To describe the MC5 as a ‘band’ is to describe the Pacific Ocean as a lot of water, or New York City as a human settlement. To do so is completely factual and is yet perhaps the least accurate possible description. To call them a band misses in entirety their militantism, their slot right in the centre of Nixon-era Americana, their political importance as well as their gargantuan sound.
The MC5 were not the first rock and roll band, and nor were they the most successful or the most prolific, and you’ll have a hard time getting any group of people to agree the MC5 were the best rock and roll band, because of their rabble-rousing first act and completely forgettable last bow, but in the middle there is Back in the USA, which cements the Motor City Five in the annuls of rock and roll and defines them as the rock and roll band.
Their political importance can’t be understated. In their Kick Out the Jams days they were the party band playing the Chicago riots, mayor Daley’s corrupt Chicago police were caving in heads, the American dream was beating itself to death while the band played on. Back in the USA features the searing The American Ruse [I learned to say the pledge of allegiance/ Before they beat me bloody down at the station] alongside thrilling rock and roll anthems and a plethora of classic American bandstand set pieces. And most vitally, the album ends with Back in the USA, the Chuck Berry cover on test.
When the MC5 sing Berry’s all-singing paean to the United States, there isn’t a drip of irony or awareness in it. The fusty Berry original absolutely is fantastic, but hearing the MC5 is like hearing a great number of Bob Dylan covers, as if Berry wrote it just so the MC5 could play it. It’s electric and powerful and fresh and beautiful, it makes me feel like a rockwellian teenager listening to Marty McFly belt out Johnny B Goode in some retrograde time warp.
That’s to unfairly sideline the rest of the album. It is perfect. Every moment is perfect. Every note is perfect. Every scratch in the vinyl is perfect. It moves at the speed of a freight train, it reinvents rock and roll as it prays at the altar, and best of all, it’s one of the softest and most enjoyable rock and roll albums of all time.
Written under duress by Steven.