Ascension: The Missing Link Between MC5 and SRB
The MC5's last gig was on New Year's Eve 1972, when the members of the band that recorded their three LPs regrouped to play for some chump change at the Grande Ballroom, scene of their greatest triumphs just four years earlier. Bassist Davis had been slung out of the band the year before, replaced by English musicians for the Five's last couple of European tours. Frontman Rob Tyner and drummer Thompson declined to participate in the last "MC5" tour of Scandinavia, which left the guitarists -- Smith and Wayne Kramer -- to undertake a dispirited series of shows with a pickup rhythm section that were documented on a bootleg, MC5 Kick Copenhagen, and some video that's on Youtube.
In the Five, Smith had always played second banana to the flashier Kramer, even when he was wearing his "Sonic Smith" superhero costume with his face painted silver. But he played the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic" guitar solo on Back In the U.S.A.'s "The American Ruse," and when the band started taking individual song credits on their swan song LP High Time, Fred claimed four to Wayne's two and one each for Rob and Dennis. And he steps out to blow plenty of lead on the '72 French TV performance of "Thunder Express."
By then he had already developed the thick, midrange-heavy tone he'd use to great effect in Sonic's Rendezvous Band, but it was actually captured better on the soundboard and audience tapes that make up the bulk of SRB's recorded legacy than it was on any of the Five's official recordings. And the "MC2" shows in Scandinavia featured Fred singing lead in a low, gruff, whiskey-throated voice. For Ascension, however, he ceded vocal duties to Davis, who'd sung Bob Dylan songs around the Wayne State University campus before becoming the MC5's bassist, and bought him a Casio keyboard. (Davis soon discovered that his voice wasn't up to the demands of the multi-set engagements they were booked to play.) Bass duties were handled by John Hefti.
Ascension fizzled out after "two or three" gigs, and Smith was asked to overdub guitar on a couple of tracks ex-Rationals frontman Scott Morgan had recorded with the band Lightnin'. The seeds of SRB were sown. At that point, Morgan had stronger material; it'd take Smith a couple of years to hit his writing stride to the point where he could match Morgan song for song, and ultimately dominate the band.
On the Ascension tape, recorded on September 20, 1973, you can hear Smith working out ideas that'd see fruition in SRB. The song "You Make Me Happy Now" uses a chord progression he'd repurpose for SRB's "Song L" and "So Sincerely Yours," and "Undertow," which Ascension plays after someone from the house complains about their volume, is a minor-key blues with a similar vibe to Fred's SRB saxophone feature "American Boy." He plays choppy rhythm that occasionally sounds like two guitars, and his solos lean less on Chuck Berry than his High Time ones had, alternating staccato picking and sustained notes with vibrato, almost like a metallic Detroit Albert King.
A song entitled "Vulva" indicates that Ascension wasn't hoping for major label interest, and there's a cover of the Temptations' "Get Ready" that's no threat to either the original or Rare Earth's cover. Their best song is probably "Summer Cannibals," a three-chord pounder that gives a hint of what's to come.
In his spoken intro to one of the pieces, Smith expresses some of the bitterness he and his bandmates felt in the wake of the Five's implosion: "A few years ago we did a thing called the MC5. A lot of people talked about it when it was happening and they said we were doomed, just because we did what we thought was right for us. I never did believe we were doomed, I mean, it was just someone's words...because music lives on if you keep lovin' it."