Posts Tagged ‘Back In The USA’

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

MC5 were one of the most radical bands of the ’60s. Their first album, the live Kick Out the Jams, committed some of the most energetic and aggressive performances of any musicians to record. The band, which formed in Detroit in 1964, influenced how everything from punk to metal to hard rock has sounded over the past half-century. For that alone, they deserve a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Their live album Kick Out the Jams opens with singer Rob Tyner encouraging the audience to join the “revolution.” Even if the revolution didn’t happen while they played,  the band meant what it said. The members all had ties to the White Panther Party (their “manager,” John Sinclair, was a founding member) and performed concerts in protest of the Vietnam War. They even played at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

While MC5 may not have been the first band to say the word “fuck” on an album, they definitely used it most effectively. The song “Kick Out the Jams” starts with a rallying cry by Rob Tyner to “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” Those famous words complement the relentless proto-punk assault found on the rest of the album.

MC5’s first studio album, 1970’s Back in the USA, predicted the affection for late-‘50s and early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll that punk groups like the Ramones celebrated years later. The 11-song album is only 28 minutes long (this was 1970, a time when 28 minutes would have been about normal for one track by other underground artists) and features short covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs. Their live performances were even closer to punk; onstage, the band encouraged audiences to join them in political protest, all the while creating some of the most abrasive music of its time. Many punk bands cite them as an influence. Guitarist Wayne Kramer’s drug charges are even mentioned in the Clash’s “Jail Guitar Doors.”

Aside from his vocal talents, singer Rob Tyner was known for his awesome hair. Tyner had one of the largest afros in 1969. When coupled with the eclectic fashion of the late ’60s, all the members created a strong image on and off stage.

More than 50 years later, the group’s surviving members (guitarist Wayne Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson) continue to perform. The band has reunited a few times, though each reunion had been cut short by the death of a member. Kramer, along with British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, worked together on the Jail Guitar Doors Initiative — named after the Clash song that referenced Kramer — which provides instruments to inmates. In 2018, Kramer spearheaded the MC50 tour that included members of Soundgarden and Fugazi, among others.

MC5 – (Motor City 5) Motorcity is burning 1969

MC5 only released three albums, but they were ferocious, adventurous, and confrontational enough to secure the group’s place as one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands ever. Singer Rob Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson came together as the MC5 in 1965. The band performed for several years before making its first record. This year is the 50th anniversary of the recording of the band’s incendiary debut, Kick Out The Jams, which was recorded live over two nights at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in October 1968.

To celebrate, MC5 release Total Assault: 50th Anniversary Collection, a limited-edition boxed set that features all three of the band’s albums pressed on coloured vinyl. It includes Kick Out The Jams (red vinyl), Back In The USA (white vinyl) and High Time (blue vinyl). The albums come in sleeves that faithfully re-create the original releases, including gatefolds for Kick Out The Jams and High Times. All three are housed in a hard slipcase with new art and previously unseen photographs by world renowned photographer Raeanne Rubenstein. The music on Total Assault shows why the MC5 is held is such high regard today with indelible tracks like Kick Out The Jams, Human Being Lawnmower and Sister Anne.

The set also includes a new essay by Creem magazine founding editor/writer and Uncut contributor Jaan Uhelszki, who writes: “Turned loose on a bare stage, the MC5 were among the most awe-inspiring perpetrators of sheer bombast and rock and roll brinkmanship alive… They tore through the stuff they heard on the radio with a fierce intensity that transcended the original artists’ intent. Tunes by James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones vibrated at a higher frequency when the Motor City Five tackled them.”

MC5 co-founder and guitarist Wayne Kramer will release his memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities on August 14th before hitting the road with a new all-star line-up of MC5 called MC50. The group will perform Kick Out The Jams in its entirety, along with other MC5 classics.

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On January. 15th, 1970, one of the best ways to spell Rock and Roll was to use two letters and a number. hence the MC5, It was on this day that they released their first studio album “Back In The USA”. (Their first LP “Kick Out The Jams” had been a live album) It was/is pure unadulterated balls out Rock and Roll. Any list of the greatest Rock albums includes it.

Though the Motor City 5 reunited with slight line-up changes in ’92 and again in ’03, the punk progenitors’ legacy is rooted in a brief but influential three-album run starting in 1969. The second of those, 1970’s “Back In The USA”, The album marks a departure from the kinetic live performances of the band’s debut, “Kick Out The Jams”, and subsequently it didn’t sell as well as its predecessor. But the stripped-down aesthetic only amplified the MC5’s core influences of early rhythm and blues—exemplified in some loud-and-fast covers of Little Richard and Chuck Berry—and its political radicalism. The latter couldn’t be more overt on “The American Ruse,” where Rob Tyner takes down police brutality and superficial consumerist culture while distorted (and subversively American-sounding) blues riffs burn up around him.

Since it was impossible to top the in-concert exuberance of their debut, “Kick Out the Jams”, the MC5 re-emerged with a more refined sound for their sophomore effort, 1970’s “Back in the USA”, their first studio record. The music is comparable to other Detroit proto-punk rockers of the same era (the Stooges, Alice Cooper, etc.). As with the aforementioned peers, raw garage rock serves as the main ingredient for most of “Back in the USA”. Producer Jon Landau may have lessened the volatility of the MC5 as compared to JAMS, but the band was equipped with another great set of songs. Two covers bookend “Back in the USA” – an uptempo reading of Little Richard’s rock & roll standard “Tutti Frutti” kicks things off in fine fashion, while the album-closing title track was originally done by Chuck Berry. The original material ranges from the abstract “The Human Being Lawnmower” to the heartfelt soul ballad “Let Me Try,” a surprise highlight. Nervy, high-octane rockers bristling with pure adolescent energy–“Teenage Lust” and “Call Me Animal,” among them–balance politically charged tracks like “The American Ruse.” “Back in the USA” may have been the MC5’s most conventional album, but it is still an endlessly listenable rock & roll classic. Chuck Berry meets Detroit anarchist punk, and the result is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time!

This Is The Original Rolling Stone review:

Wop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-lop-bam-boom. Thud. “Tutti Frutti,” which opens the partly excellent MC5 album, is easily the worst cut on it, and in a way a clue to the rest of the record, which ends, stiffly enough, with “Back in the USA.” The MC5 have roots; or their producer Jon Landau does, or somebody does. Over four minutes of totally pointless music is expended in “proving” that fact—and regardless of the possible coy significance of this one-time “Killer Band” singing “Back in the USA” as if it was some kind of confession, the performances of the old rock are dead, like someone reciting the alphabet instead of using the letters to make words.
There are some first-rate songs on the album, some good musical ideas, and the musicianship is competent throughout, often fun, sometimes exciting. “Musicianship,” here, is used as a concept—the idea of a “solid, clean, tight and together” sound is as self-conscious as the total freak out the first LP was. Chuck Berry simply oozes from the album.
A group of teenage consciousness numbers fill out the album—a re-working of themes from the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, old South Philly street music, and the like. There’s “Shakin’ Street”—the title predicts both the words and music; “Call Me Animal”; “High School”—sis boom bah, rah rah rah, and so on. And then there are the cuts that make it, make it all the way, that show the real talent and special gifts of this band.
“Teenage Lust” is just what is sounds like—urges all over the place, good hard rock (lacking any bass sound, as does the LP throughout, which is a drag), and those lines that Rob Tyner sings with such showmanship: “I need a healthy outlet for/ For my teenage lust.” If you don’t think that’s funny, you didn’t go to high school in the USA.
Coming off the humour and the drive of the music, the song cuts deep, like “I Get Around.” “The American Ruse” is probably the best thing the band has recorded; an attempt at phrase-making that just might come off:
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!
That, in a few lines, is classic rock and roll song writing. It’s rarely done better. The chord changes that power the song seem to match up with the hurried tempo—the band can’t wait to get to that last line, and the impact of every moment is heightened by the rush. Virtually the whole album is fast and edgy—but the problem of the music is in its competence. And the problem of its competence is in its so-carefully worked out intentions. Nothing was left to chance.
Nothing was left to chance, it seems, because this album, and the songs on it, constitute a very conscious attempt to do for teenage America what the rock and roll of the Fifties did instinctively and naturally—create a young community of spirit, affection, excitement, and self-consciousness. It’s an attempt to define themes and problems and an offering of political, social, and emotional solutions. The clean, direct approach of the sound is the necessary vehicle for the straightforward consciousness of the message: “Look, kid, you’re not just some alienated sap bugged by the system, you’re part of a gang that doesn’t have rules yet, doesn’t have leaders yet, but it’s forming, kid, get on.” That’s what Peter Townshend did with “My Generation,” what Eddie Cochran did with “Come On Everybody.”
But the music, the sound, and in the end the care with which these themes have been shaped drags it down, save for two or three fine numbers that deserve to be played on every jukebox in the land. The street music of the MC5 has none of the animalism of the Good Rats (you might still find their brilliant LP—Kapp KS 3580) or uncontrollable drive of those first crucial sides by the Who. You can decide what to do, but if you feel like you know it all, like you’ve seen it all, when it comes time to make the music, there’s really nothing there but an idea.
Phil Spector once talked about the difference between “records” and “ideas”—”The man who can make a disc that’s a record and an idea will rule the world,” he said in his typically moderate fashion. The MC5 album, for the most part, remains an idea, because in the end it sounds like a set-up. “Teenage Lust” and “American Ruse” and “Human Being Lawnmower” break through, and they belong on singles, and on the charts. All the way up the charts. ~ Greil Marcus (May 14, 1970)
TRACKS:
All tracks composed by MC5, except where indicated.
Side one
“Tutti Frutti” (LaBostrie, Joe Lubin, Richard Penniman) – 1:30
“Tonight” – 2:29
“Teenage Lust” – 2:36
“Let Me Try” – 4:16
“Looking at You” – 3:03
Side two
“High School” – 2:42
“Call Me Animal” – 2:06
“The American Ruse” – 2:31
“Shakin’ Street” – 2:21
“The Human Being Lawnmower” – 2:24
“Back in the U.S.A.” (Chuck Berry) – 2:26

Any MC5 fans still out there? Happy 52nd Birthday to “Back In The USA”!!!!