The Story of the MC5’s Sophomore Slump on ‘Back in the U.S.A.’
The MC5’s sophomore album arrived on
Jan. 15, 1970, proclaiming that the notorious Detroit rockers were Back in the U.S.A. But then, they’d never left.
In fact, not even a year had passed since the group had unveiled its debut album, a spine-tingling live document entitled Kick Out the Jams. But, oh, what a year it had been, filled with widespread controversy relating to the group’s radical politics and liberal use of profanity. This was followed by serious recriminations when select chain stores refused to carry the LP and even outright censorship when Elektra Records chose to edit its rallying cry of “Kick out the jams, motherf---ers!” to “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!”
And yet, Kick Out the Jams still managed to shift thousands of copies and even broke into the Billboard charts after being embraced by the counter-culture and championed by America’s youth. But all of this backlash and controversy proved more than Elektra was willing to deal with, and the label eventually released the MC5 so they could sign with Atlantic Records ahead of recording Back in the U.S.A. — and this time within the confines of an actual studio, instead of in their element on a concert stage.
Unfortunately, and to very few people’s surprise, this crucial decision wound up sapping much of the band’s explosive musical energy, and even their pointed critiques of the ruling establishment were restrained and/or veiled somewhat in the interest of doing right by Atlantic, which appointed noted rock critic and future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau to oversee the album’s production.
As a result, several promising new rockers like "Teenage Lust," "Call Me Animal" and "The American Ruse" sounded muted and muzzled by the tinny, distortion-free production. Others, like "High School," the semi-soul ballad "Let Me Try" and "Shakin' Street" (which, if nothing else, served as a blueprint for Fred Smith’s Sonic's Rendezvous Band, years later) offered risky departures and mixed reviews; and the decision to both open and close the LP with '50s rock staples like Little Richard’s "Tutti Frutti" and Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." seemed questionable at best, since neither version arguably matched the verve of the originals.
However, once accustomed to the initial blow of hearing their revolutionary heroes so neutered by the studio setting, loyal fans were still able to identify those face-melting concert hallmarks in standout testimonials like "Tonight," "Looking at You" and "The Human Being Lawnmower." All of them were powerful reminders of MC5’s formidable talents and spirit, even if they were temporarily constrained inside this safety harness for the “protection” of innocent music consumers.
Of course, the irony of all these efforts to diminish the danger associated with the MC5, was that Back in the U.S.A. sold significantly less than its legendary predecessor and alienated a good portion of the group’s fan base, so that there were no winners in the end.
Luckily, while it was true that they’d emerged from these trying times somewhat bloodied and bruised, the MC5 were hardly beaten. Like any cornered animal, they came out fighting one more time via the following year's significantly re-energized High Time album, which successfully resurrected some of the urgency lost on Back in the U.S.A. and sent the storied Detroit group out with a bang, instead of a whimper.
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