Reconsidering MC5’s High Time

MC5 High Time

By Tate Bengtson

The story of MC5 is well-known.  The Detroit quintet debuted with a revolutionary live album, Kick Out the Jams (1969), and then veered into dubiously commercial waters with its sophomore outing, Back in the USA (1970).  Struggling with drug addiction, interpersonal problems, and a dwindling fan base, MC5 cut High Time in 1971.  The band which had ignited punk rock and upped the ante on rock ‘n roll’s protest ethic with a single live recording released its third album to lukewarm reviews and apathy from the record-buying public.  High Time went down as the unsatisfying finale in the story of MC5’s meteoric rise and fall.  The times had changed.  MC5 had changed too, but it had seemingly zigged while the rest of the country had zagged.

However, the passage of time has been kind to this album.  The surviving members of MC5 have cited High Time as their favorite album from the band’s discography.  Reviews continue to emerge decrying the album’s neglect.  Why?  Is it merely a case of critics, desperate for a new angle on an old band, elevating an album that is better left forgotten?  Perhaps the surviving members of MC5, still stung over the album’s chilly reception, have subconsciously imbued it with a value in excess of its merits?  Or has the 20/20 of hindsight revealed a historical significance and artistic value that was obscure at the time of the album’s release?

I would argue that High Time was not out-of-sync with the zeitgeist of the early 70s; rather, it was the latest audio manifesto by a band which had recognized the next phase in the rock ‘n roll revolution and attempted to position itself at the vanguard of that movement.  That movement was the then-emerging genre of heavy metal, which was in the process of differentiating itself from a vast field of albums that would, ex post facto, come to be described as “proto-metal.”  What makes High Time fascinating is that, with its 1971 release date, it stands as a relatively late entry into the proto-metal field (and thus its inclusion in this category is arguable if evaluated only on the basis of chronology, despite the obvious sonic similarities).  Consequently, its importance is different than most albums which have a proto-metal sound; it is no harbinger of metal but rather a landmark in the reintegration of heavy metal’s early achievements back into rock ‘n roll.

While High Time did grapple with a few attempts at returning to the spirit of Kick Out the Jams, its real value is in what it anticipates rather than what it repeats.  At its best, High Time is a bold statement which is properly understood within the context of the emerging heavy metal genre and its relationship to rock music.  High Time is not a well-formed heavy metal album along the lines of what Black Sabbath and Deep Purple were then producing; however, it is of considerable intrigue for fans of proto-metal such as The Who, Blue Cheer, and Grand Funk Railroad.  While High Time was released after albums such as Paranoid and In Rock brought the tenets of heavy metal into sharp relief, it pulls together many of the more “rock-oriented” elements of proto-metal that would soon be rendered subordinate and then largely discarded by heavy metal.  It would take up this path and, in so doing, realize heavy metal’s revolutionary impact upon rock ‘n roll.

Opener “Sister Anne” makes all of this explicit, albeit in a fashion that appears rather confusing at first glance.  A piano line harking to Jerry Lee Lewis and a first solo alluding to Carl Perkins.  A guitar/harmonica duet straight out of the electric blues playbook.  A gospel choir introduced late in the song.  What is going on?  What is with this trip down Nostalgia Avenue?  Underlying this trip through well-trodden rock ‘n roll techniques is a driving guitar riff and a pummeling drum pattern that points to what makes this album so unique; MC5, in one fell swoop, brought the new to bear on the old with seamless cohesion.  The lengthy track, which could have easily devolved into a rambling exercise in electicism, is held together due to its heaviness and speed.  With “Sister Anne,” the tenets of heavy metal are applied to rock ‘n roll; it is no longer a case of rock ‘n roll simply serving as the springboard for heavy metal.  The student has become the teacher.

With its heavier mid-paced rhythms and surging twin guitar assault, “Future/Now” is perhaps the most overtly metallic cut on High Time, a fact that is affirmed by Corrosion of Conformity’s cover of it (available on the reissue of Blind).  The track brings an impressive heaviness to the table with its throbbing bass line and Rob Tyner’s impassioned vocals, while the soloing courtesy of Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer rips.  A break into quietude throws a curveball right across home plate, with gentle guitar plucking and Tyner’s echo-laden vocals concluding the song on a fuzz-free psychedelic note.

One of the more interesting tracks on the album is “Poison,” with the higher pitched vocal delivery recalling the chorus on Spooky Tooth’s “Evil Woman.”  When paired with the dueling guitar leads and razor-sharp riff, the song serves as an interesting precursor to the likes of Judas Priest’s debut, Rocka Rolla (albeit less directly than, for instance, Budgie).  While Tyner’s vocal range shows its limitations and the production does not bring out the intrinsic heaviness of the riff, the template is laid out in fine form.  Indeed, the heaviness of the riff would later be confirmed when Wayne Kramer revisited the track on his 1995 solo album, The Hard Stuff.

With its fiery lyrics, “Over and Over” is MC5’s clearest allusion to its past as the poster child for revolutionary rock.  However, this song features a maturity of protest and songwriting that goes beyond the band’s previous efforts.  This song hates “the man” as much as it hates the hippies who claim to hate “the man.”  In this, we have a movement beyond the us-versus-them protest songs of the 1960s and towards the more ambivalent (if not flat-out antisocial) lyrical stance that heavy metal would popularize in the 1970s.  The counter-culture of the late 60s fell upon the sword that it once brandished, but the seething anger remains and is redirected…at everything.

Despite a few missteps, High Time deserves to be reappraised.  This album is traditionally viewed as the confused last gasp by a revolutionary band that let the revolution escape.  However, its true value emerges when considered as an album that was ahead of its time, that was cognizant of heavy metal’s development and, even more importantly, that was capable of exploring the implications of heavy metal’s inception as it related to its parent genre, rock ‘n roll.  MC5 was always a rock band that seized upon the next revolution and turned it back upon itself as rock’s evolution.  The hybridizing of avant garde jazz with rock on Kick Out the Jams.  The subversion of 1950s rock ‘n roll archetypes on Back in the USA.  And finally, with High Time, a re-appropriation of (proto)metal back into the musical DNA of rock ‘n roll.  With High Time, the future was indeed now…pity that nobody recognized it.