Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The MC5's "Thunder Express"

When I'm in a certain frame of mind, MC5 and Velvet Underground bootlegs -- a subspecies of record I got obsessed with after reading Clinton Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids back ca. '93 -- are my auditory equivalent of comfort food. This one here is one of the best of the former.

Originally released on Skydog, the French label responsible for the very first VU boot (Evil Mothers), not to mention the original Stooges Metallic K.O., and subsequently reissued on Jungle in the UK, the 220-gram manhole cover that Munster in Spain put out in 2007 is currently at the top of my list of vinyl slabs to seek out. Back in '95, when I stumbled on a copy of the Skydog CD while working at Blockbuster Music, it rekindled my love for '60s and '70s Detroit ramalama in the same way as The Kids Are Alright revived my Who fandom at the ass-end of the '70s, or Live At Winterland arrived in the late '80s and made me want to listen to Hendrix for the first time in over a decade.

The business part of Thunder Express comes from a session recorded for French TV back in '72. (There are clips of a couple of the songs on Youtube.) The disc is filled out with pre-Elektra single tracks that have also appeared on other releases, including Babes In Arms and '66 Breakout (to name two of the better ones). The live-for-TV set consists of four songs from Kick Out the Jams, one newie (the title track), and a Rolling Stones cover. There's a "last gasp" aura about the proceedings.

By this time, the Five had alienated most of their U.S. audience, and were barely surviving by touring Europe (which they first visited in 1970 to play the Phun City festival after hooking up with Radio Caroline impresario Ronan O'Rahilly, who'd superseded John Sinclair and Jon Landau as their mentor). Bassist Michael Davis was out of the band, replaced for this tour by a Brit called Steev (sic) Moorhouse. Atlantic Records had put the wheels under 'em. (I remember a '71 Rolling Stone piece in which they spoke of the possibility of recording a live album for Roulette Records. From John Sinclair to Morris Levy in just two moves: the mind boggles.)

Even with all that baggage, this is a highly listenable recording, and makes the case that on purely musical terms, the Five continued to improve as their fortunes ebbed. Kick Out the Jams documented a moment in time and space when they were at the top of their game (in the same way as Monterey did for Hendrix, or Live At Leeds did for the Who). There's an intangible spark there that's missing from the frequently-booted June '68 Sturgis Armory set, and is just beginning to manifest itself on the September '68 Unitarian Church recordings. (Earlier on, they were an OK-but-unremarkable Brit-R&B-derived garage band; cf. the live stuff on '66 Breakout).

By 1970, they'd become more of a "professional rock 'n' roll band," but lost a bit of that X-factor (cf. the New Year's Day Saginaw Civic Center show). The big leap forward that year -- when they'd fallen off nearly everybody's radar -- was in Fred "Sonic" Smith's songwriting and guitar playing. Previously content to languish in Wayne Kramer's shadow (except for brief moments like the dual-guitar rave-up at the end of "Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa" and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" solo on "The American Ruse"), Sonic stepped out to write half of the material on terminal Five LP High Time, where he also soloed to good effect on 75% of the songs.

Hearing the song "Kick Out the Jams" played by the '72 band without all the the noise, feedback, and shouting that are such a big part of its LP version is a little like watching an NBA player start out flat-footed and execute a five-foot vertical jump. Before the last verse, the song almost careens off the track until Dennis Thompson manages to steer it into the Stones' "Empty Heart," a song that must have been beloved by Detroit bands ca. '64-'65. The band cranks out the changes, the dynamics ebbing and flowing as Rob Tyner extemporizes over the groove, Fred occasionally bellows in the background, and Wayne repeatedly plays a favorite lick.

"Ramblin' Rose" also misses J.C. Crawford's rabble-rousing intro, but it's nice to be able to actually hear the bass and drums, and Wayne's solo is a little more involved than the double-stop bend he got hung up on while tripping his balls off and playing an unfamiliar guitar (Gibson SG) on the Zenta New Year in '68. "Sacre bleu!" indeed. The song "Thunder Express" is a Berryesque car tune, with Rob's joy palpable as he sings lyrics celebrating the Motor City car culture that formed him and his bandmates ("I lay a patch of rubber for a block and a half / When I push it on down to the floor"). Fred rips off a couple of choruses of the Chuck-via-Keefisms he loved, while Wayne's ride appears to get stuck in the double-stop ditch again.

"Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa" gives the band a chance to stretch out the way they did on the '70 studio jam "Head Sounds" (see Power Trip), or the multiple takes of "KOTJ" they filmed for the German Beat Club TV show (viewable on Youtube), here displaying the linkages between their energy model James Brown and their "little brother" band the Stooges at their Funhouse apex. The blustering blooze "Motor City Is Burning" trumps the KOTJ version, if not the outtake from those sessions that Sinclair later released on Human Being Lawnmower.

The added filler tracks mean that this release gives you a chance to hear the "alpha and omega" of the Five. I first heard "I Can Only Give You Everything" on the jukebox at Soap Creek Saloon in Austin, when I went to hear Doug Sahm play there. "I Just Don't Know," the B-side from the '69 reissue, is a psychedelic Bo Diddley stomp; I preferred the original vocal harmony-enhanced Stones "Down Home Girl" rewrite "One of the Guys." Depending on which version of Thunder Express you buy, you might also get one or both sides of the '68 "Looking At You"/"Borderline" single. The original "Looking At You" makes hash of the tight-assed Back In the U.S.A. re-recording, while "Borderline" is essentially identical to the live take on KOTJ.

I still say that while the Five tried much harder, the Stooges always win. That said, you could do a lot worse than immersing yourself in a sonic bath of MC5.


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