, New Year's Day 1970, portions of which have also appeared (with inferior sound) on the Clean Sounds "Sonic Sounds from the Midwest" bootleg album (1988), Receiver's "Looking At You" CD (1994), and "Live 1969/70" on the French NKVD label (1997), where seven songs appear erroneously credited to "Westfield Highschool, MI, 1970." The Saginaw set features material from the first two albums plus covers of James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" and Jody Reynolds' "Fire of Love." The tracklist on "Starship: Live Sturgis Armory 6/27/68," also on Total Energy (1998), is substantially the same (minus the set-opening "Ramblin' Rose") as Receiver's inferior "Black to Comm" CD (1994). In addition to material familiar from "KOTJ" (at a slightly earlier stage in its development), the set includes a seemingly extemporaneous "Revolutionary Blues," a three-song James Brown medley, and a version of Pharoah Sanders' "Upper Egypt" with added lyrics by John Sinclair. Skydog's "Thunder Express" (1994) compiles six songs recorded for French TV at Castle Herouville, France, in March 1972, with both sides of the AMG "I Can Only Give You Everything"/"I Just Don't Know" single (to which the 1999 Jungle reissue adds the original studio track of "Borderline" from the flip of the '68 "Looking At You" single). All three of these releases are highly recommended; indeed, despite having been recorded when the band were on their last legs, with an English musician replacing bassist Michael Davis, "Thunder Express" might just be the best MC5 rekkid your money can buy...the "KOTJ" songs sound great sans feedback, with all the instruments clearly audible The extended version of "Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa" sounds like the missing link between "Cold Sweat"-era James Brown and "Funhouse"-era Stooges, the title track (a Berryesque car tune) rivals "Sister Anne" as the Five's finest pure rock'n'roll moment, and there's a neat version of Detroit garage band staple, the Stones' "Empty Heart."

Heartily NOT recommended is the recording of the Five's 1970 U.K. debut at the Phun City festival, which features live recordings of some "High Time" songs in abysmal fidelity, along with the most out-of-tune, bass-heavy recording of "Black To Comm" extant. A must, as they say, to avoid.

Another source of archival recordings is the "Dialogue '68" festival, held at the First Unitarian Church at Cass and Forest in downtown Detroit's "Cass Corridor," September 7-8, 1968. The versions of "I Put a Spell On You," "Born Under a Bad Sign," and "I Want You" on Alive's "Power Trip" (1994) and "I Believe To My Soul" and "Black To Comm" on Total Energy's "The American Ruse" (1995) date from those shows, the remainder of which remain intriguingly unreleased. "I Want You," I Believe To My Soul," and "Black To Comm" previously appeared on Revenge's "Live 1968/69" LP from 1988, which also includes a version of "Come Together" that hasn't appeared anywhere else, but is noteworthy for the spoken intro by J.C. Crawford (sounding, due to a speed fault, not unlike Pee Wee Marquette, the midget MC at New York's Birdland in the fifties) and the fact that all the instruments (including Michael Davis' bass) are clearly audible. The two extended improvisations (one based on a tune by Archie Shepp, the other on one by John Lee Hooker) released on Alive's "Ice Pick Slim" 10" LP (1995) were drawn from Grande Ballroom shows in May and October 1968, while the version of "Motor City's Burning" which was added for the 1998 CD release dates from the same October 30-31 shows that produced "KOTJ" and cuts the released version from that album to shreds. Since both nights of the "Zenta New Year" stand at the Grande were recorded, presumably other outtakes exist. The versions of "I Want You" and "Shakin' All Over" that appeared on NKVD's "Live 1969/70" date from later Grande shows. The extended version of "Kick Out the Jams" that opens that disc was actually from a 1972 German TV performance featuring the Brit "Thunder Express" bassplayer (Steev [sic] Moorhouse). Other audience recordings exist, but none seem to be of sufficient quality to warrant release.

Total Energy's "'66 Breakout" documents the Five's Brit Invasion-aping garage band days, including the earliest known versions of "Looking At You" and "Black To Comm," along with covers of James Brown (via the Who - Wayne even duplicates the mistakes from Pete Townshend's "Please Please Please" guitar solo!), Them, and the Yardbirds, and two of the AMG sides which had previously appeared on the Belvedere "Michigan Nuggets" bootleg double LP (1980), ROIR's "Babes in Arms" cassette (1983), and "Thunder Express." These recordings pre-date the Five's association with John Sinclair and their incorporation of primary R&B and free jazz influences Last I heard, Patrick Boissel was considering releasing "the complete 'Looking At You' sessions," which would shed further light on the band as they sounded post-Sinclair but pre-Elektra.

The band's set-closing "free-form forum"/"energy orgy" "Black To Comm" is worthy of special comment. Besides the embryonic, harp-laden version on "'66 Breakout," there exist a '67 version on black-and-white video from a local Detroit public TV show, which Clinton Heylin lauded in his "From the Velvets to the Voidoids" discography but which sounds to these ears to be the LEAST interesting of the available recordings; the 6/28/68 Sturgis Armory version; the psychodramatic "Dialogue '68" version from September 8, 1968, featuring Sinclair on saxophone and Tyner on flute, where Rob's full-blooded screams become disconcerting after awhile; and the New Year's Day 1970 version (released on "Power Trip," "Teen Age Lust," and "Live 1969/70"), which appears at the end of a "greatest hits" medley with "Starship" and "Kick Out the Jams" - the most "showbizzy" but also, to this listener's ears, the most focused and therefore the best.

Total Energy's "The American Ruse" purports to present "pre-production rehearsals" for "Back in the U.S.A.," but the versions (some instrumental) sound more like alternate mixes of the Landau-produced tracks. Of greater interest are the alternate versions of "Shakin' Street" (acoustic!), "Gotta Keep Moving," and "Future Now" which appeared (along with four out of five pre-Elektra single tracks and one of two MC5 tracks from the 1970 "Gold" soundtrack) on ROIR's still-worthwhile "Babes In Arms." Besides the latter two (which feature different vocal tracks than the released versions), the only outtakes/rarities to have surfaced from the "High Time" period are the song-in-search-of-vocals "The Pledge Song" and the studio jam "Head Sounds (Part Two)," both of which were released on "Power Trip." Missing in action are the four "Back In the U.S.A." songs the band allegedly recorded in Los Angeles with Bruce Botnick early in 1969, prior to their being dropped by Elektra. I still hold onto the hope that these will resurface someday...after all, the first time I spoke to Ron Asheton, he told me that Ben Edmonds had been through the "Funhouse" tapes in Elektra's vault and "only found a couple of new songs;" the following year, Rhino unleashed the "Complete Funhouse Sessions" box.

There also exists a bootleg ("MC5 Kick Copenhagen") of a show in Copenhagen by the "MC2" - that is, Wayne and Fred with a pickup rhythm section, from a '72 tour that Rob Tyner and Dennis Thompson declined to join - which isn't as horrible as you might think. Wayne and Fred sing songs from "KOTJ" as well as some "standards" (Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, "Gloria," "Louie, Louie"), which they probably played because the riddim boyzzz knew 'em. Revenge's "Do It" from 1987 is actually Rob with one of his "fake" MC5 bands - in this case, the GOOD, Stones-loving one with the excellent Robert Gillespie (later of the Torpedos, as well as Mitch Ryder and Scott Morgan's bands) on guitar, rather than the later, metalloid one with Joey Gados - and documents a spirited performance, superior in fact to the one Motor City Music released as "Rock and Roll People" back in '99 (and Captain Trip in Japan re-released with bonus tracks in '01).

The author's gratitude and tremendous respect to Clinton Heylin; Patrick Boissel; Alan Wright and Ralph Heibutzki, whose discographies in Do the Pop #1, November 1995, and Discoveries #91, December 1995, respectively, are indispensable; and to Geoff "Mr. Real O Mind" Ginsberg, head Streetwalkin' Cheetah Frank Meyer, and John Marvin, three of the SICKEST Detroit aficionados anywhere - sicker than me, even - all of whom have enhanced my enjoyment of this music immeasurably.)

Teen Age Lust / Total Energy 1996

Sonic Sounds From The Midwest

Live 1969/70 / NKVD 1997

Black To Comm / Receiver 1994

Looking At You / A-Square 1968

1970 UK / Sonic 1996

Power Trip / Alive 1994

The American Ruse / Total Energy 1995

Live 68/69 / Revenge 1988

Ice Pick Slim / Alive 1995

'66 Breakout! / Total Energy 1999

Babes In Arms / ROIR 1983

Gold / Mother 1972

Kick Copenhagen / Lawnmower

Do It / Revenge 1987

Rock And Roll People
Motor CityMusic 1999

2001 by Ken Shimamoto
MC5's Recordings - reviews & overviews