The MC5’s Wayne Kramer recalls raging against the American war machine



By Steve Newton

It’s hard to find a contemporary garage-rock band that isn’t heavily indebted to the MC5. Although it only released three albums in its five-year recording career, the Detroit quintet–along with fellow Motor City maniacs the Stooges–left an indelible impression on nearly every punk-edged act that followed.

Hot-list acts like the White Stripes, Von Bondies, and the Sights all owe the group big time, but that fact doesn’t faze guitarist Wayne Kramer, who’s currently touring with fellow MC5 alumni Michael Davis (bass) and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson (drums). He admits it’s nice to be recognized for your work, but notes that that and $3 will get you a coffee at Starbucks.

“I know many of those bands,” says the 56-year-old rocker from a tour stop in New Orleans, “and I have a great appreciation for them. But I do wish they would be more creative. I don’t want to hear them reproduce the MC5 sound; I want them to create their own sound. I mean, if we look back to the way things were in Detroit with us, with the Stooges, with Alice Cooper–we all had our own thing. That was the message. We were all part of a generation that championed the original thought.”

While striving to establish its own place in the late-’60s/early ’70s rock scene, the Motor City 5–which also included singer Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, both of whom passed away in the ’90s–used an ear-busting barrage of guitars-bass-drums racket and howling vocals to address burning social issues of the day. At one point the group was managed by John Sinclair, a DJ, jazz critic, and radical whose ideological influence made sure it avoided whimsical love songs, which were more the domain of the West Coast’s flower-power acts, anyway.

Of course, at the time the Vietnam conflict provided plenty of focus for channelling the MC5’s rage against the American war machine. “We may have been the point of the spear,” Kramer notes, “but really we were just part of an entire generation of young people that disagreed with the direction that the country was going in, and were very vocal about it. I mean, we just wanted somebody to listen to us, to hear what we were saying. And you know, they didn’t–until it was too late. Just like it is now.”

Considering the ongoing fallout of the U.S.–led war in Iraq, a song like the MC5’s “The American Ruse” is as relevant today as when it appeared in 1970. The raucous boogie tune could have easily earned a spot on the soundtrack to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. “They told you in school about freedom,” sang Tyner on the track, “But when you’re tryin’ to be free they never let ya/They say, ‘It’s easy, nothing to it,’ and now the army’s out to get ya.”

When the MC5 wasn’t rallying support against American foreign policy, it was happy to stir up shit just for the hell of it. When the band recorded its now-legendary version of “Kick Out the Jams”, the title track of its live 1969 debut, Tyner famously introduced the song by bellowing: “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”

“We were trying to shock people into waking up,” Kramer recalls, and Tyner’s proclamation certainly rattled folks from their slumber. It led to the record being banned by major retailers and the band getting dumped by its label, Elektra. “I don’t think you can shock ’em so much today with one curse word,” argues Kramer, although that hasn’t stopped him from using it every time the current lineup unleashes “Kick Out the Jams”. “There is no other way to do it,” he says.

The three surviving Motor City 5 members, touring as DKT/MC5, are joined by guitarist Marshall Crenshaw and a rotating cast of guest singers, which so far has included Peter Wolf from the J. Geils Band and Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs.

“We’re running it less like a band and more like a travelling repertory company of performance artists,” says Kramer, “and the music of the MC5 is the script. So we have different horn sections in different cities, ’cause we want to keep our connection to the free-jazz movement alive.”

The tour that hits Richard’s on Richards on Sunday (July 4) will see vocals handled by Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and alt-rock casualty Evan Dando. Kramer–who spent five years in jail for dealing coke–is happy just being allowed to play here.

“So far, my relationship with Canadian immigration has been tenuous at best,” he relates. “But they seem to now be flexible with the idea that I made my mistakes a long, long, long time ago, and that I’m not a threat. I’m not gonna rustle your cattle.”

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