In the United States, the punk “movement” began in the urban areas in the mid 1960s. Rock ‘n’ roll was growing, not necessarily up but in all sorts of lateral directions.
Ferocious, loud and snotty, punk came out of the cities, crafted by kids who were fed up with wearing matching stage uniforms and playing polite Beatles and Stones covers, kids who wanted to express the rebellion they were feeling at home, in society, in the political system, as their world dramatically changed.
The point can be (and is) argued, but the MC5 are generally considered the first true “punk” band signed to a major record label. The Detroit quintet (the initials stand for Motor City Five) arrived via Elektra Records (then lighting America’s fire with its star act, the Doors) in 1969 with Kick Out the Jams, a blistering collection of fast and furious songs with decidedly political lyrics.
(The early MC5 were managed by John Sinclair, Michigan’s most anarchic left–wing rabble–rouser, founder of the radical White Panther Party.)
Even with the politics toned down on subsequent releases, such as the brilliant Back in the USA, the band never really connected with a mainstream audience. By comparison, the MC5’s Detroit pals, the Stooges, became history’s poster boys for punkish musical rebellion.
Wayne Kramer was the MC5’s incendiary guitar god (Rolling Stone has enshrined him on its list of history’s Top 100 guitarists). The band effectively broke up in the early 1970Ss, when Kramer was convicted of drug charges and sent to prison, but he’s a survivor.
In fact, the legendary guitarist, 64, was in town this week and toured the Meddin Studios set of CBGB, a reproduction of a place he’d played many, many times.
He and his wife work with the prison assistance program Jail Guitar Doors — named for a Clash song that begins with a verse about Kramer himself — and he earns a living by composing music for movies and television, most notably the HBO series Eastbound and Down.
Why are you in Savannah?
Wayne Kramer: We’ve been talking with the writer and director about the possibility of me scoring the film. We haven’t agreed on anything yet, but I love the story, I really like the writer and the director and all the people involved in the film. I think it’s a story that I’m uniquely positioned to be able to add the musical dimension to. At least, it’s my hope.
The set is terrific. The only thing missing is the smell!
Did the MC5 ever play CBGB?
Wayne Kramer: No, the MC5 actually ended, officially, in 1972. And during the peak of the CBGB era I was actually in prison. But I came back in ’78, and I moved to New York in ’79, so I was part of that scene from ’79 to ’89. I played there.
Set the scene for me ... New York punk at the turn of the decade.
Wayne Kramer: The music scene in New York in the early ‘80s was pretty exciting. There was a lot going on. There were a lot of places to play, there were a lot of bands, people were really trying to make something happen. It wasn’t as if the first wave of punk had ended — it just kind of continued to roll for a while. There was a lot of input coming from England at the time. It was a time when the record industry concluded that “punk rock” was too dangerous, and so they called it “new wave.”
After what the MC5 had done, it must have been somewhat gratifying to see that, all those years later, the flame was still being passed around.
Wayne Kramer: It’s always nice to be recognized for your work. I think the MC5 represents a kind of uncompromising stance that is locked in amber. It’s locked in time, you know? The MC5 never went on to be big, famous, multi–millionaire international celebrities, so the concept of the band is locked. It’s like James Dean — he’ll always be that beautiful young man, or Marilyn Monroe will always be that beautiful, luscious blonde. We never get to know any of these people as old and bald, overweight and cranky.
And so I think that when music fans start to connect the dots back, when they find a band they like ... they like the Clash, and so they say “Who influenced the Clash?” And then they read the Clash or the Ramones like the MC5. And they go back to the MC5.
I put together a new version of the MC5, and we toured around the world. And to be able to play the MC5’s music for a whole new generation of rock fans — who knew the music better than they did the first time around, and would sing along with the songs — was really exciting. And something I’d never anticipated, or actually ever thought would happen.
You and Fred Smith started the band around 1964. How did it become what it became?
Wayne Kramer: I’ll give you the capsule synopsis. I wanted to start a band, so I looked around at school for other kids that wanted to be in a band with me. I found this guy Fred Smith, who I heard played bongos. And I figured a band could use a bongo player.
Then I found out Fred could play the guitar a little bit, so I tutored him. We started a band together, and we played in a lot of separate bands. Because this was a time in America where everything was booming. In Detroit, there were good union jobs, a family could be supported on one paycheck, and they could afford to buy kids an electric guitar. So there were a lot of bands, and there was a lot going on.
We met up with Rob Tyner, we ultimately finished out the band with Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis. In the beginning, we were really trying to learn how to play instrumentals. Ventures, Johnny & the Hurricanes, that kind of thing.
Of course, you can’t grow up in Detroit without a huge influence of rhythm ‘n’ blues. I always gravitated to rhythm ‘n’ blues music. The groove was stronger. And so we started covering James Brown songs, songs that we could play to make the crowd dance. We were always interested in motivating people to dance.
Ultimately, we decided that the best bet would be for us to learn how to write our own songs. And that was really where the concept of the MC5 emerged.
How did it end up getting so hard, and loud, and sped up?
Wayne Kramer: A couple things. One was the frustration that we felt in the world at large. We knew everything was wrong, but we didn’t quite know what to say about it, except to play harder and faster. We were frustrated city kids, working class kids, and it was all we knew. We ultimately became able to articulate that in the failure of our great institutions, religion and politics. And that our parents’ generation were carrying everything in the wrong direction, and we were convinced that we could do something about it.
The other influence was, of course, the music of the free jazz movement. The music of Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, and John Coltrane. When I combined the best Chuck Berry I could play with Albert Ayler, I said “I know where I want my band to go.”
What was it like when Elektra Records came around and said “Hey, want a record deal?” Did that surprise you?
Wayne Kramer: No, we worked pretty hard at it, we were very focused. The band wasn’t a temporary thing with me, or the other fellas. We were totally committed to what we were trying to do. I think the significance of the MC5 is that we spoke directly to the audience. We didn’t talk around them, we didn’t talk at them. We talked to them, and with them, about the things that they really cared about. It wasn’t about “I’m a great blues guitar player” or my clothes or anything. It was about things that people were upset about — the war, racism, police brutality.
Elektra signed us, and they asked me if there were any other bands around like the MC5. I said “There’s no other bands like the MC5, but we have a ‘brother band’ that you should hear. They’re called the Psychedelic Stooges.” And when the Elektra talent agent, Danny Fields, heard the Stooges he said “Great, we’re gonna offer them a contract, too.” So I got them their deal! Which they well deserved. They would’ve got it anyway.
Michael died earlier this year. Were you guys still playing together?
Wayne Kramer: We played our last concert together last summer in France. And he was very ill. He was still very excited about playing. He had been ill for a long time. In the world of music, and in general, in everybody’s life nowadays, there’s the possibility of abusing substances. Drugs and alcohol. And the MC5, we championed substance abuse to a great degree.
But some of us go too far with it. Drug addiction and alcoholism are fatal diseases. You can’t cure them, but you can treat them successfully. They can be arrested. And three of the MC5 members died as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.
Tell me about your program Jail Guitar Doors.
Wayne Kramer: It’s a simple idea. I’m an ex–offender, and I went to prison. And I wondered for a long time what happened to me. How did that change me? It didn’t change me for the better, and I don’t believe prison changes anyone for the better. And I wondered, what could I do about it? What we do is we find people that work in prisons, that are willing to use music as a tool for rehabilitation. And we donate guitars to the prison for the use of rehabilitation.
Playing music in prison is a life raft. It’s a way to escape prison — you can get out of prison for the hour or two that you spend playing music. It also teaches you to focus your concentration. It gives someone a new way to express themselves, and process their problems non–confrontationally.
We’ve been in operation for three years now. We’ve delivered guitars to prisons in New York, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California.
I believe in safe streets, and I believe in the rule of law. I believe in accountability. But I think the punishment should fit the crime. To lock up someone for decades for marijuana? I think that’s unjust and un–American.
Considering everything, are you amazed that you’re still here?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, sometimes I have occasion to think back on some of the unbelievably stupid stuff I’ve done. And how could I have gotten myself into those positions? I used to think I was smart. I don’t think I’m so smart any more. If I was so smart, I wouldn’t have done all those things.
I wish I could take credit for it. I fell in with a group of people that showed me how to live where drinking and drugging wasn’t necessary. Listen, I wanted to change. I wanted to get sober. And I did. And help is available for anyone else that wants to get sober. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to change.