Music

MC5: Back in the USA

Harold Liu

Mc5

Back in the USA

Label: Atlantic
UK Release Date: 1969-12-31
Amazon
iTunes

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.