Wop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-lop-bam-boom. Thud. "Tutti Frutti," which opens the partly excellent MC5 album, is easily the worst cut on it, and in a way a clue to the rest of the record, which ends, stiffly enough, with "Back in the USA." The MC5 have roots; or their producer Jon Landau does, or somebody does. Over four minutes of totally pointless music is expended in "proving" that fact — and regardless of the possible coy significance of this one-time "Killer Band" singing "Back in the USA" as if it was some kind of confession, the performances of the old rock are dead, like someone reciting the alphabet instead of using the letters to make words.
There are some first-rate songs on the album, some good musical ideas, and the musicianship is competent throughout, often fun, sometimes exciting. "Musicianship," here, is used as a concept — the idea of a "solid, clean, tight and together" sound is as self-conscious as the total freak out the first LP was. Chuck Berry simply oozes from the album.
A group of teenage consciousness numbers fill out the album — a re-working of themes from the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, old South Philly street music, and the like. There's "Shakin' Street" — the title predicts both the words and music; "Call Me Animal"; "High School" — sis boom bah, rah rah rah, and so on. And then there are the cuts that make it, make it all the way, that show the real talent and special gifts of this band.
"Teenage Lust" is just what is sounds like — urges all over the place, good hard rock (lacking any bass sound, as does the LP throughout, which is a drag), and those lines that Rob Tyner sings with such showmanship: "I need a healthy outlet for/ For my teenage lust." If you don't think that's funny, you didn't go to high school in the USA. Coming off the humor and the drive of the music, the song cuts deep, like "I Get Around." "The American Ruse" is probably the best thing the band has recorded; an attempt at phrase-making that just might come off:
I used to say the pledge of allegiance
Until they beat me bloody down at the station
They haven't got a word outa me
Since I got a billion years probation
'69 American terminal stasis
The air's so thick it's like breathin' in molasses
I'm sick and tired of payin' these dues
And I'm sick to my guts of the American RUSE!
That, in a few lines, is classic rock and roll songwriting. It's rarely done better. The chord changes that power the song seem to match up with the hurried tempo — the band can't wait to get to that last line, and the impact of every moment is heightened by the rush. Virtually the whole album is fast and edgy — but the problem of the music is in its competence. And the problem of its competence is in its so-carefully worked out intentions. Nothing was left to chance.
Nothing was left to chance, it seems, because this album, and the songs on it, constitute a very conscious attempt to do for teenage America what the rock and roll of the Fifties did instinctively and naturally — create a young community of spirit, affection, excitement, and self-consciousness. It's an attempt to define themes and problems and an offering of political, social, and emotional solutions. The clean, direct approach of the sound is the necessary vehicle for the straightforward consciousness of the message: "Look, kid, you're not just some alienated sap bugged by the system, you're part of a gang that doesn't have rules yet, doesn't have leaders yet, but it's forming, kid, get on." That's what Peter Townshend did with "My Generation," what Eddie Cochran did with "Come On Everybody."
But the music, the sound, and in the end the care with which these themes have been shaped drags it down, save for two or three fine numbers that deserve to be played on every jukebox in the land. The street music of the MC5 has none of the animalism of the Good Rats (you might still find their brilliant LP — Kapp KS 3580) or uncontrollable drive of those first crucial sides by the Who. You can decide what to do, but if you feel like you know it all, like you've seen it all, when it comes time to make the music, there's really nothing there but an idea.
Phil Spector once talked about the difference between "records" and "ideas" — "The man who can make a disc that's a record and an idea will rule the world," he said in his typically moderate fashion. The MC5 album, for the most part, remains an idea, because in the end it sounds like a set-up. "Teenage Lust" and "American Ruse" and "Human Being Lawnmower" break through, and they belong on singles, and on the charts. All the way up the charts.