Monday, April 14, 2008

No. 451: Back in the U.S.A.

Band: MC5
Album: Back in the U.S.A.
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The middle of the Motor City Five's three albums is also the band's cleanest-sounding. Though it is more political than "Kick Out the Jams," the record shows more of the band's clear influences -- American blues rock -- than any other MC5 record.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I can appreciate the political songs, but the album's sound isn't as raw and therefore not as distinct. In short, many of these songs would be fine on the Nuggets box. (Yes, I know I've said that before.)
Best song: "Teenage Lust" is fun.
Worst song: "Let Me Try." No good.
Is it awesome?: Nope.

"Back in the U.S.A." producer Jon Landau was a huge fan of 1950s rock and its clean sound. When he was doing this record, he made it his goal to shed the band of its noisey roots. The result is a pretty accessible record, though it was hated at the time.

The album starts and ends with covers and both songs are nice. "Tutti Frutti" is a frenetic tear through the Little Richard classic and the title track is a fine cover of the Chuck Berry classic. Both songs show the band's straight musical ability.

The political songs -- one could argue that "Back in the U.S.A" is a political song when done by the MC5 -- are clever, with "The Human Being Lawnmower" a strong indictment of America's Vietnam policy. "The American Ruse" is more broad, but similarly anti-1970s foreign policy.

The MC5 is still the MC5, so the protopunk remains, albeit in a restrained form. "Teenage Lust" is kind of silly, but tons of fun. "High School" has similar roots, though is less than "Teenage Lust." "Shakin' Street" is pretty good, but shallow.

The MC5, in a lot of ways is a lesser Nirvana. The band was looked upon as one of the standard-bearers of an entire movement -- psych protopunk -- while it was solely a lucky piece of the movement's pie.


bob_vinyl said...

A lesser Nirvana? You're killing me. The MC5 never did anything as bloated and pretentious as In Utero and they never got as lucky as Nirvana did with Nevermind.

Actually, I saw the surviving MC5 members a few years ago when they toured. The vocals were shared between Evan Dando and Mark Arm and I don't think you'd be hard-pressed to figure out which songs each of them sang. Both did a great job with the material and the MC5 proved to be pretty incendiary 35+ years later. I'm not big on reunions, but it was a great show.

padraig said...

I read somewhere that this album was motivated, at least in part, by criticism from Lester Bangs that MC5 were just hiding behind a wall of noise and couldn't really play their instruments; or maybe it was just Landeau. either way I much prefer "Kick Out the James" which, like "Welcome to the Funhouse", favors feedback and Sun Ra/free jazz influences over straight-ahead rocknroll. that so primitive-it's actually-incredibly advanced shit is what makes the MC5/Stooges so great (and influential) in the first place.

and dudes who worship at the altar of Mark Arm while attacking the false idol of Nirvana are fooling themselves. if you really want to be willfully obscure why don't you start talking about Green River? whatever, Melvin and Earth blow em' all out of the water anyway.

bob_vinyl said...

Oh, I guess I'm wrong about Nirvana. Who am I to question someone who's familiar with the Melvins and Earth and Green River? Wow, my eyes are open now.

padraig said...

you're welcome.

go ahead and question Nirvana all you want, dude. they're not infallible or anything. it's just silly to dislike them for being successful, as if Mudhoney and the rest weren't trying to do exactly the same thing.

R.J. said...

Gentlemen, please.

Mark Arm is great (I don't care for the Lemonheads myself), Nirvana is great, the MC5 is good, too. Rock and roll is fun, as long as we're not talking about U2.

bob_vinyl said...

I don't dislike them for being successful. I'm happy for good bands to find success. They're just not all that good. I understand that luck has a lot to do with commercial success, so that doesn't bug me as much as the critical pedestal they've been put on, especially with In Utero.

I still think Cobain would be viewed in a much more honest light if he wasn't romanticized by his suicide (weird that suicide is viewed that way, huh?). I shudder to think what his colossal ego, well hidden by his unassuming act, would have done next. I can't imagine an album more pretentious than In Utero, but I bet he would have given it his best.

bob_vinyl said...

RJ, at least let us get to the point of swearing. It's really not fun until there's swearing.

padraig said...

bob - well, fair enough. I understand the critical view of Nirvana's music is all tied up with Cobain's mythical status but it's not as if he's the first dead young rock star to have that happen; the same thing has been happening since Hendrix and Brian Jones. hell, since Robert Johnson and James Dean. what I disagree about is Cobain himself - of course he had a big ego (like most performers) but I think the constant battle between that ego and his punk rock roots are the most interesting thing about Nirvana. way more interesting than their music - if we're talking about Sub Pop I really do prefer Earth (nerdy fact: Cobain played guitar and maybe sang on Earth's first demo and 7") and if we're talking the Sub Pop sound I'd rather just listen to the Melvins and Black Flag.

actually I feel the same way about Tupac, the difference being that Pac's importance transcended and was not really related to his music.

bob_vinyl said...

Earth is one of the more interesting bands to come out of Sub Pop and perhaps one of the most underrated. their influence is being felt today on the whole doom/stoner metal thing. A lot of that stuff is too much an exercise in heavy drone, but there have been some good bands in the genre, despite the fact that it can be nearly unlistenable. I didn't know that Cobain had played on their early stuff, but I know he and Dylan Carlson were good friends.

Melvins can be a bit goofy, but they are another good band whose influence stretches pretty far. I actually caught them live last Fall (or maybe the year before that) and they were pretty fantastic. Joe Lally of Fugazi opened for them and he was was really good as well.

I understand the point about Cobain being caught between his fame and his punk rock roots, but over time, I have viewed it more as punk facade thrown up to obfuscate the fact that he kinda loved the fame.

R.J. said...

I know I'm jumping in on this late, but I'd suggest that we give Cobain some slack. Basically all doctors and all the modern science agree that addiction is a disease and something that needs to be treated. And, I think it's abundantly clear that Cobain was an addict and someone with severe emotional issues.

To say he had a massive ego or was glorified by his suicide or whatever, I suspect, is a bit insensitive. I don't know that I disagree with either premise -- I didn't know Cobain and I'm assuming you didn't either, Bob -- but I'd suggest that implying that he

Suicide is not romantic nor is it glamorous. It's a tragedy and something that -- like depression -- I suspect most people don't understand. And that's a shame.

As for the music, it's absolutely the case that Nirvana was a representative of the scene more than, necessarily, the best band of said scene. Nirvana symbolizes a time more than anything; this was the band that caught the scene at the right time and ended up being the poster children for an era. In the same way Jefferson Airplane = "San Francisco in the 1960s," Nirvana = "Seattle in the early 1990s." It's grunge, it's "slacker."

They were absolutely tools of the industry -- nearly every successful major label band is. Cobain was a handsome, charismatic guy. He was also someone who knew the value of image and the underground.

Nirvana turned a lot -- including yours truly -- of people onto the underground. I was the exact right age for a band like Nirvana -- I was 13 when Cobain died -- and the band's roots in indie culture turned me onto said culture. It mostly because of Nirvana that I picked up "Meat Puppets II" and "Damaged" and Flipper records and the like.

Someone else may have done that. I don't know. Maybe Mudhoney does it, maybe Screaming Trees does. But, I doubt it.

bob_vinyl said...

I completely agree that Nirvana is representative of the time. I remember hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio and it was a shock. A week before the same station had been playing stuff like Warrant. I was like, "Whoa! Punk rock on the radio!" I had been into grunge a bit before it broke and it was a real surprise to hear something I was into on a mainstream radio station. Nevermind was an okay album. I liked Louder Than Love and Mudhoney more, but I certainly listened to all of those to death for awhile. it has good memories for me. I guess I get my panties in a bunch when Nirvana is put on a pedestal, especially for In Utero which has always seemed like a big fake to me.

I was going to ask how old you were, but the last time I asked how old someone was in this kind of forum, I was treated like I was trying to lord over everyone with my age. But I think age is important, because of when a certain thing hit you. I was 23 when Cobain died and coming up on my first wedding anniversary. He dies on my wife's 24th birthday. When I was 13, I was listening to Motley Crue and Ratt and Iron Maiden (having just gotten over Foreigner and Pat Benetar), riding high on the artificial economy of the Reagan years. The stuff that meant something to me was shallow, because the times were shallow. I was still a couple years from punk rock. Certainly you liked better stuff at 13 than I did (other than the Maiden which still works). I don't know if I really have a point other than our point of view could be very different not based on how old we are now, but based on how old we were at a critical time like the early 90s.

R.J. said...

That's a fair point and absolutely the difference in age is a case, even in the smallest differences. Kelly Dwyer and I are only a year difference in age (I'm 27, something I think I referenced on the site a few times). He and I have wildly different looks at music.

I think there are a lot of people my age whose only exposure to punk rock was Nirvana. (I'm oversimplifying, but not that much)

The availability of information was not as quick when Nirvana was around and I was too young for college radio (plus, there were no sites like Pitchfork or Stereogum to teach us about punk rock). Nirvana, Soundgarden (too metal), Pearl Jam (not punk at all) and Alice in Chains (not nearly on the same level [Sorry, Lo]) were all the punk rock we were getting. VH1 wasn't showing "RocDocs" -- that started in, like, '98 with "Behind the Music." There was no Netflix to get "We Jam Econo" delivered to your door.

So... For a fair amount of people my age -- the people just younger than the Gen Xers, but not young enough to be called "millennials" -- Nirvana was band that turned us onto those things.


I imagine I'm too hard on a band like MC5 because I didn't live through their time. Again, like Nirvana, MC5 is similar in that they've become the symbol for a scene more robust than just MC5.

Unfortunately, because the Boomers run everything, there are a bunch of these bands on the list, including Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Santana.

So, I think we're together on this, in a lot of ways. I like Nirvana a lot, but that's a product of my age and my own bent. I know there are tons of Smashing Pumpkins fans out there and I'm very much a product of my environment in disliking them (and a total hypocrite in that I project certain emotions onto him).

This list... It is flawed. Music is so subjective, I'm willing to give RS a pass.

padraig said...

"I think there are a lot of people my age whose only exposure to punk rock was Nirvana"

That's interesting, b/c I'm 4-5 years younger than you and Kelly Dwyer, so I didn't even start listening to the radio (Q101, you know) until right around the time Cobain died. by the time I was really cognizant of Nirvana it all kind of ran together w/all the other Seattle bands on the radio, themselves soon to be replaced by Green Day and its' knockoffs. actually I ditched the radio pretty quick and got into diy hardcore punk via some older friends, back when bands like Los Crudos & Charles Bronson were around. Then I got in trouble and got sent off to boot camp for three years and most of the kids there were into East Coast rap, especially the Wu at their peak. I didn't really seriously listen to Nirvana until I was about 17 and had already been into a fairly diverse amount of stuff, so it was kind of like discovering a piece of history the way tons of kids (including me) get lead from hip hop back to all the classic soul and funk records of the 60s-70s.

I think you're right that Nirvana was a gateway for a lot of people - I mean, the 80s were just such a shitty decade for guitar music. Not that there wasn't a ton of stuff perocolating under the surface, but "Nevermind" is the turning point where it enters back into the mainstream, for better and worse. I come a little bit after that turning point though so Nirvana was more like discovering an influence for me.

Also, I know we've been doing but I think it's mostly silly to speculate on Cobain's ego/mental state/etc. - aside from the general ickness of the way he's been exploited posthomously, no one will ever know the truth. I don't know if you guys saw "Last Days", that Gus Van Sant film, which I thought was excellent - it really nailed that ambiguity. he was a conflicted dude and all that stuff - punk rock, ideals, fame, $ - was kind of just mashed up together and unfortunately it seems like it never really got resolved.

bob_vinyl said...

Just because you were too young to catch Nirvana's rise, that doesn't mean that you weren't at a ripe age for it to be revisited. It makes the experience a little bit different, but age still probably plays some role in your point of view. Having music that you liked preyed upon by commercial interests presents a different view than experiencing that as a 13 year old or having to revisit something you were too young to catch when it happened. I think it accounts for a lot actually. For me, Nirvana wasn't a window into the past at all. I was already into similar things. They were my peers in a sense. Understanding how you see them as a window into things you might have missed otherwise is interesting, because it's so different than my experience.

As far as not knowing Cobain's mind, that's true. But the key to connecting with the music is believing and trusting the artist. While it is true that I am speculating about him, I'm expressing some mistrust of him that makes Nirvana difficult for me to give myself over to. I might be wrong, but until I believe in Cobain, Nirvana will be on shaky ground in my book.

R.J. said...

I'll cede that I'm old enough to go back and revisit the band. I've done that with loads of bands; I was also a Foo Fighters fan when they began. I liked KISS for a bit. I was the world's biggest Motley Crue fan when I was a small human.

With that said, I think the Nirvana records are really excellent. Whether it was Vig's hand (or Albini/the label's), the songs were harmonic, clever and rhythmic. A lot of that is owed to Dave Grohl (the QOTSA album he was on is their best), but Cobain -- in my eyes -- was a masterful songwriter.

And I'd also suggest that, indeed, Nirvana was the best of the scene it represented. Mudhoney is a nice band, but wildly inconsistent. Pearl Jam's relationship with fame would be as interesting as Cobain's, if not for the fact that their music was boring as watching paint dry. Tad was hard, but tough to follow and Earth is a cool band, but even harder to follow. Soundgarden has a grander body of work, though their last album is a steaming turd.

(Not to denigrate Earth. I saw them in the fall and they were awesome. I just prefer Nirvana.)

How this whole comment thread ended up here is kind of surprising, considering I barely mentioned them.