WOP-BOP-A-LU-BOP-A-LOP-BAM-BOOM. Thud. "Tutti Frutti," which
opens the partly excellent MC5 album, is easily the worst cut on it,
and in a way a clue to the rest of the record, which ends, stiffly
enough, with "Back In The USA." The MC5 have roots; or their producer
Jon Landau does, or somebody does. Over four minutes of totally
pointless music is expended in "proving" that fact - and regardless of
the possible coy significance of this one-time "Killer Band" singing
"Back In The USA" as if it was some kind of confession, the
performances of the old rock dead, like someone reciting the alphabet
instead of using the letters to make words.
There are some first-rate songs on the album,
some good musical ideas, and the musicianship is competent throughout,
often fun, sometimes exciting. "Musicianship," here, is used as a concept
- the idea of a "solid, clean, tight and together"
sound is as self-conscious as the total freak out the first LP was.
Chuck Berry simply oozes from the album.
A group of teenage consciousness numbers fill out
the album - a reworking of themes from the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry,
Gene Vincent, old South Philly street music, and the like. There's
"Shakin' Street" - the title predicts both the words and music; "Call
Me Animal"; "High School" - sis boom bah, rah rah rah, and so on. And
then there are the cuts that make it, make it all the way, that show
the real talent and special gifts of this band.
"Teenage Lust" is just what is sounds like -
urges all over the place, good hard rock (lacking any bass sound, as
does the LP throughout, which is a drag), and those lines that Rob
Tyner sings with such showmanship: "I need a healthy outlet for/For my
teenage lust." If you don't think that's funny, you didn't go to high
school in the USA. Coming off the humor and the drive of the music, the
song cuts deep, like "I get around." "The American Ruse" is probably
the best thing the band has recorded; an attempt at phrase-making that
just might come off:
used to say the pledge of allegiance
Until they beat me bloody down at the station
They haven't got a word outa me
Since I got a billion years probation
American terminal stasis
The air's so thick it's like breathin' in molasses
I'm sick and tired of payin' these dues
And I'm sick to my guts of the American RUSE!
That, in a few lines, is classic rock and roll songwriting.
It's rarely done
better. The chord changes that power the song seem to match up with the
hurried tempo - the band can't wait to get to that last line, and the
impact of every moment is heightened by the rush. Virtually the whole
album is fast and edgy - but the problem of the music is in its
competence. And the problem of its competence is in its so-carefully
worked out intentions. Nothing was left to chance.
Nothing was left to chance, it seems, because
this album, and the songs on it, constitute a very conscious attempt to
do for teenage America what the rock and roll of the Fifties did
instinctively and naturally - create a young community of spirit,
affection, excitement, and self-consciousness. It's an attempt to
define themes and problems and a offering of political, social and
emotional solutions. The clean, direct approach of the sound is the
necessary vehicle for the straightforward consciousness of the message:
"Look, kid, you're not just some alienated sap bugged by the system,
you're part of a gang that doesn't have rules yet,
doesn't have leaders yet, but it's forming, kid, get on." That's what
Peter Townshend did with "My Generation," what Eddie Cochran did with
"Come On Everybody".
But the music, the sound, and in the end the care
with which these themes have been shaped drags it down, save for two or
three fine numbers that deserve to be played on every jukebox in the
land. The street music of the MC5 has none of the animalism of the Good
Rats (you might still find their brilliant LP - Kapp KS 3580) or
uncontrollable drive of those first crucial sides by the Who. You can
decide what to do, but if you feel like you know it all, like you've
seen it all, when it comes time to make the music, there's really
nothing there but an idea.
Phil Spector once talked about the difference
between "records" and "ideas" - "The man who can make a disc that's a
record and an idea will rule the word," he said in
his typically moderate fashion. The MC5 album, for the most part,
remains an idea, because in the end it sounds like a set-up. "Teenage
Lust" and "American Ruse" and "Human Being Lawnmower" break through,
and they belong on singles, and on the charts. All the way up the