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Why It Mattered: MC5 – ‘Back In The USA’

Way back in 1970, MC5 released their iconic debut studio album Back In The USA. This was the culmination of a wild year of turmoil and triumph following the release of their revolutionary sonic orgy that was Kick Out The Jams in 1969.

MC5 experienced widespread controversy as they exploded onto the scene due to their radical left-wing politics and progressive onstage profanity. The explosive live document, Kick Out The Jams, was recorded in Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and features an extended cover of John Lee Hooker’s Motor City Is Burning wherein vocalist Rob Tyner praises the role of the Black Panthers during the Detroit riots of 1967.

Emerging poet John Sinclair stepped in as manager for MC5 and cause further controversy when he wrote in the album’s liner notes ‘Kick out the jams, motherfuckers’. This led to various record stores boycotting the album and even banning Elektra Records in general.

As a result Elektra chose to inconspicuously change the liner notes to ‘Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters’. Nevertheless it still shifted over 100,000 copies and peaked at #30 on the Billboard Charts.

As a result the outfit shifted to Atlantic Records for their sophomore release and took on noted rock critic and future Bruce Springsteen mentor Jon Landau as producer. The result is a slightly more sonically tame prototype for punk rock which acted as a springboard for Tyner, Kramer, and Co to express their revolutionary ideals and lifestyle.

MC5

The sophomore album from MC5 was a slightly sterile springboard for the band to launch their political ideals. We celebrate 50 years of Back In The USA.

Political Backdrop

According to Kramer, MC5 was influenced by the political ideals of Marxism, the Black Panther Party, and Fred Hampton along with Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders. Sinclair was an active member of the White Panther Party who promoted radical left-wing socialist views and anti-racism, acting as a partner party to the Black Panthers. Sinclair was a major influence on the bands early ideals and politically provocative on-stage antics wherein they appeared onstage toting unloaded rifles, and at the climax of a performance, an unseen “sniper” would shoot Tyner.

The band’s Yippie audience dovetailed with Sinclair’s radical political views until Sinclair was arrested for marijuana possession in 1969 and unfairly charged 10 years in prison.

Trivia note: Sinclair was the first person to purchase recreational marijuana when it became legal in Michigan on December 1, 2019.

Sonic Revolution

“All right kids it’s rocking time.” The punchy opening quip from Back To The USA’s only single Tonight, sets the tone for the album and the band’s mentality going in. The move to Atlantic, which many fans saw as a good thing, came as a bit of a surprise when their pointed anti-establishment outbursts and explosive fuzz tones were muted by Landau’s production and desire to appease the label heads.

As a result, various promising new tracks like Teenage Lust, and Call Me Animal proved tinny and lacklustre. Semi-soul ballad’s Let Me Try and Shakin’ Street were an experimental shift for the outfit and were often met with mixed reviews.

Once one became accustomed with the sonic neutering of their revolutionary heroes in the studio, fans were still able to delight in the face-melting hallmarks that made their predatory debut so legendary. Numbers like Tonight, Looking at You and The Human Being Lawnmower hit hard and fast, satisfying a hunger that only MC5 can create and satiate.

The decision to top and tail the album with a classic ’50s rocker such as Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti and Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA further quenches the thirst and provides some of the albums most throttling moments. However, the decision to name the record after a cover is questionable at best.

The album’s finest moment no doubt comes in The American Ruse. This is pure rock n’ roll songwriting at its finest:

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
boom
’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

It is within these frenetic moments that the album stands proud and MC5 shine through. Unconstrained by the trappings of thought the tracks pummels through sounds barrier as the band can’t wait to get to the last chord. It’s a heightened rush and a pristine moment of distorted bliss.

The album’s ultimate downfall however is that nothing is left to chance. Everything is so thought out that the only thing that remains is the ‘idea’. The notion of political revolution.

Thankfully MC5 came back chomping at the bit the following year with the energised High Time which saw the band go out with a bang. Nonetheless, Back In The USA is still a damn fine record by any standards, brooding with the seismic, off-the-richer activity that make MC5 a key piece of rock history.

While we’ve got you, check out Why It Mattered:

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January 15, 2020

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