Killer Up! by the Up
The Up were stalwarts at the summertime Sunday free concerts in Ann Arbor Michigan, from about a year after their formation in 1967 to their dissolution in 1973. The "Killer Up!" collection was assembled from their sparse recordings by John Sinclair as a CD for the Total Energy label in 1995; Sinclair's brother David had been the band's manager.
Their only Detroit radio moment "Just Like an Aborigine" opens with tom tom. Then comes one of those fast multi-drum rolls--of which Peter Macarus of the Windbreakers was a grand master-- that was '70s Rock's equivalent of a typewriter carriage return. Guitar marches in, per the Humble Pie/Bad Company British strongarm rulebook. Perhaps the song was birthed in a stoner pun; the reviewer can imagine some Michigan student in a smoky room slurring "Ann Ar-bor-igine...man, that's what we are...just like..." It has a great opening line: "Drowning in milk and honey/For twenty-two many years", and later it's resolutely anti-urban in its complaint "The city done give me an overdose". Weird pompous mumbo-jumbo follows, about the singer's mother kissing his feet, entering the house of his father. Singer Frank Bach wants to take up "the wild man's cry 'Everybody get high!'", which sounds like highschool bathroom graffiti of the era.
"Hassan I Sabbah" is a strange, irresolute song, with a topical and chordal complexity more like something by the Up's more sophisticated Detroit contemporaries SRC or Savage Grace, promulgating Who-like mysticism in the vein of "Armenia, City in the Sky". Deniz Tek, who brought Detroit Rock to Australia when his family yanked Deniz out of Ann Arbor's Forsythe Junior High School to move to the antipodes, copped the guitar lick for a couple songs by his band Radio Birdman a few years later. One could now imagine Iggy Pop credibly covering "Hassan I Sabbah", with its believably Stooges riff. John Sinclair was probably the literate one who, storytelling 'round the hookah at the White Panther's Hill Street commune, turned the band on to tales of the Old Man of the Mountain and his Hashishins performing their hashisshinations.
The liner notes claim the Up as the ancestors of the Ramones, yet the hectic "I Don't Need You" evokes the Sex Pistols' cover of the Stooges' "No Fun", with hints of Captain Beefheart. Down to its pugnacious title, "I Don't Need You" is the Punkiest thing on the CD. A few years ago, this reviewer lived next to a young Meatloaf-with-a-drumset, who launched into nocturnal speedmetal sessions in his basement that sounded like this. Too bad the song's vocals are undermixed and nearly lost...or maybe that's further Punk cred. Its weird, stuttering four-note riff is a slippery Ron Asheton distillation, or more reminiscent of Ivan Kral of the Patti Smith Group than guitar gymnasts Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen. "Together" is as propulsive as Cream's "Cat Squirrel", and sounds like something Ann Arbor's twin space musicians Ben and Larry Miller might've written or played at the time.
The Up's cover of "Train Kept A-Rollin'", heavier than Aerosmith's and solid as letters on a Gary Grimshaw concert poster, again makes one realize the limitations of a single guitar in the hands of someone as ham-fisted and predictable as Bob Rasmussen, much as other songs are hemmed in by the limited range of Frank Bach's reedy voice. The portentious minor key "Never Say Die" bears the weightiness of Grand Funk Railroad's "Inside Looking Out" (the one where--snicker--Mark Farner lamented in concert how he spends his days "making up nickel bags"). "Never Say Die" is as melancholy of Black Sabbath, or of Johnny Thunders' New York Dolls, or Thunders' later band the Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Tom Petty's band of the same name). Its guitar noodling seems like a typical midwestern kid--think Ann Arbor's flashfinger'd realtor's-son David Surovell a decade later--in his room, bursting with energy until running out of ideas.
Fighting for the title with "Aborigine", the Up's best pop song and most memorable riff is the topical "Free John Now!", which sports the Eddie Cochran-worthy rhyme of "marijuana" and "do what we wanna". "Free John Now" sounds very 1970s, with prominent cowbell (more cowbell!) in one of the two versions of it on the CD. Like a radio station out of Flint, Michigan, mutters hourly, "Classic Rock that really rocks"!
As if the duly deputized Other White Panther Band was assigned by the Party to write a feminist song, the earnest "Sisters, Sisters (Sisters Rising)" throws together a surf guitar line and overcomplicated drums. With hardly any engaging beat, it is doubtful women would dance to it. Since the melody is somewhat menacing, not celebratory or sexy, one wonders: Did these guys really like girls? Were they clueless as to what kind of songs the women at their concerts liked? The song shows Motown roots in its "Dance-dance-dance" harmonies, while its feedback and bass evoke the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" or Blue Cheer's "Vincebus Eruptum", with--to talk about it like one would a wine--Bo Diddleyish accents. Perhaps "Do the Sun Dance" was conceived by savvy marketer John Sinclair as a theme song for the short-lived Sun Dance magazine, an attempted national media project.
Though it's a delight to hear this quirky band again, the most throwaway songs on the CD clearly show the Up's limitations, attitudinal ones especially glaring for "skinnies from Murder City". "Come On" hollers "come on and let the good times roll" in the Earl King tune, the band's pedestrian appropriation of R & B or Motown heritage nowhere as heartfelt as Ann Arbor's Rationals when they massaged those roots. Clotted with the overindugence of Bob Rasmussen's guitar, we see the family tree where Cream begat Grand Funk begat Up as one in devolutionary decline. "Come On" makes a listener miss piano, organ, reeds or horns, and realize just how boring lead-guitar-dominated Rock can be. Compare this to an imagined version of this song by a tasteful piano trio a la Nat King Cole or Charles Brown. Contrast how even Commander Cody's Airmen, covering the Coasters' "Lost in the Jungle" and Ray Charles "Should've Been Me", were so much more influenced and properly schooled by black music than the Up were (or the Stooges, despite Howlin' Wolf's influence on Iggy Pop's stage antics). When the Up perform a frathouse cover of "Do the Swim", it wouldn't go over at a party in any urban black American neighborhood public pool that this writer knows of. Too often, in benefits and free concerts, the Up made themselves about as welcome as a fecal floater in the pool.
This CD ends with Alan Ginsberg's "Poem for John Sinclair", flip side of the "Free John Now!" 45 sold at the 1971 Benefit Concert to raise money for Sinclair's defense fund while he was in prison. Rather than affirmative urban rhythm and blues, we have urban coffeehouse bohemia. Ginsberg comes on like a Catholic priest intoning the Latin Mass, nasally assuring how Sinclair's sentence affirms the "bankruptcy of middle-class law and order". Droning over his hand-pumped harmonium, one wonders who are today's equivalents of the great literary eccentrics--Ginsberg, Burroughs, Hunter Thompson--of the early 1970s? Various goofy word goombahs (Ted Berrigan, Stephen Kessler, Diane Wakoski) paraded through Ann Arbor high schools as part of Donald Hall's Poetry in the Schools program, and it seemed credible when Sinclair titled one Prison Writing "Poet as Priest". For all its Woodstock yearnings to touch and belong, the effect of White Panther rhetoric on this band was evinced more in backwoods photo-ops with rifles than the pragmatic Soul and survival that they might have better learned from the black community around them.
Killer Up! is downloadable at Audio Lunchbox
Mike Mosher is a Bad Subject living in Michigan.