MC5’s “Back in the USA” @ 50: A Conversation With Wayne Kramer

MC5’s “Back in the USA” @ 50: A Conversation With Wayne Kramer

“I viewed it as a make-or-break record,” guitarist Wayne Kramer says of the MC5’s pulverizing, polarizing and ultimately historic second album, Back in the USA, released 50 years ago, in January of 1970.

Roaring out of Detroit in early ’69 with the feedback-streaked live LP Kick Out the Jams, Kramer, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, singer Rob Tyner, bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson went from “the tip of the spear,” as Kramer puts it, to a state of siege within a year. They were critically blasted as hype; dropped by their fed-up label, Elektra; and cast as traitors to the underground, following a split with their activist-manager John Sinclair, who’d been sentenced to 10 years in prison on an undercover pot bust. (He was freed in 1972.)

“I was determined to make Back in the USA the answer to my critics,” Kramer says, still energized and proud. “I was going to prove that the MC5 was the greatest rock band of its day — that we could play in tune, write coherent lyrics.” Signing to Atlantic Records and taking a chance on a novice producer, the rock critic Jon Landau, the MC5 delivered in ferocious, high-speed spades. Between hot covers of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Chuck Berry’s title song, the band captured the state of war in America’s schools and streets with grenade-like concision, in highlights including “Call Me Animal,” “Shakin’ Street,” “The American Ruse,” the anti-war frenzy of “The Human Being Lawnmower” and Kramer’s free-jazz-strafing guitar solos on “Looking at You.”

Redemption came slowly. The album failed to chart like its predecessor, and Atlantic dropped the band after 1971’s High Time. But Back in the USA did find its place later as a foundation document for British punk, and Kramer — one of the MC5’s two surviving members with Thompson — still sees the effect of the LP’s revolutionary ardor when he plays the songs with his touring revival, MC50. “Every night, by the end of the set, the people are roaring,” the guitarist declares. “They’re not prepared for what the MC5 brings to the table.”

David Fricke: You actually started recording Back in the USA for Elektra with the Doors’ engineer Bruce Botnick. How did those sessions go?

Bruce got us: “Set the amps up the way you want ’em. Play the way you want.” We didn’t upset him at all. We cut “Teenage Lust,” “Call Me Animal” — about eight songs. I felt like, “This is a new day; we’re gonna bust loose.” Then Elektra decided we were unprofessional and unceremoniously dropped us. We had to pay $10,000 for the rights to the songs, to re-record them for Atlantic.

Did you consider other producers before choosing Landau?

We talked to Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford, who [later] did the J. Geils Band. But Landau was the first guy who could talk to us knowledgeably about rock ’n’ roll — how it does the things it does, what makes it unique and important. We had done things on our own in this creative anarchy. To go from the marijuana-soaked, acid-addled mindset to this didactic analysis of how rock works — for me, this was the answer to a prayer. He was ready to address the problems in our band. And it was a painful learning experience, trying to record a three-chord song like “Back in the USA” and not get it done.

Is that what you started with — the covers?

Yeah, and we couldn’t get a completed take. Michael would miss the chord changes. Dennis had his trouble with it, and he could be argumentative. He and Landau got into a notorious argument in a bar. Dennis declared that he wasn’t going to play any “fascist marching music” [laughs]. And Landau said, “I don’t give a fuck if you play free jazz. You have to play it properly.” Landau wanted us to recognize the rules and language even when we were expanding the form.

Where did your solo in “Looking at You” come from? It is at once focused and unhinged — free jazz compressed into a manic rave-up.

We had been playing with that [avant-jazz] community in Detroit. I was able to synthesize things I could hear in horn players like [saxophonist] Albert Ayler. I’m being grandiose, comparing my guitar playing to John Coltrane’s saxophone, but I was aspiring to that — except I didn’t have 40 minutes to get there.

Back in the USA is the MC5’s songwriting peak. What was the process?

Rob and I would sit at a kitchen table with a box full of marijuana. We’d smoke joints; I would play guitar; Rob would listen. He had a notepad on his knee. I’d play something, and he’d say, “Wait a minute, play that again.” We wrote most of the songs on Kick Out the Jams and Back in the USA that way. Fred got in on “The American Ruse.”

Tyner wrote “Call Me Animal” and “The Human Being Lawnmower” by himself. He picked up the guitar and goes, “You start with that riff.” [hums the staccato intro to the latter song] I said, “Now I play that four times, right?” “No, then you play something else. You never come back to the chorus.” It was stunning, the degree of his creativity.

In “The American Ruse,” Tyner summed up the nation as a police state (“They beat me bloody down at the station”), a democracy on life support (“’69 America in terminal stasis”) — everything on Kick Out the Jams packed into two-and-a-half minutes.

You could make the argument that Back in the USA is a more political album. Tyner was hitting his stride lyrically, and once we pulled the rhythm section together, I still had that dream — that everything was going to work out. We were going to be that archetypal hard-rock American band.

But the album had no bottom.

In the studio, we listened to everything at such volume that it all sounded great. It wasn’t until the record was released that I started getting feedback: “It sounds a little thin.” When it became clear that Michael wasn’t prepared for the recording process, I said, “I’ll play bass.” But I didn’t know how to set up the gear, how to EQ the bass tones. And Landau had no experience recording rock bands. It was the blind leading the blind.

How did it feel to be branded counter-revolutionary by your own people, especially Sinclair in his messages from prison?

It was heartbreaking, devastating. John is a master of language, and he used those formidable skills against us: “They wanted to be bigger than the Beatles when I wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao.” It was brilliant — and eviscerating.

What can people get from Back in the USA today? It is as much a lone voice in the current pop climate as it was in 1970.

We took the idea of carrying a message seriously. The MC5 were a community band. We addressed the concerns of our listeners because they were our concerns too.

You even named the band after your hometown, the Motor City.

But if it stops being about the poetry and the songs, you leave people behind. We would discuss this: Does this song have substance? Will it last over time or decay, become a funny artifact of the past? You want to go with style, not fashion. Style is eternal. Fashion is temporary.

You think of all the bands that have come and gone. Mostly we’ve seen them go. But the MC5 remains in the conversation.

David Fricke writes about music for MOJO and Rolling Stone and is the host of The Writer’s Block on SiriusXM Radio.

Image: MC5 in 1970, from left: Fred “Sonic” Smith (at front), Michael Davis, Dennis Thompson, Wayne Kramer and Rob Tyner. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty.

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