BEING LAWNMOWER: THE BADDEST AND MADDEST - MC5 (Total Energy)
I was just looking at my review of Bro. Wayne Kramer's reished "Hard Stuff" and I musta been outta my fuckin' mind when I wrote it...that album definitely rates five Rolling Rocks if anything does. Which made me wonder, why am I so hard on Wayne? His manager Margaret still hasn't forgiven me for my hatchet job on Mad for the Racket (I dunno whether or not she read my subsequent cowardly backpedaling reassessment in a subsequent "16 Forever" column). Part of it might be the fact that I'm an admitted elitist asshole (as a youngster, I hated the Beatles and Led Zeppelin because they were TOO POPULAR)..."Sure, I dig 'The Hard Stuff,' but I REALLY dig 'Citizen Wayne.'" But the real deal is that among people who dig This [Our] Kind of Music, "The Hard Stuff" is the touchstone (just like "Outside" is for the Deniz Tek solo canon)...the mark we keep expecting him to hit. Experimentalismo may be INTERESTING, but the Rawk is FUNDAMENTAL. Or maybe it's because I expect too much from him (I own more Wayne Kramer records, including the MC5 stuff, than anybody else's). Which made this release very timely when it arrived in the Magic Mailbox, just in time to remind me of WHY that's so.
This isn't JUST a "best of" Total Energy's tremendous series of rare and unreleased (mainly audience recordings, but some studio as well) Five recordings. For one thing, almost half of it is previously unreleased (being the anal retentive completist shithead I am, I'd quibble over a couple of the ones that the liners claim to be). It's also an album with an agenda, intended by original Five manager/mentor and series producer John Sinclair to correct some revisionist history regarding his former charges - specifically, that they were "a bunch of innocent suburban rock boys who were corrupted, bamboozled and manipulated by their left-wing radical manager (that would be this writer) into fronting for his bankrupt revolutionary politics" (Rob Tyner, Sinclair writes, was a revolutionary to the core and even influenced some of Sinclair's own political thought), and that they were punks (according to Sinclair, "Like all other outstanding rock & roll artists of their generation...the 5's roots were deeply embedded in the rich cultural soil of African-American music"). Regarding the former point, interested readers are directed to the Michael Davis and Wayne Kramer interviews on this very Bar, while regarding the latter, one of the great things about this Total Energy series has been the opportunity it provided to hear the R&B and free jazz roots of the Five's music, which are amply audible in this collection.
To being with, the set opens with "Skunk," listed here as a studio outtake but sounding to these ears like the same track that appeared on "Babes In Arms," which is to say the same as the original "High Time" track with a truncated ending (albeit in much better fidelity, with lots more presence than either of the aforementioned versions - you'll feel Dennis Thompson's drums punching you in the chest, with Wayne and Fred "Sonic" Smith's dueling guitars showing up in brilliant relief). The same comments apply to the outtake of "Gotta Keep Moving" that's included here - sounds like the same one that was on "Babes In Arms" (with Rob taking the lyrics twice as fast as he did on "High Time"), but with greatly improved sound. The acoustic demo of "Over and Over" shows the basic shape of the tune at an embryonic stage, providing the same kind of insight into Fred's writing process as the acoustic demo of "Shakin' Street" on "Babes In Arms" and the instrumental "Pledge Song" on "Power Trip."
Part of the "Brother J.C. Intro" from the Grande Ballroom, 10/27/1968, was previously released on the "Temptation 'Bout to Get Me" Rationals set on Total Energy. Now you can hear the Five's MC and White Panther "Oracle Remus" telling the Grande crowd about the impending "Kick Out the Jams" recording concerts on Zenta New Year later that week. The "KOTJ" outtake of "Motor City is Burning" that follows is the same one that was released on the "Ice Pick Slim" EP (the longest EP known to man, containing over 40 minutes of music in its CD incarnation), and kicks much ass on the Elektra released version.
Part of what makes this set essential is the presence of MORE "KOTJ" outtakes - Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul" (in vastly superior sound, of course, to the version from the 9/8/68 Unitarian Church version that was released on "The American Ruse," with vocal power from Rob that's truly awe-inspiring, fading out before the segue into the Five's regular set-ending energy orgy, "Black To Comm," which is as conspicuous by its absence here as it was on Rhino's "The Big Bang!"), and a "Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa" that's pretty hot, but has a spoken Tyner intro that woulda broken the organic flow of the first side of "KOTJ" (or was that clever editing by Elektra?). If there's more of this stuff, hopefully Sinclair and Total Energy honcho Patrick Boissel will make it available.
More big news here is the inclusion of the original studio "Borderline" in all its science-fiction weirdness for the first time on an American CD (Jungle released it in Europe on their reissue of "Thunder Express," but the version there sounded like it had been mastered from vinyl with fucked-up EQ's, with more bottom than anything you ever heard this side of the "Black To Comm" on the abysmal "Phun City" bootleg that sounded like it was recorded from inside Mike Davis' bass amp). Sounds great here, as does the instrumental outtake of "Looking At You" from the same sessions (which sounds better here than it did on Total Energy's "Power Trip" release - lots more presence and power). I guess this means that Patrick Boissel decided against the "complete 'Looking At You' sessions" release he was contemplating at one time.
Sinclair (or was it Boissel, who's credited with selecting, editing, and sequencing?) also saw fit to include the two "political" songs from "Back In the U.S.A." - "American Ruse," which carries sardonic sentiments that ring as true today as they did back in 1970 AND features Fred Smith's famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic" guitar solo, and the title track to this set, a complex construction which sprung full-blown out of Rob Tyner's head in the studio - in "outtake" versions that were previously released on Total Energy's "The American Ruse" (and sound to these ears a whole lot like the ones Atlantic released).
The James Brown medley from the "Live Sturgis Armory 6/27/1968" album is a good and representative piece (JB's "Live at the Apollo, 1962" being the Five's "energy model" which they listened to vibe up enroute to gigs), but I have to kinda question the inclusion (for the THIRD time on a Total Energy release) of the 18-minute "I'm Mad Like Eldridge Cleaver," which I've described elsewhere as "John Lee Hooker meets the Art Ensemble of Chicago at a Black Panther rally." Still, it DOES fit in with the "baddest and maddest" theme, and it IS a good example of the Five's freeblow (although it kinda breaks up the flow of the compilation). The closing J.C. Crawford rap, "What Is Zenta?" comes from a cassette which Cary Loren (ex-Destroy All Monsters) found in the Sinclair Collection of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library and released on a CD called "Music is Revolution" on his BookBeat label.
A worthy release, "Human Being Lawnmower" performs its documentary function (summarizing the Total Energy MC5 series with some added rarities) as beautifully and effectively as "Year of the Iguana" did for Bomp's "Iguana Chronicles" Stooge series. The previously unreleased material from the "Looking At You" and "KOTJ" sessions and the improved sound quality on the "High Time" outtakes make this an essential purchase for anyone who digs the Five (even if you already own the other Total Energys). Uninitiates are directed to this one immediately after "The Big Bang!"
- Ken Shimamoto
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