Wayne Kramer: a complex and influential musician, dogged by lucklessness

by 24britishtvFeb. 3, 2024, 7 p.m. 21
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Wayne Kramer used to tell a remarkable story about the first time he realised how influential his music had become. It was 1976, and he read an article in Billboard magazine about the Ramones and the burgeoning New York punk scene, which “kept saying that these kind of bands were inspired by the MC5”. Kramer was so horrified, he tore the magazine up and flushed it down the nearest toilet.

He was in a federal prison in Kentucky, serving a four-year sentence for drug offences and, as he put it, “from where I was sat, ‘punk’ did not have a good ring to it”. “In jail, a punk is somebody that they knock down and make their girlfriend, you know: ‘I’m gonna make you my punk’,” he recalled. “That kind of talk could get you killed, right?”

It’s a story that tells you a great deal, both about the MC5’s importance and the lucklessness that dogged their career. The three albums they made between 1969 and 1971 were indeed set texts for aspiring punk bands and continued to reverberate through rock music. When Kramer reconvened the three surviving members of the MC5 in the 21st century, he was swamped by musicians wanting to fill in for their late bassist Rob Tyner and vocalist Fred “Sonic” Smith: Lemmy, Don Was, the Cult’s Ian Astbury and Dave Vanian of the Damned all performed, as did members of Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Fugazi, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Pearl Jam and progressive metal pioneers King’s X.

But for all the undoubted brilliance of their albums, the MC5’s actual career often resembled a band lurching from one disaster to the next – hype, mediocre sales, wounding battles with record companies, retailers and gig promoters, hard drugs – and, by the time of their split, Kramer was more or less destitute: broke and addicted to heroin, he became a petty criminal and drug dealer, hence the prison sentence.

A number of the band’s problems stemmed from a revolutionary political stance, which it wasn’t even clear that the members actually believed in. Kramer claimed the band only glommed on to political activist John Sinclair, who became their manager, “because we started to see the hippy thing was gonna be big … we figured the way to get hippies to like us was to get the chief hippy to like us, who was John Sinclair”, and that their own politics extended little further than “not wanting to get up in the morning and have a real job”.

But if their commitment to actually overthrowing The Man was questionable at best, the MC5’s music brooked little argument. Kramer liked to note that the first gig he ever saw was Del Shannon performing at a Detroit drag strip, and that he felt there was little difference between rock’n’roll and the sound of drag racers: “loud and fast, just like the music”. That kind of thinking certainly informed one aspect of his playing – on the MC5’s legendary debut album Kick Out the Jams, Kramer’s guitar is frantic and distorted and stinging: as one critic noted, he often seems to be flaying the guitar as much as playing it – but Kramer was always a more complex musician than the proto-punk tag allows for.

He was a jazz fan, alive to the startling developments that were taking place in the music of John Coltrane and Sun Ra in the mid-60s. The MC5 might have initially presented themselves as the archetypical American garage rock band – their debut single was a cover of Them’s I Can Only Give You Everything, a staple of garage bands the country over – but Kramer was already attempting to work his love of free jazz into their music: there was an edge of atonality and barely controlled chaos to his playing on their second single Looking At You; the early MC5 were as likely to hit audiences with the lengthy Black to Comm, on which a tough riff shades into free improvisation, as they were to play covers of I’m a Man or Baby Please Don’t Go.

By the time Kick Out the Jams was recorded, live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in December 1968, their sound had become denser and heavier – the title track boasts one of the all-time-great hard rock riffs; the sludgy I Want You Right Now sounds like the MC5 are engaged in inventing grunge 20 years too early – but the free jazz influence remained, most obviously on the closing Starship, based on a poem by Sun Ra, strafed by bursts of improvised noise.

It was an extraordinary, incendiary debut, but its release was scuppered both by battles with retailers over the word “motherfucker” appearing in the lyrics and John Sinclair’s liner notes – which ultimately led to them being dropped by their label – and by what you might call the MC5’s strained relationship with the revolutionary stance the album occasionally espoused. The MC5 had got a lot of countercultural kudos for being the only band to play for the demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but when they arrived at a 1969 New York gig in a limousine, the radical hippy audience denounced them as traitors, rioted and smashed their equipment up, leading promoter Bill Graham to blackball the band.

By the time of their second album, 1970’s Back in the USA, they had been expelled from Sinclair’s White Panther party for “counter-revolutionary ideals” – the band members had spent part of their advance from their new label Atlantic on a sports car each – which you rather got the impression came as a relief. Certainly, the album significantly dialled down the lyrical politicking, as well as trying to make the band sound more approachable: shorter songs, less improvisation, a couple of old rock’n’roll covers, a ballad. The material was often great – Shakin’ Street, Tonight, Let Me Try – as was Kramer’s guitar playing, which was particularly fantastic on The Human Being Lawnmower, and it might have worked were it not for an abysmal production job, which left them sounding tinny and weedy, as if the whole thing were coming out of a tiny transistor radio.

The following year’s High Time was a vast improvement. Kramer often opined that it was the MC5’s best album; certainly it was their broadest in scope, balancing hard-driving rock’n’roll, as on Sister Anne, with anarchic experimentation – the closing Skunk (Sonically Speaking) was their most clearly jazz-indebted piece yet, complete with a horn section – and Kramer’s Miss X, a kind of epic rock ballad that potentially pointed towards a fresh musical direction in the future.

But, as it turned out, there was no future. The album flopped, the drug problems increased and the MC5 broke up in 1972: only a few dozen people turned up to their farewell gig at the Grande Ballroom, the same venue they had packed out for the recording of Kick Out the Jams, and Kramer fled the stage, distraught, before the end.

You might have expected punk to reinvigorate Wayne Kramer’s career, but it didn’t quite work out that way. He liked to suggest that his time in prison improved his guitar playing – he encountered jazz trumpeter, former Charlie Parker sideman and fellow junkie Red Rodney behind bars, who gave him lessons in improvisation – and he played an integral role on Was (Not Was)’s eponymous 1981 debut album, his guitar sprawling magnificently over the dancefloor rhythms of Wheel Me Out and Tell Me I’m Dreaming, but he was still struggling with drugs. Under the circumstances, attempting to form a band with rock’s most unrepentant junkie Johnny Thunders probably wasn’t such a hot idea: the rough live recordings that exist of Gang War have their adherents, and the Kramer-sung cover of Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come is genuinely impressive, imbued with a rueful power, but the whole thing fell apart before they recorded a single original song.

Kramer spent the rest of the 80s working as a carpenter, playing only intermittently. His solo career only really kicked off with 1995’s The Hard Stuff, the first of a series of impressive, but overlooked albums he recorded for punk label Epitaph: they offered a more straightforward brand of hard rock than the MC5 had at their peak, but the songs were strong, the lyrics unflinching in their portrayal of addiction – listen to Junkie Romance or It’s Never Enough, from 1996’s Dangerous Madness – and Kramer’s guitar never failed to wail thrillingly. Citizen Wayne released in 1997 is probably the best of the lot: produced by Don Was, it offered an autobiographical suite of songs that shifted him out of his latter-day comfort zone into more experimental electronic territory, a brave gamble that paid off on the idiosyncratic Dope For Democracy and Count Time.

He spent most of the 21st century consumed by various warmly received MC5 reunions and, increasingly, advocacy: he became involved with charities that dealt with drug addiction and fronted the American wing of Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors, which provided musical equipment to prisoners as a means of rehabilitation. He published a brutally honest autobiography and, catalysed by the Trump presidency – “he gave permission for every asshole in the world to be assholes” – started work on a new MC5 album.

He could be winningly indifferent about the band’s legacy, finding fault with every album they released (even Kick Out the Jams, he suggested, “didn’t catch us on a particularly great night”) and dismissive of the music they continued to inspire, claiming most of it missed their experimental side that he “could hear more original things in hip-hop”. But you suspected that Wayne Kramer knew exactly how powerful the MC5 had been, and that their music would always be a galvanising force for anyone interested in making raucous, exploratory, righteously pissed-off but euphoric rock’n’roll, whatever he thought of the results.

“The band always represented an unlimited sense of possibilities and action,” he told an interviewer in 2022. “We were talking about kicking out the jams, not handing out the jams or thinking about the jams. We were talking about taking action.”

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