1 Dec 2019

Wayne Kramer: 'As a gangster I was a complete failure'

From Sunday Morning, 10:27 am on 1 December 2019

Fifty years’ ago Detroit-based MC5’s hard, fast and heavy sound was radical and so too were their politics - the band being at the forefront of the late 60s left wing counter-culture.

Musically MC5 were also hugely influential on a later generation of punk acts despite their own career being short-lived.

MC5’s seminal 1969 release Kick Out The Jams is being celebrated by MC50, headed by founding guitarist Wayne Kramer, who are touring the album world-wide and are due to play in New Zealand next February.

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Kramer says the atmosphere in motor city Detroit in the 1960s was febrile.

“We were right in the epicentre of revolution really on the shop floor, in the factories. Black workers and workers of colour in general, were the last hired and first fired and they always got the worst jobs, the most dangerous jobs on the shop floor.

“And the unions really didn't support the emerging power of the workers. Certainly, they didn't support the black revolutionary workers. And it created a pressure bomb where black people and people of colour, poor people, did not participate in the boom town that was Detroit and the great successes of the auto industry and cultural and political life in Detroit, black people were excluded.

“And finally, by 1967 everyone had just had enough and all it took was a spark to set off that week-long act of defiance and rebellion against the establishment.”

And although by the end of the sixties the counter-culture had taken a darker turn, Kramer says it was mostly good times.

“It was mostly fun, punctuated by moments of terror. But generally, we had the most fun, we had a thriving community of young people that all believed in the same things and wanted the same things and saw the world the same way.

“And we were able to persuade teenagers that running away from home and discovering what your strengths might be is actually a good idea.

“You know, to go to a rock show and jump up and down and scream and holler, for girls to burn their brassieres - we embraced all that kind of stuff, and it didn't take much to generate agreement.”

Kramer says it was a moment in time when many young people were on the same page politically and culturally.

“It was really unique, in as much as young people were in agreement across the country. And I would go so far as to say around the world, that the way the older generation was running things was a disaster.

“We were certain we could come up with a better idea. You know with the benefit of 50 years looking back, a lot of it was Pollyannaish and utopian. But, you know, is that such a bad thing to have a utopian view of the future and to strive to aspire for a better world? I don't think so.”

Often cited major influences on the late-70s punk movement along with The New York Dolls and The Stooges, Kramer says punk is more about a state of mind.   

“The general dynamic of artists being hypersensitive to the world around them and having a vision of the world around them and then carrying that vision into their work and projecting those ideas out into the world is actually not a new thing.

“Beethoven was a punk and Duke Ellington was a punk and John Coltrane was a punk - they all saw the world in a in a different way and were able to create art that spoke to that difference and that was ultimately inspirational for that generation.”

The Detroit-based proto-punks went their separate ways in 1972 and Kramer, battling addiction, ended up in jail by the mid-70s when he sold some cocaine to undercover police.

“As a gangster I was a complete failure,” Kramer says.

His incarceration inspired The Clash to write a song about him ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ – which now gives its name to a prison reform charity in which the now sober Kramer is heavily involved.

“I watched for 30 years after I was released from prison as more and more people just like me, went to prison for longer sentences under worse conditions. And the activist in me finally, I had it and I got angry and I decided I have to take action.

“I ran into Billy Bragg and he told me about this initiative he had launched in England to provide instruments for prisoner rehabilitation. And I thought that would fit perfectly into my ideas of artists taking political power and responsibility to affect the world in a positive way.”

MC5 in 1972

MC5 in 1972 Photo: Screenshot

Kramer says the charity has put instruments into 160 US jails.

“If we can get young people interested in music before their involvement in the criminal justice system, then we can help them interrupt the cradle to prison pipeline. Which is a real thing, and it's fully in place, and fully operational and just waiting for young people to fill up those cells.”

MC50 are touring in support of fellow Detroit musician Alice Cooper and Kramer says the band is made up of musicians who were all influenced by ‘Kick Out The Jams’.

“The thing about these guys is they all have their own relationship with the music of the MC5. And so for all of us to come together and perform the music of the MC5 means something extra, because they've all been playing long enough that they know how to do it.

“They're all highly accomplished at their job. They know how to tour, they know how to travel, they know how to keep their sense of humour when everybody around them is losing theirs.”

The band consists of Marcus Durant on lead vocals, Kim Thavil ex-Soundgarden, Billy Gould bass player from Faith No More and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty.

MC5 has been nominated five times for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but has never been admitted.

“It's always nice to be recognised for your accomplishments. But I've always had a problem with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because it isn't like Rock and Roll can be quantified.”

Kramer gets more of a buzz from his music resonating with a much younger audience.

“A young guy coming to the show, and afterwards asking me to sign his record and telling me that his dad gave him the record. That really slays me, I love that.”