Detroit was known in the
early 1960s for two things, being the motor city, where most American cars were
made, and for being the headquarters of Motown (the name of the famous record
company, which was nothing other than the acronym of Motor Town) - but it is also
known for being one of the toughest. One with a future as grey as the skies
contaminated by the city’s big factories, but from there would come some of the
rawest rock groups in history, led by the MC5
of Wayne Kramer and his ‘younger
brothers’, the Stooges of Iggy Pop. For a moment MC5 were the great hope of rock but, as could
not be otherwise, their musical and political radicalism would prevent them
from achieving all the recognition they deserved; although a new generation
would use them as reference points and make them the beacon on which was built punk
of the next decade.
Wayne Kramer was born on April 30, 1948 in Detroit and from an early age he knew that his future was not going to be on an General Motors’ assembly line. Practically attached to the neck of his guitar, he would find in music a way to channel his rebellious spirit and, above all, to remain true to himself. In high school he met a soulmate who thought exactly like him and with whom he would form a friendship for life: Fred 'Sonic' Smith. Both led their own bands, played the guitar and loved all kinds of music that was fast and aggressive, from Chuck Berry and James Brown to the surf of Dick Dale or the garage rock bands. Soon the two bands joined, under the leadership of Kramer, and called themselves Bounty Hunters. At that time Kramer played a Fender Esquire and was beginning to attract attention in the city.
In 1964 they decided that the time had come to look for a manager, and their first choice was Rob Deminer. But Derminer, who had changed his surname to Tyner in homage to Coltrane's pianist, turned out to be a more than remarkable singer and his 'beatnik' and leftist oratory sat like a glove on the explosive music of a band that, with their 100 watt Vox Super Beatle amplifiers, sought to be the loudest in the city. Shortly after arrived bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis 'Machine Gun' Thompson and the formation was complete. It was then that Rob Tyner renamed them MC5 (which was nothing other than Motor City Five).
In a short time their wild performances caught the attention of the poet and leftist activist, John Sinclair, who became their new manager. A band like MC5 could not have a typical manager; and Sinclair was certainly not that. His motto, as head of the White Panthers, was "total assault on the culture under any possible means, including rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets." In a short time they had become the most dangerous, and adored, group in their city. The band gradually improved as Kramer grabbed a Gibson ES-335, Smith a Gretsch Tennessean and the bass player a Fender Precision. Songs like Black to Comm or the cover of I Can Only Give You Everything by Them demonstrated an incredible rawness in the middle of the summer of love. Their influences expanded, along with their beloved R & B, something they shared with the leading names on the Detroit scene such as Bob Seger or Mitch Ryder, and they added the aggressiveness and free spirit of free jazz figures like Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra.
Their second single, for a local company, contained two original songs that would reappear later in their discography, Borderline and Lookin 'At You. Their concerts were events in the area, with one critic describing them as the closest thing to an earthquake or a hurricane. The crisscrossed guitars of Kramer and Smith were like a bull in a china shop. Kramer was starting to use new instruments, first a Les Paul, which would soon be stolen, and then a Firebird and a Stratocaster, the models to which he would remain faithful for a longer time. However he predominantly used the Stratocaster, to which he added a 'humbucker' and then painted with the colors of the US flag.
In the summer of 1968 their fame began to go beyond their area of regional influence and became the talk of the world of music. Especially after a tour of the East Coast and several concerts at home where they destroyed headliners as big as the Big Brother & The Holding Company by Janis Joplin or Cream. When MC5 played at home (Detroit's Big Ballroom was like their stadium to them) they were unstoppable, bringing madness to the faithful who compared their concerts to orgies. The concert with Clapton's band was so commented that the Rolling Stone magazine dedicated an article that made them 'the next big thing'. But their controversial fame preceded them, something that would become clearer with their next concert.
At the end of August the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago, two months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy and with the protests against the Vietnam War at its height, the atmosphere was very hot. As MC5 themselves said the US was at war not only in Vietnam but in the streets of their own country and they were in the front line; as proof of this they were the only ones who had the balls to get up on stage that day. Of course Kramer wore his Stratocaster with the flag with the stars and stripes... and this moment passed into the history of the US with riots, detainees and multiple injuries.
If the tumultuous year of 1968 had to have a soundtrack, that can be no other than Kick Out The Jams, an album that is a riot in itself. Finally signed by Elektra (to whom they recommended the Stooges, getting them signed as well), it was decided that there was no better way to capture the essence of the band than to make a live record, of course at home, in the Grande Ballroom. On October 30 and 31 1968, an album was recorded that begins as follows: "Brothers and sisters , the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution!" .
The debut of MC5 then became one of the great live albums in the history of rock. Propelled by the guitars of Kramer and Smith, they release an adrenaline rush in these eight songs that preempt the energy and rawness of punk. The phrase "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" used to be shouted by the band to other groups when they started with the endless jams of the time but it ended up becoming the war cry of their concerts. The moment when people went crazy with one of the most brutal riffs in history. The solos of Kramer, the lead guitarist, were dirty and loud, full of a heavy vibrato, while 'Sonic' Smith was a prisoner to the rhythm.
The album was a success reaching number 30 in the charts in a short time but controversy followed them and, although their company censored - after the first editions - the 'motherfuckers', changing it for 'brothers and sisters' , that did not prevent the Hudson chain of stores removing the album from its shop windows. The response of the band was as expressive as expected. They booked an ad in which, over a photo of Tyner, read the words: "Fuck Hudson!". The stores’ response was to withdraw all of Elektra’s albums. Too many problems, too much chaos and too much aggressiveness. What had begun as a clear omen of their ascension to Olympus rock, ended with the band being expelled from their label, and almost turned into outcasts for the rest of the industry.
The band did not seem to care and they signed to Atlantic Records. In May of 1969 a festival was held in Detroit called the Rock & Roll Revival in which the three headliners were Chuck Berry, Sun Ra and MC5; an honor for a band that considered themselves something like the strange bastard son of the first two. Shortly afterwards they began recording their second album, Back In The USA, for which they brought in Jon Landau as producer. This man was a Rolling Stone critic without much experience but he would end up being fundamental in the career of Bruce Springsteen. Landau looked for a sound similar to the rock and roll of the 50s, so it is not surprising that the album was opened with Tutti Frutti by Little Richard and ended with the title song by Chuck Berry.
Landau wanted short and compact songs: at the start this was not a problem but his way of recording went against the most basic instincts of the band, who were accustomed to letting themselves go in their live performances. To top it off, the drummer had to record with a metronome and the bassist was replaced a couple of times by Kramer, after innumerable unsatisfactory attempts. The result did not please the fans of the band, nor the members themselves, who saw the result as something tame - but in the end proved to be tremendously influential, especially in punk rock. It may be that it lacks the clout of Kick Out The Jams but, song for song, it is the best album of the band, with classics like Tonight, the definitive version of Lookin At You (listen closely to the solo), American Ruse or Shakin 'Street , sung by Smith who also plays his Rickenbacker 450-12. For this album they had already moved on to the Super Reverbs and Kramer shines with a Telecaster, also with 'humbucker'.
In spite of everything the album did not get further than a disappointing position 137 in the charts, leaving the group frustrated, and so they decided to produce their following record themselves. In the late 1970s they traveled to London to play at a festival where they were not paid, and their rage turned it into an incredible live show, with Kramer showing off with an Epiphone Wilshire, and Sonic Smith dressed in his space suit long before the appearance of Kiss. It would be in the English capital where they would record Sister Anne that, along with Baby Won’t Ya, made up the most devastating and unstoppable start to a rock album on this side of Exile On Main Street, with Rocks Off and Rip This Joint.
High Time was the album in which they best knew how to transfer the energy of the live show to the studio, but when it came out the world had forgotten them. In addition the drugs were playing havoc with the band. Little by little members left until Kramer and Smith, the only survivors, decided to throw in the towel in 1972. On December 31 of that year they decided to get together to say goodbye at the place where they had left the most impression, the Grande Ballroom. What should have been a farewell in style turned into a funeral attended only by dozens of people. Kramer left the stage a desolate figure.
Kramer then spent two years in jail for selling cocaine to a plainclothes agent in 1975, an incident that Mick Jones would immortalize in the Clash's Jail Guitar Doors. On leaving, he formed Gang War with another guitar outlaw, Johnny Thunders, but the project did not last long and Kramer began a fruitful solo career that would lead him to write soundtracks for movies and television series. He never forgot his time in jail, however, and ended up working with the organization Jail Guitar Doors to allow inmates to have access to musical instruments, as well as playing in several prisons. His solo career is more than worthy but what gives him a position of honor in the world of rock was his time in MC5. Although the original formation could never be reunited due to the early deaths of Rob Tyner in 1991 and Fred 'Sonic' Smith in 1994, Kramer has carried the group's flame several times, first in 2003, along with the other survivors and people influenced by them like Lemmy by Mötörhead or Ian Astbury by The Cult.
Now, following the death of Michael Davis in 2012, Kramer has revived the group's flame to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kick Out The Jams with people like Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, Brendan Canty of Fugazi and Marcus Durant of Zen Guerrilla. And in some ways Kramer does not see the difference between 1968 and 2018 very clear, as he notes that "today there is a corrupt regime in power, an endless war is being waged millions of miles away and uncontrollable violence shakes our country. (...) My goal is that the audience leaves these concerts fueled by the positive and unifying power of rock music " How could it be otherwise, the last concert will be in Detroit, so it's the perfect time to shout again loudly: "KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKEEEEERS!".