Back In The USA

Released 1970 on Atlantic
The Seth Man, November 2003ce
“Back In The USA” was The MC5’s second album and it’s one that has consistently split opinion ever since the day it was released. Early on it alienated most fans of their former “total energy” approach while failing to win over a new audience of any significance and it wasn’t until the late seventies that its appreciation reached its first height: not only cuz of its undying energy but also cuz it wuz viewed as the least ‘hippie’ of the trio of LPs. The reasons for the giving of all the short shrift were never in short supply: It was different from the high octane blast-off that was “Kick Out The Jams,” it was short as hell, overbearingly trebly in its production and it did sport a bit of jetsam around the edges. All these points are true enough. But however varnished by the restraint of its strait-jacketed production the album is, The MC5’s energy remained intact throughout many blistering turns and kicked ass for the majority of the time. Which was a remarkable achievement considering the oppressive waves of controversy The MC5 had been dogged with for the past few years leading up to this album -- caused largely by their ties to manager John Sinclair and his revolutionary White Panther Party, which ensured them the unenviable role as targets for the agendas of both left and right wing factions who viewed them more as clowns or troublemakers to be put in their place than a rock’n’roll band.

In December of 1968, a gig at the Fillmore East erupted into violence as the ‘5 were caught unaware in a crossfire of a politically-fuelled riot that resulted in their being blackballed throughout the national concert circuit by two prominent East Coast promoters. Two months later their debut Elektra album “Kick Out The Jams” was released and the word “Motherfuckers!” which introduced the title track caused outcries against the group and Elektra, forcing the latter to censor the offending word on both the single and album with the less colourful “Brothers and sisters.” It was too late to placate the uproar and wound up only causing the band to be viewed by a growing contingent of skeptics as back-pedaling upstarts who didn’t walk it like they talked it. April of 1969 saw matters come to a head when The MC5 placed an ad in local underground newspapers protesting the refusal of Hudson’s (a Midwestern chain store) to stock “Kick Out The Jams” on grounds of obscenity, declaring: “KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKER! And kick in the door if the store won’t sell you the album on Elektra. FUCK HUDSON’S!”

Hudson’s were not amused, responding swiftly with withdrawal and return of all Elektra product from their entire fleet of chain stores with the vow to terminate all future business with the label. Now Elektra weren’t amused, either and promptly relieved The MC5 of their contract after seven months. Although quickly picked up by Atlantic Records, it would be only a fleeting sense of relief as that July, John Sinclair (The ‘5’s now ex-manager) was jailed with a sentence of 9.5-10 years for illegal marijuana possession and distribution (Simultaneously, The MC5 were working on “Back In The USA” and were soon declared guilty of “unrevolutionary” conduct by the White Panthers, beginning a period of bad blood that would continue until both band and political party had passed on into history.)

“Back In The USA” wasn’t so much The MC5’s SECOND album as it was their first STUDIO album: “Kick Out The Jams” was live and their previous experience with studio record-making had been confined only to their first couple of singles. Paired with Jon Landau (a producer who had even less previous studio experience -- none) whose previous employment had been writing rock’n’roll albums reviews and whose tastes ran more along the lines of fifties rock’n’roll and soul rather than the loud, spirited and noisy displays the MC5 had been kicking out. The result of these two very different attitudes joining together wound up as a compromise on both ends. Put it this way: if “Kick Out The Jams” was too loose (and it was) then “Back In The USA” gathered together all that missing slack and converted it into a tinny and tight-assed record that flies by at the speed of a highly compacted extended play single of eleven songs.

“Back In The USA” would probably not have been as universally rejected if the first and last tracks (covers of “Tutti-Frutti” and “Back In The USA”) had been excised altogether. Because even though Little Richard and Chuck Berry were two of many important influences on the ‘5, it wasn’t THIS sort of performance that that had shook up in the first place, and those session keyboards ain’t zackly the most soulful of 88’s bangin’, either. But even the stiff execution of these comparatively stillborn covers could not bring down the whole album because a tightly-coiled energy spins out unflaggingly with laser accuracy as it fights against the strict time constraints that offered little space for the full trajectory of their goods delivery. And the band operates at maximum capacity, especially evidenced with the twin Kramer/Sonic guitar crosstalk/crossfire and Dennis Thompson’s consistent, tight clatter of well-aimed drum fills that perforate and spray out round after round of rapid fire, well-aimed hits. This propulsion drives “Back In the USA” with a stripped down, guerilla strategy of get in/get out/and leave everything wrecked in your wake as you hurtle head first into the next track. And to top it off, Tyner’s voice is excellent, darting breathlessly quick through the earnest backing of his Detroit cohorts.

The first sessions for the album back in the spring of 1969 at Elektra Studios in Los Angeles had been interrupted by the termination of their Elektra contract but they had already worked out what would be the most visceral tracks of the album with a trio of frenetic complexity with “Teenage Lust,” “Call Me Animal” and “The Human Being Lawnmower” and these all whip up a brilliantly fierce and frothing head of steam as much as their re-recording of “Looking At You.” Although it would be asking too much to expect it to surpass their ’68 single version (because that was THE moment for The ‘5 in terms of studio output) it’s still a fluid, rockin’ killer and one of the few places on the LP where The ‘5 were allowed to run over the 2 minute 50 second mark. I think Landau compressed the lengths as though to make every track a prospective hit single (Although to confound this theory, “Looking At You” was made the B-side of their first Atlantic single...with an entire passage cut, natch.) For these four songs alone you need this record.

The only hint of their previous revolutionary stance was delivered on the quick bitch ‘bout the Fatherland, “The American Ruse,” with its pre-bridge burn out of

“Phony stars… (oh, no)
Crummy cars…(oh, no)
Cheap guitars…(oh, no)
Jones’ primitive bars…nahh!
Rock ‘em back, Sonic!”

…and he does with a vamped “Battle Hymn of The Republic” riff that quickly bears down into a solo that takes a banked turn too quickly without crackin’ up. Following this is more easy vibe of “Shakin’ Street,” the first composition by guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith to appear on record and it differs from all other MC5 recordings past, present and future in a melodic rumination on that eternal teenage strip/hang out where everything’s cool while you get to try out various styles of your own self to see what’s gonna fly with the gang and onlookers and there’s always some action going down somewhere to find and shake up; and therefore (like the rest of the whole shebang) teenage as fuck. And Sonic’s Midwestern drawl-vox is tuff comfort itself.

As stripped down and economical as its monochromatic sleeve, “Back In The USA” is a barely-contained flask of combustible material and by my estimation the strongest influence on punk outta The MC5’s three LPs. And although imbalanced by compromise in a couple of respects, all you got to do is put the two cover versions behind you and realise how well the remaining nine hang together: tense, terse and trebly rock’n’roll as performed full throttle, under the gun and on the run.