Monday, April 14, 2008

A To Z: B - Back In The USA by the MC5

Oh those Detroit rockers. For my money, Punk basically started with the MC5's Kick Out The Jams along with the Stooges' Stooges. Debate with me if you want, I won't follow it up. Back In The USA is the second album by this group of faster than fuck rockin' dudes. It's much cleaner than the first album, and plays much like a Chuck Berry tribute record. It's the softest of their 3 records, bu it's also the most accomplished, and sounds the most like an actual album. Regardless if it's 5 stars or 4 stars or whatever, it definitely influenced the power pop and punk sounds that were around the corner. Wayne Davis wrote a great review in 1972, a couple years after the album was released. I'll just post that.

I could well be the world's foremost authority on this LP. On the way it sounds, at least, having played it in it's entirely between three hundred and five hundred (who counts?) times. In fact, I just saw this record in a cut out rack which suggested two things to me--(1) I'd better replace my worn out copy now while I can still find it (I did) and (2) WHAT THE HELL IS THE GREATEST AMERICAN ROCK 'N' ROLL ALBUM OF MODERN HISTORY DOING IN A CUT OUT RACK??
I'll tell you why. Because it didn't sell, that's why. And that's a pity, too, because here's an LP that absolutely DRIPS brilliance off its grooves. An LP that, had it been a hit in early 1970 when it was released, would have been influential enough to have spawned a whole flock of blessfully incompetent imitations & thereby change the course of musical history forever. Or if not forever , then at least for a couple of years, anyway. Long enough to ensure that turning on the radio in early 1972 wouldn't have to be the real drag that it usually is.
It doesn't help, really, that most of the critics who literally blasted the shit out of this album have come back to it now. Now it's a bargain bin oldie, when it could have been a real landmark record. It got the shaft for all kinds of reasons, all of which had one thing in common: none of them had anything to do with the music contained on the album. And that's all that counts! If I told you that the Rolling Stones were hippie cult murderers who supported the Vietnam war & were responsible for 85% of the world's pollution, would it make BETWEEN THE BUTTONS sound any different ? Nope. it might make you stop listening to it, but it wouldn't change the fact that it's a great album. Well,. that may be hypothetical (maybe not) but the point is this: all that counts is what happens when that needle hits the grooves, and nothing else.
I mean people were criticising this record because it signified that the MC5 wanted to be pop- stars, because the MC5 deserted John Sinclair because the lyrics contained no revolutionary rhetoric, because Jon Landau was producing it (rock critic envy on that one) and because--this one floors me-- IT WAS PRETENTIOUS. Pretentious ? What on earth is pretentious about a great rock and roll band trying to make a great rock and roll album? It might be pretentious for Simon & Garfunkel or James Taylor to try it, BUT THE MC5? WHAT ELSE COULD THEY DO?
Listen gang, I'm here to tell you DON'T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THESE ROCK CRITICS! What do they know? Not one of'em has bought an album in the last four years, they all get free copies. What do they know about spending your last four bucks on some supposed masterpiece, only to get home & find out it's a dud ? Nothing, that's what! And don't listen to me, either, in a couple of months when FLASH is on everybody's promo lists. But right now, we're not and I paid the full fare for BACK IN THE USA and just a couple of days ago spent another two bucks for a fresh copy out of the cut out racks, so I've given Atlantic Records six bucks and what they given me?
A great, great album. Man, I just love it. It's been #1 in this house for almost two years and playing it is a daily ritual, just like brushing your teeth or lighting up a cigarette in the morning.
After three or four hundred plays, one no longer hears it as merely a brilliantly executed rock and roll extravaganza; it becomes more, somehow. Sort of like the Band's second album. It's a portrait of America, but not the civil-war America that the Band dealt with which nobody alive today can relate to or refute, but 1960-70 America, the one everybody lives in. And instead of another "America Eats It" album, this one's a rock 'n' roll celebration of everything that's made us great. It's about McDonald's and jukeboxes, and fast cars, and highschool, and teenage lust, and basically HAVING FUN. You know, all the things that so many intellectuals have been trying to tell you was WRONG with America, that it has no culture, no depth, no tradition, no class. You know, the same type of people who don't dig the Seeds. .Well, fuck them, Jack, this may be the hamburger culture, but it's the only thing we've ever known so those of us who dig it should tell these assholes to beat it--to go read a book or something for crissakes, to just LEAVE US ALONE. We wanna have some fun!

(Hey, wait a minute. Is this a record review or is this a THINLY VEILED POLITICAL DIATRIBE??)

Yeah, 'cause this record is chock full of real honest-to-goodness authentic NEW American rock 'n' roll, and we haven't had any since the original kings stepped down. Or at least since the Beach Boys started meditating and the Standells hung up their guitar picks. None of this British shit. Give the English credit for copying American rock so well, from the DC5 to Shakin' Stevens &. the Sunsets to the Beatles-- I dig it, they're all great. They remembered what we forgot, and earn our thanks for that. But who could be better qualified to write and sing rock and roll than one of us?

Well it sure ain't some late-blooming adolescent in England who was eating tea & crumpets five years ago while reading about gardening and had ever-so- nice manners while training as an apprentice baker so he could perhaps raise his social status that they're all so concerned with. Wouldn't you rather hear it from a bunch of American punks like yourself who've eaten at McDonald's and spent whole portions of their life cruisin' down Shakin' Street, and gone to highschool and dodged the draft? A bunch of kids who grew up in a land where rock and roll was a daily reality through a six inch speaker and not a rumor floating off the coast in a pirate radio station, or a half- hour a day thrill on the BBC.
What they need over there is a string of beautiful McDonald's & Jack In The Boxes. & Shakey's Pizza Palaces & Bob' s Big Boys and all the-rest, from coast to coast. I mean if they're really serious about playing our music, well then they're just gonna have to understand what it's all about. They're WRONG, see. And now we're paying for the fact that we paid so much attention to them for the last six years because by and large they've grown tired of altering the old American jams of 15 years ago and have gone back to the only music they can REALLY understand: the Elton John. Cat Stevens, new John Lennon, Paul McCartney type of English schmaltz/folk/ballad shit. But for some inexplicable reason these radio programmers & record companies still think that England is fab or something and when they're not dominating the charts, then their influence is.
Who needs Cat Stevens and his "Peace Train " or Lennon's "Imagine?" Not only are they lousy rock songs (which disqualifies them right off the bat) but they're so incredibly simple minded that they constitute a massive insult to the intelligence of anyone old enough to buy a transistor radio. "Everybody wants peace," Nixon says, and for once he's right (maybe everybody but him, but that' s beside the point). But is listening to Cat Stevens going to bring peace any sooner? Oh fuck,no it isn't and we both know this. When everybody wanted a hot rod they gave us hot rod music. So everybody wants peace and they give us peace music. And you can bet your balls that if Cat Stevens had been around back then, he'd have been churning out hot rod music by the truckload. And as for Lennon, who hasn't imagined that kind of world? It would be real nice, sure, BUT IT JUST AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN, and it would be a much healthier country if some more people would accept this. It's just as true as the fact that if you played "Imagine" for your landlord when he wants to know why the rent's two weeks late, that he'd bop you over the head with that fucking album. And with good reason, too, 'cause anybody that really and truly gets off on that song is a daydreaming fop, anyway. That's why they call it "Imagine," isn't it?
The point is this: the Swinging Medallions are smarter, better, and have more respect for you than either Lennon or Stevens because they KNOW that war is evil, that pollution is bad, that it would be really neat to live in a non-mercenary world, and all the rest, but even more important, THEY KNOW THAT YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS. The Swinging Medallions have that all-important awareness, but Lennon and these other clowns think you need this information, they think you're some kind of feeble brained idiot who prefers war to peace! Who prefers soot to clean air! Doesn't this make you mad?
The Swinging Medallions say "fuck it, we both know what's going on, why write a dumbshit folkie song and send out weird vibrations to innocent people, when we can write "Double Shot Of My Baby's Love" and give these kids something to dig forever." And I thank 'em for that.
What does all this have to do with BACK IN THE USA ? A lot, that's what. But I'm not gonna disect it cut by cut, if you try to get clinical with this album it'd get up off the turntable & walk away laughing. Who could blame it?
But just listen to "High School," with it's great cheerleader chorus. Ain't no gear English band in the world who could write a song like that. Eric Clapton may be the best guitarist on earth, but has he ever dated a cheerleader? Or take "Shakin' Street," the best song on the album, all about that estatic drag in your very own home town! I mean, could they get any closer to your own experience? And it's a fantastic song too. Listen to "Tonight," and tell me it wouldn't sound beautiful coming out of an AM radio in your car at 60 m.p.h. And dig the beautifully true lyrics of Chuck Berry' s "Back In The USA" itself:

Looked hard for a drive-in,
Searchin' for a corner cafe,
Where hamburgers sizzle
On an open grill nite & day
Yeah, and the jukebox is jumpin'
With records, like back in the USA!