Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Human Being Soundboard

I'm late to Get Back's 2005 reissue of the MC5's Live at the Saginaw Civic Centre, First Jan 1970. [I was alerted by Gina Myers on Twitter that this show likely occurred at the Saginaw Auditorium, as the Civic Centre wasn't built until 1972.] I picked it up with some trepidation: we all know the hit-and-miss experience of unauthorized live recordings, how quality can dip from song to song, verse to verse, an otherwise spirited set rendered lifeless by a poor mix. As MC5 live boots go, this record sounds pretty great: Fred "Sonic" Smith and Wayne Kramer's guitars are in-your-face loud, if tuning-challenged, and their playing's focused and expressive, drummer Dennis Thompson's drums snap, and Mike Davis's bass is fuller than on your average lo-fi live recording. Sadly, Rob Tyner's vocals are buried at the bottom of much of the 5's maelstrom, though his voice does fight its way to the surface on occasion, and his righteous and humorous between-song patter remains loud and clear. The set list moves among tracks from the band's debut ("Rambling Rose," "Rocket Reducer No. 62," "Kick Out The Jams"), covers ("It's A Man's World," Jody Reynolds's "Fire Of Love"), and new material from Back In The U.S.A., released two weeks after this show. 

The band is kickin' on this New Year's Day, and sound as if they're in great spirits, though the tape hiss and dodgy sound quality lay a kind of murky transparency over the proceedings. Yet that's what I love about this album, and why I rank it, perhaps perversely, nearly as high as I do Kick Out The Jams. (We all have our favorite unauthorized live albums that we prefer to "the cannon.") This is a soundboard recording, yet of course missed cues, bums notes, and fuck-ups abound. Recordings like this feel more like how a show feels when you're in the venue, as opposed to what's offered later on a cleaned-up live album, of which there are countless examples (including, of course, Kick Out The Jams). To my ears (and heart), vocals dropping in and out of the the mix or buried in the roar, the sheen of a "well produced" recording replaced with an overwhelming wall of noise flattening out individual band parts: this represents the sound of an average show more accurately than what official live albums can present. As Damon Krukowski observed last year in an Art in America piece on live abums: "The reason should be obvious to anyone using Instagram: editing makes a difference."

Before the MC5 plays "It's A Man's World," some sort of technical snafu with the P.A. occurs, and what follows are a few minutes of band mumbling, guitar tuning, and off-mic jokes that likely would've been edited out of an official recording; here, the boring interruption, so common in shows, drops me right into the evening's tightrope vibe. Live at the Saginaw Civic Centre sounds like the memory of a show rather than a document of that show, the replaying of highlights in your imagination as you're heading home afterward, the sweat drying on your skin, your ears ringing. At a show, I rarely pay close attention to the audio mix or to each of the elements of a band's sound; my hearing, sensitive as it is, can only pick up so much subtlety among moving parts, and anyway I'm too busy getting off on the spectacle, the lights, the people around me, wrestling with whatever biases or desires or fantasies about the band or the night that I brought with me to the show. The official release of a show usually sounds different than the show you played back in your head on your pillow that night, or a week later. Human beings aren't soundboards: we're sweaty, maybe drunk, probably grinning animals through whom sound moves, possibly changing our night or our lives. Try mixing that.


In March 1985 the Fleshtones recorded a show at The Gibus in Paris; I.R.S Records released a live album Speed Connection II in the fall. (The first Speed Connection came out in Europe only, within days of the band's legendary residency at The Gibus, and is considerably rougher sounding.) The Fleshtones' singer Peter Zaremba once told me that he wished that I.R.S. had gone with a more lo-fi approach. “The best thing we could have done was get a Nagra recorder, sit it in the back of the place, hang up two microphones, and record it,” he said, adding, “They didn’t do that.” Though it's sourced from a soundboard, Live at the Saginaw Civic Centre has the kind of feel that Zaremba was probably hoping for. All you've got is two ears? All you need is two mics.

Back in the '80s, an ex of mine would on occasion smuggle a boxy portable tape player into shows to record them. I recall driving home after a gig she'd recorded, the player hanging from her rear view mirror as we drove, the tinny sound blasting from a shitty little speaker sounding like—feeling like—Surround sound, moving as it was through our rich memories of the show only minutes old. 

Dig the slow burn of "Fire Of Love" ("written by a fellow sweaty teenager") and the fierce riffing of the soon-to-be-released "Teenage Lust":

Photo: Joel Brodsky

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