MC5 – ” Back In The USA ” Released January 15th 1970

Posted: January 18, 2021 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Back In The USA: How MC5 Invented Pop-Punk Ahead Of Schedule

The LP was no longer just a collection of songs, it had a purpose, a message – and fans triumphantly carried their favourites from party to party. Connecting rebellion with the counterculture, and blazing a trail for punk rock years ahead of schedule, were MC5, the Michigan band whose second album, “Back In The USA”, hit the shelves smack-bang at the start of the decade, on 15th January 1970.

Released a year after their frenetic proto-punk debut, “Kick Out The Jams”, Back In The USA marked a new direction for a group whose opening call-to-arms caused no small amount of controversy. A mixture of pop tunes and deep blues riffs, it found them matching their rebellious stance to catchy song writing, becoming the blueprint for something else entirely: pop-punk. The opening track is a cover of the classic hit “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. “Let Me Try” is a ballad. “The American Ruse” attacks what the Detroit quintet saw as the hypocritical idea of freedom espoused by the US government, and “The Human Being Lawnmower” expresses opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The last song on the album, which is the title track, is a cover of Chuck Berry’s 1959 single “Back in the U.S.A.”

Every strain of this combination of punk and pop music has produced some of the most iconic party tracks in history while offering an aggressive release that skirts some of punk music’s more anti-social aspects. It’s a deadly combination, and one that MC5 lit the touch paper for with Back in The USA.  What distinguished the band was not only its fiery political content-inspired by the militaristic, anti-establishment ideology of manager John Sinclair’s White Panther Party-but the furious, free-jazz energy of the music. Guitarists Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith engaged in long exchanges that suggested Sun Ra and John Coltrane.

Where Kick Out The Jams was a fast, messy live album that felt experimental while heralding the punk scene to come, Back In The USA was immaculately recorded, with a tight production suggesting how much rehearsal time must have went into creating it. They hadn’t let go of their revolutionary aesthetic, they’d just acquired the musicianship to match. With short, memorable riffs and a greater use of vocal harmonies, Back In The USA showed the world that a radio-friendly rebellion could be a great recipe for success. With lyrics that combined themes of partying with those of finding confidence as a teenager, it captured the spirit of youth in revolt, while the use of pronouns in the lyrics ignited a feeling that the album was written for the listener alone.

Producer Jon Landau doubtless had a hand in the band’s new direction. A former music critic who would go on to work with Bruce Springsteen, Landau had a natural instinct for pop-rock; dissatisfied with psychedelia’s lack of focus, he was drawn to MC5’s raucous energy, helping them channel it into a bluesy, catchy bubblegum-pop record that rolled party and rebellion into one. 

The problem was: the audience. MC5 had already announced themselves as punk trailblazers almost a decade ahead of schedule. Their turn towards a cleaner, more mainstream sound turned off a fanbase interested in revolt over record sales, peaking at No.137 in the US – over 100 places lower than Kick Out The Jams. Long-term, however, Back In The USA opened up a world of airplay and mainstream acceptance, if not for the group (who split in 1972, after the release of their third album, “High Time”), then for anyone willing to combine anarchy and danceable pop music in the years that followed.

The MC5 also happened to be making some of the greatest rock’n’roll music ever committed to tape. Post-Elektra, the band managed to record two raucous LPs for Atlantic. The first, ‘Back In The USA’, is often considered to be their weakest – and while it suffers both from a dearth of political focus and a thin, edgy sound (it was recorded by rock critic Jon Landau, who’d never produced a record before), its concise, commercially skewed sound was a profound influence on punk groups like The Clash, while songs such as ‘The Human Being Lawnmower’ offered a radical rewiring of the old bubblegum rock blueprint.

Though the album was viewed as a flop early on by most fans, and lacked the commercial success of their previous release, it would later be considered highly important due to the album’s absolute projection of MC5’s core sound and earliest influences.

In hindsight, MC5 were greatly ahead of their time in terms of both the radical changes they made to their sound and template they laid for a whole new musical genre. The group have been nominated – and overlooked – for entry into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame on numerous occasions, but their true reward is that the collective consciousness of the pop-culture-loving world now know them as this: punk pioneers who became something so much more – a band that showed the way for forging aggressive catharsis with infectious pop music.

MC5 
  • Rob Tyner – vocals
  • Wayne Kramer – guitar, vocals on first & third chorus of “Back in the USA”, guitar solos on “Tutti Frutti”, “Teenage Lust” and “Looking at You”
  • Fred “Sonic” Smith – guitar, guitar solo on “The American Ruse”, lead vocals on “Shakin’ Street” and second chorus of “Back in the USA”
  • Michael Davis – bass
  • Dennis Thompson – drums

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