If you took the MC5’s debut Kick Out The Jams long player and laid it side-by-side with their sophomore record Back In The USA, you would have an interesting study in contrasts. Kick Out The Jams was a live, raw, no holds barred recording taken from a performance at the Grande Ballroom in the group’s hometown of Detroit. If you can’t feel the energy put into the band’s performance on this record, I would recommend visiting your doctor to ensure you’re still living and breathing.
Back In The USA was somewhat stylistically different in that the band’s energy was now contained to a studio instead of the live stage. As detailed in Fred Goodman’s excellent book Mansion On The Hill, there was much going on behind the scenes in the MC5’s world in the time leading up to the making of Back In The USA.
Jon Landau (who would go on to manage Bruce Springsteen) was brought in to produce the record and right off the bat, he urged the group to cut ties with their manager John Sinclair, whom Landau felt served little purpose to the band aside from using them to exploit his ideals. Once Sinclair has been dismissed, Landau and the group set about recording Back In The USA.
Goodman’s book also details that once in the studio, Landau discovered that MC5 bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson weren’t sufficiently able to play their parts. Could the lack of talent on the rhythm section’s part have contributed to why there is very little low end on Back In The USA? While this is just speculation on my part, it definitely could be. The drum parts that are audible do sound phenomenally good and on time but there is absolutely zero bass drum (or bass guitar) to be heard on the record. But the footage of the band performing Looking At You in the clip below certainly shows a rather capable Dennis Thompson behind the drums. I will leave it up to you to decide.
In spite of the above, Back In The USA is such a great listen. With two cover songs (Tutti Fruitti and Back In The USA) bookending the record, these two tracks and everything in between is solid. Surprisingly, the band who urged you to “Kick Out The Jams motherfuckers!” just one year before land a doo-wop song (the beautiful Let Me Try) smack dab in the middle of the record. But in the context of this record, it is perfect. Despite that one mellow moment, there were more than a few tracks that are Kick Out The Jams-worthy including Call Me Animal, Looking At You and The Human Being Lawnmower. Nobody could allege the band totally went soft with their sophomore record.
Sadly, Back In The USA would reportedly only sell half of what Kick Out The Jams moved. The group would deliver just one more record (High Time) before calling it a day.