MOUNT CLEMENS, MI - 1969: The rock group MC5 (L-R Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson, Wayne Kramer, Fred "Sonic" Smith and Rob Tyner) perform live in 1969 in Mount Clemens, Michigan. (Photo by Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Kick out the jams one more time, motherfucker

George Henderson reviews a rock memoir by Wayne Kramer, leader of the MC5, a 60s band who advocated “Dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the street.”

“We have developed organic high-energy guerrilla bands who are infiltrating the popular culture and destroying millions of minds in the process” – John Sinclair, White Panther Party Programme, November 1, 1967

Wayne Kramer was the founder and leader of the MC5, a proto-punk band from Detroit of huge importance to my generation of musicians, especially through the legend they generated in the late 60s and early 70s. They occupied the intersection between radical music and radical politics in a way few other white bands ever have, willing to risk their careers and, given the times, their lives to promote a revolutionary agenda.

The cover shot of Kramer’s memoir captures this ambition perfectly. He has his back to us, a Fender over one shoulder, a machine gun over the other, giving a clenched fist salute. While he now admits this glorification of armed struggle was “ignorant”, it was both typical of the times – yes kids, there was once a very brief historical window during which terrorism was widely felt to be sexy – and a brave and crazy thing for a muso to do.

The MC5 were a successful live act, but only released three albums. Their dedicated social programme – “Dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the street” – made great copy, and in New Zealand we knew what they were about even before hearing the music, which Kramer admits was a flawed expression of their intentions. Even so, the first two albums, particularly Back in the USA, are classics, while some will make claims for the brass-inflected third, High Times, being their best, and Kramer is rightly proud of the twin guitar attack he created together with Fred “Sonic” Smith.

Their influence was immense. Picture me and my mates in Invercargill circa 1973, spotty adolescents tripping on Buddha sticks and knock-off Purple Haze, turned onto rock by local glam crew Watchdog – who I later learned made their first gig playing rough covers of Kick Out The Jams by the MC5. Our older mate Bob Sutton is hip, works as a train driver and Watchdog roadie, and has a massive collection of righteous albums. He pulls out a copy of Kick Out The Jams. We know of the MC5’s reputation by courtesy of the New Musical Express, and want to be at least as revolutionary. Although there are no machine guns in Invercargill, there are cheap Ibanez guitars that can make a satisfying sound. The needle drops and we hear an agitated crowd before the rabble-rousing introductory rant of one JC Crawford that ends with the timeless call: “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!”

Tale of two covers

Then the music kicks in – hang on, “Ramblin’ Rose”, though played at what we assume is a meth-fueled pace, is an ordinary 12-bar rock’n’roll song sung in falsetto. We admire the energy but question how macho and revolutionary this opening really is. However things soon pick up with the title track and various metallic space-rock effects that are like a less polite version of Syd’s Pink Floyd and as we would learn inspired by Sun Ra’s interplanetary jazz trip. Okay! We can work with that. In fact the first band we start is called Crazy Olé and the Panthers, a direct rip-off of the MC5’s White Panther Party.

Kramer’s book The Hard Stuff is a two part story. Part one, Kramer’s upbringing in Detroit and the rise and fall of the MC5; part two, Kramer brought low by drugs and crime, jail, redemption, survival, more music, and learning to grow up very late in life. It’s a familiar tale, not least to me, but Kramer’s experience is intense enough, politically observant enough, and above all still relevant enough to be engaging.

It’s relevant because the MC5’s USA was politically an even more dangerous place than it is today. He describes massed police brutality against concert goers at his gigs, and witnesses the Detroit riots in 1968, started by the police and finished by the police and National Guard, in which 43 mostly black citizens were killed and over 1000 injured in a week of violence and looting. It was a pattern seen in several major cities in the wake of 1960s civil rights movement (curiously there is no description of the brutal police riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an event the MC5 played). Bombs were going off everywhere (mostly symbolic property damage, but not exclusively), some set by Kramer’s friends, others thrown by their enemies. Kramer was in at the birth of the White Panthers, the pseudo-revolutionary movement started by poet John Sinclair in response to a Black Panther call for “parallel and separate” organisations in the white community; you can read the White Panther manifesto here.

Sinclair became the MC5’s manager, the MC5 became the White Panther house band, and a collision course was set with Nixon’s America. The White Panthers and the MC5 were too hedonistic and unschooled in Marxism to ever become the Bader-Meinhoff Group, but they were uppity enough to be seen as a threat by the government, and, potentially, al least, successful enough to attract the usual holier than thou envy of other radical left groups. Kramer describes one such encounter, a near-lynching in New York by the East Village Motherfuckers (an arm of the International Werewolf Conspiracy, you heard me) that’s drearily familiar.

“This was a prime example of the failure of the sixties militant mindset,” he writes. “They attacked their own comrades. We were on the same side, but they turned their revolutionary zeal against us. We weren’t the people perpetrating the war in Vietnam. We weren’t denying African Americans their rights or polluting the air and water. We weren’t corrupt politicians in Washington DC. We were a band that supported the same causes they did, because they were our causes too. The Motherfuckers were fragmenting the mass youth movement better than the Police or FBI ever could have… Being criticised for not being revolutionary enough was a serious, ongoing problem for me through the era of the MC5.”

Kramer’s life eventually went off the rails with a heroin habit supported by burglary and cocaine dealing, encounters with hardened killers, and heavy jail time. The story’s saving grace at this point is that music is still a motivator , that Kramer is still existing as a working musician, knowing no other life, and collaborating with the likes of Ted Nugent (“even though we couldn’t be farther apart politically we’re still friends today”) and the great UK freak poet and novelist, Mick Farren of the Deviants.

When the story took its darker junk-and-jailtime turn, I was prepared for heavy going. But Kramer’s story-telling doesn’t flag, and the cultural landmarks – like a stay in Kentucky’s famous Lexington prison-cum-experimental hospital for dope fiends immortalised by William Burroughs – keep on arriving. Indeed, the Lexington chapters supply a highlight of Kramer’s musical story, in scenes which mirror the chapter in Hubert Selby’s Requiem for a Dream where the young protagonist is banged up with an old junky who regales him with a lost tradition, but I won’t spoil that discovery for you. Even the long crawl back to sobriety by the end of the book is bearable for once and Kramer avoids being patronising or mawkish about his recovery.

Listen to Back in the USA, the MC5’s second album; despite the difficult circumstances of its recording, with the band dumped from one record company to another, early use of the click track method, and Kramer playing bass parts the MC5 bassist was never really up to recording, it sounds razor sharp. Reading between the lines of Hard Times, Kramer was obviously a perfectionist in the studio no matter how loose everyone else was feeling. A song like American Ruse’ captures the violence and hypocrisy the MC5 were rebelling against and turns it around with an arrogant optimism that was bound to prevail in the end, and features one of the best couplets in rock; “69 American terminal statis/ the airs so thick it’s like drowning in mollases/ everybody’s working to get rid of these blues/ cos we’re finally getting hip to the American ruse!”

John Sinclair to the left and Wayne Kramer to the right (Photo: Leni Sinclair)

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Heck, just look at the cover, that black-and-white shot of the MC5 as if dripping in sweat after a show – their irresistible radical pleasure agenda is there, girls wanting to fuck them or be them, boys wanting to be them or fight them; within a few years every rock band from the New York Dolls to Poison to Patti Smith (who married Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1980) would look like the MC5, and Sonic Youth would borrow Smith’s name for their own free rock adventures.

Yet for most of the later punk bands, despite playing at the rapid-fire pace the MC5 had set, actually sounding like the MC5 was harder, not least because the MC5, as a product of a multiracial city and an activist era, were heavily influenced by black music – Motown, New Jazz, Chuck Berry and Little Richard – while punk and post-punk were a reaction against the domination of blues bores like Eric Clapton (then a famous racist) and soul-based commercial radio music, amongst other things. In this complicated way (there were exceptions, like The Jam, and technical limitations were another factor), punk’s Year Zero signalled the emancipation of white electric guitarists, most of them enlightened anti-racists, from black influences (other than reggae) without their even realising it. Kramer comes close to acknowledging this in several scenes where he attends punk gigs and barely recognises the genre that he is sometimes credited with inventing, for example at an Epitaph Records gig in LA in 1994: “The music had an almost 12-tone avoidance of standard key structures.”

Meanwhile, Kramer’s own music has explored all sorts of angles – besides numerous punk line-ups and an MC5 tribute act that played New Zealand in 2004, he was a founding member of Was (Not Was) and his 2014 album with the Lexington Arts Ensemble is a successful hybrid of rock and modern jazz arrangements. The book ends with Kramer going back to jail to participate in the US wing of Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors, a rehabilitation through music scheme a bit like NZ’s Songs from the Inside, and excoriating the War on Drugs. As he writes, “This ‘war’ is a misguided political atrocity that has been destroying families for generations. Drug prohibition has killed more people than drugs ever could”. Ain’t that the truth.


The Hard Stuff: Dope, crime, the MC5 and my life of impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Allen & Unwin, $37) is available at Unity Books.


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