Kicking in Politics with the MC5’s Wayne KramerWhen the MC5’s first album, Kick Out the Jams, hit in 1969, it packed a punch like nothing else before it. Recorded live, its eight songs were delivered with white-knuckled, pedal pressed-through-the-floor energy that called on equal parts free jazz, British invasion, R-n-B and ‘50s instrumental rock. Supercharging it all with political lyrics and anti-establishment rhetoric, the Detroit five-some gave a face to punk before it had a name. Relix caught guitarist Wayne Kramer the day before he departed on a world tour with the remaining members of the band, Dennis Mitchell and Michael Thompson, under the moniker DKT/MC5 to talk—what else?—politics. In the mid ‘60s, there seemed to be two camps when it came to music: The Beatles or The Stones. You guys were clearly about The Stones. Why?
Probably since they were the anti-heroes; their anti-establishment image appealed to us more than the cuddlily, loveable, mop top establishment image. Although, to be fair, The Beatles were an equally huge musical influence. May not show, but they were.
It seems that there was a California sound, a New York sound and a Detroit sound, as far as rock was concerned back in the ‘60s.
True, mos def. If we typify the west coast as folk players that now had electric guitars and very bad rhythm sections and the east coast was kind of a hodgepodge of Brill Building rejects and Andy Warhol attempts at incorporating avant-garde art to music, Detroit had a fundamentally working class tone to its approach to music that the people of Detroit worked hard and they played hard. The musical crosscurrents were so unique and they comprised the influx of both black and white southern music. The black blues that came up into Detroit, the music of John Lee Hooker and the white country music that the factory workers all brought with them for those good auto factory jobs. The great tradition of jazz music in Detroit, strong music programs at Calf (sp?) Tech, the arts high school in Detroit there; the strong music program in the Detroit public schools in those days. I mean that’s how I started as a drummer in the Detroit public schools. The coming of rhythm and blues and the huge success of Motown and its state of the art recording band, on us musicians, was a huge influence; that we knew those records were being recorded right over on West Grand Boulevard. And then, if you combine that with the first wave of the British music invasion, the wave “A1” which included The Who and The Yardbirds, and then for the MC5 to take all of these daily, musical influences in the fabric of our lives and then be exposed to the free jazz movement of the music of John Coltrane and Archie Shepp and Sun Ra and Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray and Cecil Taylor. That all of a sudden, we had an identity in our music that I thought everybody in the world had. [laugh] I thought everybody was up to Albert and Sun Ra and was at home listening to Bells and Cosmic Music and Ascension and everyone knew who played bass at Motown because we knew who played bass at Motown. I come to find out years later that no else knew who played bass at Motown and nobody else listened to Cecil Taylor and no else new unit structures, you know? So we ended up with a musical fabric that the MC5 championed that was rich and had depth to it, that even if you took the music of the MC5 apart, that yeah we started with those basic music forms of Chuck Berry and Bo Didley and the instrumental guitar bands of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s—the basic three chord rock idea—but then it combines with the experience of Motown and the blues and even country and then you add the free jazz component and then a literary sensibility in the text of the songs that Rob Tyner brought to it and later Fred Smith, an ability to tell a story in a classic way, an ability to take a political stance that was progressive and radical, they all combined to make a band and a music form in a time and place that I just don’t believe has been equaled.
You said recently that, “The MC5 was visceral—all sweat and muscle and the whole concept of high energy.” Given that the MC5 took a lot of those cues from the avant-garde and free jazz movement of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman and the MC5 basically gave punk a face before it had a name through its attitude and sound, would you say those jazz greats could be called punk?
You could in the sense that you define punk as a rejection of the status quo. That you define punk, as you know, like Sun Ra said, “We come from nowhere here, why can’t we go somewhere there?” If you define punk as freedom spikes on your head and leather jackets and safety pins in your nose, then that’s a different thing. That’s fashion. But if you define it as a style, a way of life that has to do with trying to make something come out of nothing, that idea that any three or four kids could get together and start their own rock band, in that sense, the unorthodoxy of it, yeah you could say Sun Ra was the ultimate punk. [laugh] But you have to be careful with the semantics of it. Punk has a lot of other definitions. Like jail punk means something completely different again. But if we look at it, at its highest, that it means a striving to do something new, to do something original, fresh and creative and ultimately positive.
Punk has always been political and/or anti-establishment; do you see that inheritance coming directly from the MC5?
Maybe if you narrowcast one component of the MC5, that there was a great deal of anger the MC5 felt about the direction we felt the country was going in; the frustration as young guys who were not being listened to, who weren’t being heard. And I mean that as a generation. Our frustration came from the fact that they wouldn’t listen to us. We said this is wrong, and they ignored us and they ignored us till it was too late. We know this now. We were on tour and Mark Arm brought along a DVD of The Fog of War, the McNamara documentary, and he said right from the beginning this ain’t going to work, this is a terrible mistake. It surprised me to find out how much the protests affected them and it shows me that it really does work, it really is a powerful thing when people take to the streets and say to the leadership, “You’re wrong.” It’s very powerful. We were frustrated and it came off as we were angry and I think that flice may have gotten carried over into the new generation they called the punk rock generation. It kind of runs the gamut: there’s a nihilism, there’s a surrealistic art component and there was also a political component. The Clash, Billy Bragg and these guys are erudite, involved people and they carried that into their music too. It was the nihilism and the empty headedness of “Dancing with Myself,” you know… [laugh] Which is fun and there’s nothing wrong with it…
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