Wayne Kramer of MC5: 'There's a life cycle to bands like there is to everything in nature'

Kicking up a storm


Founder of Detroit proto-punks MC5, talks ahead of band's tour to celebrate 50 years since the release of their explosive debut album

Wayne Kramer never thought he'd be celebrating MC5's music 50 years after the release of their incendiary debut album Kick Out the Jams. 'I had no concept of 50 years in the future,' he chuckles down a crackly phone line from his studio in LA. 'I wasn't sure the planet would survive another 10 years in 1968. I thought the chances of us ending up a nuclear cinder in space were much better than lasting 50 years.'

To commemorate this milestone, guitarist Kramer will be leading a new band – dubbed the MC50 featuring Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) on guitar, bassist Billy Gould (Faith No More), Marcus Durant (Zen Guerrilla) on lead vocals and drummer Brendan Canty (Fugazi) – playing the album from start to finish (plus a few other MC5 classics and a couple of covers).

'My first criteria is that everyone are good people, good solid brothers that know how to work hard and enjoy each other's company. Time is finite and my time is the most valuable thing I have, so I'm not available for ego trippers and prima donnas, drunks and junkies … any more,' explains Kramer. 'The band is a real unit, everyone embraces MC5's message of self-determination and self-advocacy and that all things are possible if you put in the work.'

Their high-octane, politically charged garage rock embraced free jazz and freedom of speech. The only way to capture their energy and raw power was in the live arena. And their debut was recorded over two sweaty nights at the Grande Ballroom in their native Detroit. Now considered a classic, at the time critics were confounded by its intensity (Rolling Stone called it 'ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious'). 'The criticism hit me hard,' admits Kramer. 'I expected criticism from parents, police, prosecutors and the establishment but I didn't expect it from our own community in the counter culture. So it just inspired me to work harder and be a better band.'

MC5 refused to compromise and stood up for their beliefs, affiliating themselves with the Black Panthers and performing at Vietnam protests (most famously playing for eight hours outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that was broken up by riot police). 'Our stance was militantly anti-establishment. I thought it was my patriotic duty to protest a government that was going in the wrong direction. Democracy is participatory, if you don't like something its incumbent on you to do something about it, and there were issues in America in 1968 that I disagreed with: civil rights, the war in Vietnam, polluting the planet, police violence, marijuana laws, outdated sexual mores. I objected to all of these things and we made it part of the art.'

Kicking up a storm

Wayne Kramer / credit: Mike Barich
MC5 burned fast and bright. Just three years and two more albums after the release of Kick Out the Jams, the band collapsed. They played their final gig on New Year's Eve 1972, returning to the Grande Ballroom but this time in front of just a few dozen stalwart fans. 'It was heartbreaking, it was devastating; we worked so hard only to have it crumble in front of us, it was a terrible blow.' Kramer was so upset he walked off stage after just a few songs.

'There's a life cycle to bands like there is to everything in nature. The MC5 endured pressure that most bands didn't have to face. We had the FBI tapping our phones, we were arrested, we were indicted, we were harassed by police departments around the world plus we never made any money and you've got to put food on the table, bands can't exist on good intentions. The MC5 never achieved any commercial success, we never pulled the golden horseshoe out of our ass.'

It wasn't until decades later that Kramer realised the impact and influence the Motor City 5 had on the world of music. After the band broke up, Kramer struggled with drug addiction (even spending two years in prison after selling cocaine to undercover officers in 1975), worked odd jobs and drifted in and out of various bands before playing with several versions of the MC5 since a partial reunion in 2003 (sadly Kramer and drummer Dennis Thompson are now the only surviving members). Now often cited as one of the founding fathers of punk rock, it's this status that's allowed Kramer to secure the insanely impressive line-up of musicians for this current tour, all paying respect to an artist, a band, an album and a legacy that influenced their own music and careers.

The politics and sentiments on Kick Out the Jams feel strangely prescient in the modern world. Unsurprisingly, Kramer is troubled by the current political climate in America. When we speak, it's the eve of Brett Kavanaugh being sworn in to the US Supreme Court, despite protests and allegations of sexual assault. 'It fits the pattern of corruption; all this starts at the top and the top man is the President of the United States [Donald Trump] and he has corruption in his DNA, in his blood, and it just spills out from him, so I'm not surprised at what's happening and I find it an international embarrassment and a national disgrace. He's a third-generation, white nationalist, organised crime figure and he should be in The Hague.' Still kicking out the jams after all these years.

MC50 play the O2 Academy, Glasgow, Sat 10 Nov.


Original MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer celebrates 50 years of Kick out the Jams with this special tour and very special band featuring guitarist Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), drummer Brendan Canty (Fugazi), bassist Billy Gould (Faith No More) and frontman Marcus Durant (Zen Guerrilla).

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