MC5: 'High Time' (1971)

Rediscovering lost music via the vinyl bins at secondhand stores

Artist: MC5

Album: High Time

Price: $1

Place: North Broadway Goodwill

Sometimes you just get lucky—the callow youth working the Sunday evening shift at Taco Bell tells you over the intercom that he is going to make you the biggest Burrito Supreme in history because he's bored, or the latest Adam Sandler movie actually makes you laugh. I got lucky the day I found the MC5's High Time at the North Broadway Goodwill Store.

When I found the album I thought to myself, "What kind of jackass would stuff this classic album in the Goodwill bin?" Upon reflection, however, I realized that I was the one engaging in jackassery—I had never actually listened to the album, and like some sort of goateed hipster blathering on about "proto-punk," or some other such invented genre, I was pretending to know much more about the MC5 than I actually did. I didn't know if the album was a classic. I just assumed it was because one too many Pitchfork writers said MC5 were "seminal" and "inventive." Sure, I remember hearing the crackly but inflammatory and thrilling lyrics "Kick out the jams, motherf--kers" on my friend Joel's older brother's tape deck in the 1970s, but that's about all I knew about the MC5. And certainly I had never listened to an entire album of their stuff.

I'm not sure I would call this album a classic, but it's easy to see what the fuss is/was about. The album blasts off with "Sister Anne," a standard 1-4-5 blues number with lyrics about a nun who apparently does not take her vows very seriously, as "She never tries to tease/She always aims to please." The band is controlled, singer Rob Tyner is menacing and intense and a little bit unctuous, and two guitars snarl at each other over a relentless backbeat. This is the opposite of slick, but the bits of piano and harmonica and the bizarre Salvation Army marching band outro tell us this is not the Ramones. This is hardly revolutionary. But at a time when hard rock was becoming a bit generic and studio wankery was on the rise (Alan Parsons would soon be famous for doing things other than writing and playing music), stripped-down music made by guys with long hair who were obviously stoned to the bejesus must have been appealing. And it is still.

Nothing else on the record comes close to "Sister Anne." "Miss X" is lumbering hard rock that's a little too close to Spinal Tap for my tastes, "Future/Now" is generic early '70s hard rock complete with absurd late-'60s hippie-babble lyrics (all of the following phrases appear in the song—"interstellar diplomats," "cosmopolitan enemy," "the future's here right now," and "post-atomic dawn,") and "Over and Over" smolders without quite burning. However, "Gotta Keep Movin'" is sublime, and this is why people see MC5 as pioneers. Like the best punk, the song is loud, fast, and catchy… but mostly loud and fast. The closer, "Skunk" is almost as good.

This is real rock 'n' roll music—unpretentious, blues-infused, simple without being facile or amateurish, and capable of making you want to shake your ass. m