Back In The USA by MC5 Review
Back in the USA is MC5’s second album and their first to be recorded in the studio after their “live” debut, Kick Out The Jams. Like their Detroit associates, The Stooges, they had been signed to Elektra Records but controversy around their debut had led the label to drop the band only to be picked up by Atlantic Records. Back in the USA had a unique sound as a result of producer John Landau, who was later to work with Bruce Springsteen but at that point, had never produced a band before. Landau’s desire to get best equalization possible resulted in a sound that had virtually no bass.
Landau was also influential in that he encouraged the band to abandon the experimentalism heard on Kick Out The Jams and adopt a simple approach that harked back to early rock n’ roll. The sound and this back-to-basics approach helped Back in the USA to be considered an important proto-punk classic. The influence can easily be heard by bands such as The Ramones and The New York Dolls as well as countless punk bands of the 70’s.
The total running time is under half an hour but Back in the USA packs a lot of music in that short space of time. We get nine original tracks sandwiched between two covers of early rock n’ roll nuggets. The first of these is Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti. A statement of intent if ever there was one.
The first original track Tonight boasts a riff that the Alice Cooper band would borrow a couple of years later for their smash hit School’s Out. Ostensibly a rabble rousing subversion of America’s youth, the song is kind of party anthem. The tone of the lyrics is somewhat dated but it is still an effective statement today.
No mistaking the sentiments of Teenage Lust. A riff played with a speed and fury that predicts punk over which Rob Tyner sings lyrics that he wouldn’t get away with today “…chase them at the bars and grab them at the dances”. Still the song has enough wit to just about get away with it and it’s amusing how Tyner’s teenage lust turns to a dirty old letch by the end.
Let Me Try says pretty much the same thing as Teenage Lust, only wrapped up in a doo-wap ballad. As such, it has a kind of sinister appeal while High School has similar sentiments to Tonight with its cry of the kids “want a little action”.
Looking At You was originally released as a B-side to a single released in 1966. Given a re-working, it stands out on Back in the USA and was covered by British punk band The Damned on their Machine Gun Etiquette album.
Call Me Animal is a heavy rocker that would have been heavier but for the lack of bass throughout Back in the USA. Covering the same ground as Teenage Lust, it’s one of the least effective songs on the album.
The American Ruse is the MC5’s first foray into political territory on Back in the USA. It rails against the double standards, as the band saw it, of the US government’s pronouncements of freedom on the one hand, whilst using suppression with the other. It achieves all this while being a rollicking good rock n’ roll tune and features an excellent guitar break from Fred “Sonic” Smith.
Fred Smith handles the vocals on his own Shakin’ Street. A simple yet affecting number that conjures up imagery of the type of street characters that the band would encounter at this stage. Shakin’ Street also demonstrated that Fred Smith was a talented songwriter and added an extra dimension to the MC5.
The Human Being Lawnmower takes us back to political territory again with truly disturbing protest against the Vietnam war. At a little over to minutes, the song manages to pack a real impact and is not so much a mini-opera as a micro-opera.
Back In The USA takes us back to the beginning with a rock n’ roll cover version book-ending this highly influential piece of work. Whether the sound of Back in the USA happened by accident or design, this is probably the MC5s best album. More focussed than Kick Out The Jams and more consistent than Out Of Time. Yes, they sound like the Who on a few tracks and Dennis Thompson’s drumming in particular owe a lot to Keith Moon. However there is more than enough originality to go along with the animal magnetism and sheer brute force to ensure that MC5’s Back in the USA still matters today.
Rated Sound gives Back in the USA by MC5 a rating of 9/10.
Back In The USA (1970) by MC5 Track Listing
3. Teenage Lust
4. Let Me Try
5. Looking At You
6. High School
7. Call Me Animal
8. The American Ruse
9. Shakin’ Street
10. The Human Being Lawnmower
11. Back In The USA