Man, they were ugly. It was almost like their calling card, plastering their ugly mugs all over their record covers. But I knew I would like this here MC5 Back in the USA record because there they were, ugly as sin but certainly not giving a fuck; peering out at me, all sweaty, laughing, and ready to party with the groupies from the commune that were waiting for them backstage. I’ve stared at that cover so many times I could draw it for you from memory, right down to the gap in Rob Tyner’s teeth. And that was just the cover.
The music? Some people would say that was ugly too. Set the needle on band one and the first thing you notice is the bottomless sound. Intentional or not, the record was produced with virtually no low end (you can hear the handclaps nice and clear in the mix, though). The first track, “Tutti Frutti”, almost sounds like it’s being covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Brothers and sisters, whatever happened to the thunderous space-rock and incendiary political rhetoric of Kick Out the Jams (that had a cool record cover too)? Don’t ask me, I like it better when they’re singing about cars, high school, trying to get laid, and all that stuff anyway. Yes, Kick Out the Jams is a landmark album. And as a definitive statement of intent and a demonstration of the band’s tremendous musical power, it is without peer. But can you cruise the mall and pick up girls with it? I don’t think so. Besides, the politics are still there on Back in the USA, if not explicitly (“The American Ruse”) then implicitly. “Teenage Lust” is an easy-to-swallow (and more subversive) three-minute capsule articulating the band’s hedonistic politics.
What I hear in this record is an addictive joy for the myriad experiences of youth, for the eternal combination of pleasure, excitement, boredom, anger, and frustration that everyone experiences during that fragile transition between adolescence and adulthood (it’s probably no coincidence that I discovered this record around the same time I discovered, booze, cigarettes, girls, and cars, not necessarily in that order). That attitude is mirrored in the hot-wired treble sound of the record, a sound so tightly wound it threatens to jump off the turntable at any moment and sear your brain. I hear “Tonight” and I hear a whole summer’s worth of possibilities rushing back to me, as if I were 16 again and I’d just bought a bunch of six-packs with my fake ID. This is the song that would be playing on the car stereo as my friends and I peeled out of the convenience store parking lot. I hear “Human Being Lawnmower” and I hear a spitting, stuttering anger at any sort of institution that would try to take those fleeting experiences of youth away from me (I also hear a complex, well-structured, seven-movement musical statement that clocks in at under three-minutes, but that’s for another time). But it’s the re-tooled version of an old b-side that provides the best moment on the record. “Looking at You” winds Rob Tyner’s snaking vocal melody around a razor-sharp proto-punk riff by Fred “Sonic” Smith, while Wayne Kramer’s guitar continuously asserts its presence with a maddeningly propulsive manic energy that makes you forget that the Who, the Kinks, or the Kingsmen ever existed.
Now that the high-energy, garage rock sound the MC5 helped to create has been used to sell bands like the Hives, the Mooney Suzuki, and the Datsuns, it’s hard to imagine how groundbreaking Back in the USA must have sounded when it was first released in 1970. That observation alone speaks volumes on the record’s far-reaching influence, on how deeply the seeds of punk and power pop were sown in its grooves. But it’s the politics behind the partying, the substance behind the sound, the humanity behind the pose that separates Back in the USA from the countless imitators who have placed their left hand on the vinyl, their right hand in the air, and sworn on its unshakable stature. Well, that, and the fact that most of the aforementioned imitators aren’t ugly enough.