So we left the MC5, one of the most politically extreme, wild and outrageously loud bands of all time, in mid 1970 (see ABON 0185), having been dumped by the label that had released their landmark live debut album, with their manager in jail, being constantly harassed by the police, labelled by the FBI as the most dangerous band ever to roam the Earth, struggling manfully to capture their raw live sound in the studio and consigned by Atlantic, their new label, to record their next album with debutant producer and man who would soon announce that ‘I’ve seen rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen’, Jon Landau. What could possibly go wrong?
The result was ‘Back In The USA’, an album that sounded absolutely nothing like the pre-Atlantic MC5. Tight, polished, with no loose edges whatsoever and a weirdly compressed sound - almost like it had been pushed through some kind of very long, thin, tube – in comparison to sprawling, sonic assault on all fronts of the real MC5,
Landau would later claim that the album was an attempt by the band and himself to explore the MC5′s Rock’n'Roll roots (hence the 50s covers such as the Chuck Berry title track) and that the sound he created was totally in keeping with that aim. The MC5 would later claim that Landau simply ignored their ideas and their sound because he personally disliked the fuzz, sprawl and ‘mess’ of 60s Garage and Psychedelia and favoured the ”cleaner’, ‘purer’ sound of 50s Rock’n'Roll records.
Whatever the truth, the sound of ‘Back In The U.S.A.’ is more Landau than the real MC5.
Which of course should mean that the album that emerged was a disaster.
But the MC5 were simply too good a band, with too many great songs, to be neutered by Landau – whatever he did at the mixing desk. And ‘Back In The U.S.A.’, miraculously, turned out to be a great album. Just not a real MC5 one.
And, ironically, Landau’s studio perfectionism actually manages on some tracks to reveal the magical and seamless interplay of the MC5′s twin guitar attack better than any of their previous recordings or even their live performances.
The interplay of Wayne Kramer and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith’s two guitars had always been at the heart of the MC5′s unique sound but was sometimes a little submerged under the sonic assault of their live performances. Landau’s studio techniques seemed to take the beast that was the sprawling, living MC5 and dissect it. And in doing so, separate and reveal its constituent parts under a kind of white-light clarity.
Of course, in the process, he also stripped the MC5 sound of much of its power and energy, replacing it with something that was beautiful but tamer. If the real MC5 was a dangerous and majestic tiger in the wild, then Landau’s MC5 was a tiger behind glass in a zoo. Equally beautiful but infinitely less dangerous.
‘Looking At You’ is the song from the album where the amount Landau added (beauty and clarity) comes closest to outweighing what he removed (energy and soul). Revealing, under what feels like absolutely pristine, almost laboratory conditions, the stunning effect that the note-perfect, beautifully complementary, interlocking, twin MC5 guitars could create when they were given more room to breathe.
Too clean and intricate for mainline Punk (that was the job of the real MC5), the clean, beautiful, twin, interlocking guitar sound of Landau’s MC5 would instead inspire its own Rock future in the shape of clean, beautiful, twin, interlocking guitar specialists, Televison. Who would also create remarkable music by trading energy and soul for beauty and clarity. Don’t think they thought Bruce was the future of Rock and Roll though.
Available on the CD, ‘Back In The U.S.A.’: Amazon