<MC5 album reviews>
|Titles & Lyrics: TUTTI-FRUTTI * TONIGHT * TEENAGE LUST * LET ME TRY
* LOOKING AT YOU * HIGH SCHOOL * CALL ME ANIMAL * THE AMERICAN RUSE
* SHAKIN' STREET * THE HUMAN BEING LAWNMOWER * BACK IN THE USA
|"BACK IN THE USA"|
|By Ben Edmonds|
MARCH 20, 1970
WHAT A difference a year can make. This time last year the MC5 were riding high on the crest of the biggest hype in the business. Granted that they were not really the source; the hype was created principally to justify their weird existence to the mass market. Revolution as very much in vogue, and the MC5 seemed tailor-made for the role of standard bearers. "Kick out the jams motherfuckers!", and John Sinclair sat back and smiled.The White Panthers were vaulted into national prominence, perhaps the underlying explanation for the swollen proportion of the whole affair. The result: 200,000 albums sold, and a wonderful fantasy for anyone quixotic enough to blindly accept the hype. But, as all fantasies must, this one ran its course. John Sinclair now rots in prison, while his White Panthers have merged with the Yippies in an obvious survival move. The MC5, on the other hand, are thoroughly alive. Once dangerously close to the brink of camp oblivion, they have at last caught hold of their destiny. Their new release, Back in the USA, will do much to amend the damages suffered in last year’s meleee, and firmly establishes the MC5 as a superlative rock and roll band.
Their new-found direction results from the fact that they now have a solid working definition of who they are and what they’re about. They have finally come to grips with the realization that they are a rock and roll band, not the musical guerillas they once thought they were, and are acting accordingly. No small credit is due their producer, Jon Landau, who impressed upon them the importance of their profession and the responsibilities it entails.
The Elektra album (the great power gorge) was characterized by an excessive looseness and sometime sloppiness that often counteracted gains made in terms of power and effect. The guitars were frequently ill-tuned, the drummer regularly dropped beats; a game of high-energy hit-or-miss. Unquestionably exciting, yet potential unfulfilled. They appeared too caught up in their roles to ever get down to the business of perfecting their art. Happily, all that is now changed. Discipline is the watchword of the band these days, and as Ronnie Hawkins would say, "they’re tighter than an eleven year old virgin." A band in the truest sense of the word. They have eliminated the excess baggage, their sound now streamlined for a more immediate, direct impact. In addition to their pure energy control they now stun you with sheer finesse.
Perhaps the most dynamic improvement is that of Rob Tyner, who emerges on this record as a superior vocalist. His voice, last year’s howling confusion, is this year’s controlled orgasm. Guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith form the most potent guitar due since the Bloomfield/Bishop coalition of early Butterfield. One of Kramer’s former theatrics was to hoist his guitar to his shoulder machine-gun style and proceed to blast away at the audience. Today he’s playing those lines on his guitar, not merely acting them out. The drumming of Dennis Thompson, the epitome of the 5’s earlier sloppiness, now exemplifies their present tightness. He doesn’t attempt anything too fancy (which is nice for a change, all you aspiring Ginger Bakers), relying mostly on sharp rolls for effect, but forms an impeccable rhythmical foundation. Michael Davis’ bass patterns are strong and sure. Put all this together and you have a unit capable of tearing down walls the politicos never knew existed. Gone is last year’s overblown rhetoric, the music now speaks for itself.
'Tutti-Frutti', the Little Richard classic, is the perfect opening number. It’s short but sweet, striking with deadly accuracy, a splendid illustration of the gains The MC5 have made. Flawlessly constructed and executed, it is the model of basic drive and direct assault. Kramer’s guitar slashes cleanly and evenly, like a sharp sabre. They start the album in high gear and never let up.
The trademark of The MC5 has always been driving intensity, and this record is no exception. But whereas their prior excesses were often liable to diffuse this quality, it has now become inescapable. 'Teenage Lust', rumored to be the follow-up single to 'Kick Out the Jams' when the band was on Elektra, is an incisive frustration release number. Not so much a plea ("Help me, help me baby..."), though, as a forceful command. The MC5 always make a point of assuming the dominant sexual stance. 'The American Ruse', while re-asserting the 5’s radical (ie, political) perspective, establishes their affinity with the grand rock and roll tradition. It is, however, affinity with vision; a reflection of the past but a look to the future.
A more manifest declaration of this is the title tune, Chuck Berry’s 'Back In The USA'. Designed by John Sinclair to be a satirical observation, it is now a musical position statement of the band as artists. The past united with the future in explosive fusion. Brute force characterizes 'Call Me Animal'. Thompson’s drumming is hard and aggressive in an uncluttered way, and the guitars are superbly guttural, almost savage. It’s the kind of song that knocks you down and refuses to let you back up again. A large part of The MC5 charisma is that they make it a pleasure to be thus assaulted, not an imposition.
We are introduced to a previously dormant phase of The MC5 on 'Let Me Try'. It’s a soft ballad, and they carry it off well, thanks to the urgency of Tyner’s vocal that maintains its balls in this subdued setting. The guitars, while not venturing too far, discipline themselves to Tyner’s disposition excellently. "I’ll be your singer, you’ll be my song. I’ll lay you down gentle, I’ll love you strong." Hard to believe this is the MC5, but it surely is, and a beautiful surprise to boot.
The new application of the MC5 has been critically equated with commercialism; but if coherence and taste constitute commercialism, then I say right on. The two songs most susceptible to the "commercial" label ('Tonight' and 'Shakin Street', both written by Fred Smith) are in many ways the most pleasing. 'Tonight' was the pre-album single release, and never went anywhere. I fail to see why, though; it’s a captivating tune with a bouncy, contagious drive that should have held wide appeal. The spoken intro ("allright kids…") of the single version is left out here, and it’s probably just as well. Smith takes over the vocal on 'Shakin Street', and handles it marvelously. The song could have easily been one of those delightful Who rock and roll tunes that we all loved so much in the days before Tommy.
The only cut that conceivably suffers from the streamlining treatment is 'The Human Being Lawnmower', which seems to lose some of it’s hypnotic force in this translation. It steadily builds from a rather weak beginning, however, to a strong conclusion. The climactic "chop — chop — chop" vocal/guitar movement puts things once again on firm ground.
I consider 'Looking At You', one of the first songs the MC5 ever wrote, to be the finest cut on the album. It adapts itself perfectly to the 5’s revamped style, driving relentlessly yet allowing for instantaneous relation. Tyner’s vocal is strong, controlling and directing the movement of the song as a good lead vocalist should: Smith’s solid rhythmical base serves as a launching pad for Kramer’s solo flights. This is the MC5 at their best: exciting, alive, vibrant. One of their oldest songs, it’s certainly still one of their best.
Danny Jordan handled all the keyboard work on the album, and although he is used sparingly and tastefully. The 5 could have done just as well without him. One of The 5’s strongest assets was the way they could carry a full rhythmical line so well with only their guitars, they really have no use for keyboards. In a sense, the same hold true for the backing vocals. On occasion (most notably 'Teenage Lust') they are emphasized in a manner that the guitars could have supported with equal success. These are but minor flaws – and can’t really detract from the tremendous impact created here.
The basic revision and alteration so evident on this album makes for a definite improvement, but by no means excludes the more experimental material they were into last year. They still perform the incredible 'Black To Comm'. And Kramer says they plan to record Pharaoh Sanders’ 'Upper Egypt' in the future. They now hit on a more immediate level, having found that last year’s excesses made their music unattainable to a vast audience. "It’s time to get out of your heads and into your bodies," as John Sinclair has said, and the MC5 have finally learned how to apply that statement.
It has been stated that The 5’s present tightness is a regression from the looseness and spontaneity of their previous music. But last year’s "spontaneity" all too quickly lapsed into insipid redundance. It became too easy to predict when Tyner would pull a split or Smith would bash an amplifier, stagnation had set in. Their present direction is a shot in the arm for them, and this album is a shot in the arm for the tired American rock syndrome. The MC5 are on the move again, and are headed directly for the pinnacle of American rock and rolls. As Tyner sings in 'Teenage Lust':
"From now on there’ll be no compromising, rock and roll music is the best advertising."
It certainly is. When the next pop decade gives up the ghost, the MC5 will be remembered not for the unfortunate hype of 1969, but for the exciting and vital music they will create for us in the coming ten years. Back In the USA is a magnificent inaugural address for the commencement of the 70’s.
© Ben Edmonds 1970
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