Sunday, May 29, 2011

15 minutes into this documentary, I was just about ready to switch it off. I'm glad I persisted: it got a whole lot better. Watching Wayne Kramer drive through the miserable and polluted industrial back streets of Detroit in his hot rod, whilst bragging that his band of yore was the sound of the Motor City, much like the clings and clangs of the automobile factories which surround them (funnily enough, I once heard Iggy say the same thing for his band), had me thinking I was in for one hell of a self-mythologising snorefest from a bunch of middle-aged guys dead-set on cementing their legend in the pantheon of rock & roll as we know it. Or at least as they know it. By the end of the documentary, I liked Kramer a whole lot. He seemed like a decent guy, he was aware of the fact that the MC5 had screwed up royally for several reasons, and more than that, I was convinced that the band, no matter what they told me throughout, really were one of the great bands of their day (and I was being told that throughout!).
Of course, the Stooges would beat 'em in a New York minute, but maybe that's beside the point. The band made 3 LPs proper, and they're all worthy of being on your shelf. My favourite, was, is and shall forever remain their last: 1971's High Time, their meisterwerk, piece de resistence and other foreign words I'm likely misrepresenting or misspelling. For me, High Time is an American hard-rock/heavy metal/proto-punk classic, everything early '70s post-hippie rock & roll shoulda been, a desperate statement of desperate times, a statement of disillusion when there was a lot to be disillusioned about, and, more to the point, a particularly fine collection of songs. Unlike their previous two albums: 1969's Kick Out The Jams and 1970's Back In The USA, it has sympathetic production which gives the band the sound they deserved. The much-maligned Back In The USA, produced by Springsteen spruiker Jon Landau, possesses some of the tinniest, most gutless and most candy-assed production ever laid upon a rock & roll band - hell, the '5 were de-rocked - but it's no credit to them that they let it happen. The songs are way more accessible, too, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The short/sharp teen-anthem approach works: it just would've worked a whole lot better if they'd been allowed to keep their testicles in the studio. I would've liked to've heard the MC5 get their Pharoah Sanders/Archie Shepp kicks down on tape proper, too - there's a killer clip of the band doing such a thing in the documentary I might even get around to discussing in this entry - but you have to go to bootlegs for those goods (there's plenty, and since I only own a couple and haven't listened to them since the 20th century, I wouldn't be your best guide).
Kick Out The Jams has the energy and songs, but to me its sound lets it down considerably. It's got the oomph, but the recording itself is too trebly, with little definition in the songs. Comparing it to other high-energy live albums I happen to love, such as Space Ritual, Dark Magus or Band Of Gypsys (which isn't really that high-energy, but it's ace), well... it doesn't compare. And all of this was a very longwinded way of getting around to briefly discussing David C. Thomas' MC5: A True Testimonial from 2002...
It played for a night or two down here at the time during the film festival, though I never caught it, figuring it would either wind up on TV or DVD within a month of its screening (as nearly everything else I'd ever seen at festivals in the past had), but lo and behold, the shit hit the legal fan and lawsuits let loose, causing the film to be withdrawn from any future release. It still remains unreleased, apparently due to a suit between Wayne Kramer and the film's producers (Kramer claims he wasn't paid for his input into the actual making of the movie), though I managed to procure a copy from a friend last week. It's a long slog, or maybe it just feels that way, but the journey is well worth it. Of course Rob Tyner and Fred "Sonic" Smith passed away years before it was made, and their absence is felt, though Kramer, bassist Michael Davis (who spent some time in the can in the '70s on drug charges - as did Kramer - and still looks like he could deck the biggest guy in the yard) and fruitloop drummer Dennis Thompson are featured heavily throughout, as well as ex-manager and self-styled (or self-professed) counter-cultural icon John Sinclair.
The braggadocio which makes up the first quarter-hour peters out fairly quick and then the storyline of the band - the who/why/where - takes place and it gets some momentum. Unlike most rock documentaries of recent years, the talking is done mostly by the members themselves. Some ex-wives contribute, even the great Danny Fields gets in there for a second (and his mega-camp musings are hilarious and spot-on), though it's mostly the three surviving members who tell the story. Whilst it's a relief to not see Hank Rollins or Thurston Moore's head on the screen waxing lyrical on the career of a well-regarded underground rock band (and I woulda jumped out the window if Bono's face lit up the screen) for a change, contributions from Iggy (the Stooges are briefly mentioned, though I get a feeling clearance rights were an issue) and Mick Farren would've certainly been welcome. But still, there's a lot of killer footage here which I'd never seen before (check out the clip below), and sure, some of it has now wound up on Youtube (though not all of it), it looks a whole lot better in high-defintion on a TV screen than it does on a computer. I was also not fully aware of the band's truly sad demise, as only Smith and Kramer carried on the name to perform a few dates in Scandinavia w/ a ring-in rhythm section in the early '70s, sort a of a contract-filling venture which saw them eating shit in front of a largely disinterested crowd. Kramer beats himself up over this, and whilst it's probably not a whole lot to be proud of, the footage shown of these gigs (and there's some high-quality TV coverage of one of the shows) has me thinking they didn't sound half-bad at all. Didn't sound a whole lot like the MC5 of yore, perhaps, though the heavy-duty sludge jams weren't totally dissimilar to Blue Cheer ca. their first two LPs, so don't go thinking they turned into Foghat overnight.
I enjoyed MC5: A True Testimonial a whole lot more than I expected to. I'm pretty burnt out on the idea of rock & roll documentaries at this point of my life. There's been some big disappointments the last decade in this regard (American Hardcore being the biggest; We Jam Econo gets a pass possibly only because of the subject matter), and frankly, unless someone's going to spotlight a hidden aspect of a band I've liked and researched since I was a teenager which I previously wouldn't know of, and really dig through the dirt in the process, there's probably not much need for me to witness a patched-together narrative held at the seams by rank amateurs. Youtube clips will do. This one's better than that. It tells the story and tells it well. It's not flawless, and Dennis Thompson's willingness to spout garbled nonsense unchallenged by the makers was both sad and tedious to watch at times, but I'd still absolutely recommend it. I think the '5 did really mean it, maaan.


Pig State Recon said...

I agree with your take on those three MC5 LPs: their first is wild, unfocused sludginess that bores me by the end, their second gets my tinnitus ringing with it's annoying AM production/mix, but the third is just really good, stretched out 70's hard rocking. I do realise they meant A LOT more than this to a lot of outsider rock folks back then, but it doesn't change what they laid down on vinyl.

And WHY did American Hardcore disappoint so badly? Something to do with all these not-very interesting people saying not-very interesting things about what was actually QUITE an interesting time, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Incisive take on an excellent film which is steadily moving towards a proper release.