Why Rock Hall of Fame nominees MC5's 'Kick Out the Jams' still packs a punch, 50 years later

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
MC5 in the 1960s. (Photo: Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
MC5 in the 1960s. (Photo: Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

On Oct. 30 and 31, 1968, protopunk protest band MC5 made the bold, ballsy move of recording their debut album, Kick Out the Jams, live at the Grande Ballroom in their native Detroit. With that fiery release (later declared one of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” by Rolling Stone), the anti-establishment, anti-hippie revolutionaries, alongside fellow Motor City nihilists Iggy and the Stooges, advocated for “dope, guns, and f***ing in the streets.” And in the process, the band — managed by radical White Panther Party leader John Sinclair — burned hippie idealism to the ground and laid the groundwork for punk rock.

Exactly 50 years later, the band’s music sounds just as incendiary and relevant as ever in today’s political climate, and for the second year in a row, they’ve been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And this just might be MC5’s year.

Seventy-year-old surviving MC5 member Wayne Kramer, whom Rolling Stone also named one of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” recently released his memoir, The Hard Stuff, which chronicles the band’s formation against a violent, racially divided Detroit backdrop as well as Kramer’s prison stint, addiction battle, and late-in-life career resurgence. He’s also currently playing Kick Out the Jams in its entirety, with an all-star “MC50” band that includes Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron, Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, Faith No More’s Billy Gould, Zen Guerrilla’s Marcus Durant, and special guests like Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan and the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli. That sounds like the perfect lineup to honor MC5 at next year’s Rock Hall ceremony, should these outliers buck the odds and make it in over more commercial nominees like Def Leppard and Janet Jackson.

We caught up with Kramer to discuss why Kick Out the Jams still packs a punch, half a century after it was laid to tape.

Wayne Kramer plays lead guitar with MC5 in 1969. (Photo: Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
Wayne Kramer plays lead guitar with MC5 in 1969. (Photo: Leni Sinclair/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Yahoo Entertainment: Kick Out the Jams may have been recorded 50 years ago, but it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Many of the issues that inspired MC5’s music — race relations, riots, police brutality, corrupt government — are still hot topics today. For instance, in your memoir you say the war on drugs was “the greatest social policy failure in American history” — and the opioid crisis still rages on.

Wayne Kramer: Yes, drug prohibition has killed more people than drugs ever could. It should have never been a police issue and a criminal justice issue. It should’ve always been what it was originally: a medical issue between a person and their doctor. The cost in human lives and damage and families and economics is immeasurable. It’s astronomical. But we’re slowly turning the Titanic. You’re starting to see more sensible voices rise in this opioid crisis now — although it’s sad that it took suburban white kids dying to make a difference, because as long as it was back in the ghetto and it was all black people dying of heroin overdoses, nobody seemed to care too much. “Lock them up!” was the attitude. So race is an issue that America still has not faced squarely. And you’re right, there are terrible parallels between the ’60s and today — like war going on in a country on the other side of the earth that poses no threat to the United States, that has no coherent policy guiding it, except for the military-industrial complex, generals, arms manufacturers, and politicians.

One of the things that struck me in terms of the parallels, when reading your book, was you recalled MC5 getting this weird — and obviously undeserved — backlash from other liberals in the late ’60s, because they thought you were poseurs just acting “rebellious” for image reasons. You described this attack from within as representing the “failure of the ’60s liberal mindset.” Some people would say that has happened recently among liberals — with the split between Bernie supporters versus Hillary supporters. Do you see any of that today? Or do you see people uniting again?

I see unification, but there’s also a third stream entering our discourse today that didn’t exist back then. And it’s the Russians. Putin, when the Soviet Union fell and all those Eastern Bloc countries joined NATO, he was furious and swore that he would return Russia to its imperial grandeur. And they have since declared war on the West. But it’s not a war with tanks and bombers and guns — it’s an asymmetrical, digital war. And they’re doing it brilliantly. They successfully created Brexit in Europe. They fomented all that nationalism across Europe, that anti-immigrant sentiment. And they’re doing the same thing in this country. They put Donald Trump in office. He is their man. And this is new. This is a new wrinkle that we actually have to deal with: spies subverting the democratic process. It’s bad enough that we argue amongst ourselves. But now we have them making matters worse.

One thing I think is interesting is you and your fellow Michigan rocker Ted Nugent, with whom you go way back, are still friends after all these years. In the current divisive climate, many relationships have been torn apart because of political differences. And yet, here you are, able to preserve a friendship with someone who seemingly does not share your beliefs. Your political viewpoints could not be more opposite. What’s the general takeaway from that, the lesson to be learned?

I’d say it’s that we all have more in common than we have different, really. I mean, Ted does a lot of things that people don’t know about that really do add to the world. He works with kids; he has a lot going on that he doesn’t crow about. But you’re right, it is [surprising] that we can remain friends, considering what appears to be our vast difference in political philosophy. I’ve never really had a substantive political conversation with him. I would be willing to give it a try, just to see if he could talk about issues without hyperbole. What does Ted actually think about foreign policy, or economics, or supply and demand? What does he really think about education, or prayer in schools, or abortion? I don’t know. I’d like to talk to him about it.

That would be a fascinating conversation, no doubt. So, I keep mentioning similarities between the early MC5 era and today’s political climate, and another thing that jumped out at me in your autobiography was you mentioning that Detroit was economically stable and even prosperous when you were growing up. And then, things took a dramatic turn for the worse, and working-class resentment and discontent bubbled up. This reminds me of some conservatives today, like the “Make America Great Again” people who want that idyllic old era back.

Yeah, well, they want it back — or they want to get to that in the first place! They never had it. It’s like some mythical time, when we’re going to get back to something that was never there to begin with. The ’50s weren’t really “the ’50s,” you know.

What? They weren’t actually like Happy Days?

No, not really! [Laughs]

I suppose that mindset was responsible for Brexit a little bit too: The people who voted to leave the EU were predominantly older and pining for the supposed great glory days of Great Britain.

Yeah, and so I feel like what I’m doing on this tour with MC50 is carrying the original message of the MC5, which is one of self-determination, self-efficacy, and endless possibilities — if you make a commitment. If you go at it full measures, you can make a difference. People can make a difference in their own lives, in their families, their friends, their community, their city, our country, the world. But you’ve got to step up. You got to put in the work. It’s not just pressing a “like” on your computer.

Wayne Kramer, far left, and MC50. (Photo: Chris McKay/Getty Images)
Wayne Kramer, far left, and MC50. (Photo: Chris McKay/Getty Images)

There’s this cliché that in turbulent times, good art flourishes — for instance, the protest music of the ’60s or punk rock of the ’70s. MC5 is obviously a perfect example. Do you see a musical renaissance like that happening now? Or do you predict that is going to happen?

No, actually, I don’t! I don’t think that good art comes from political turmoil. Artists are fueled by the human experience. And no matter what’s happening in the outside world, there’s plenty of pain and misery in the inside world to fuel great art. I think artists just happen to be more sensitive and maybe more tuned in to the world around them, so they’re the tip of the spear. They get it first. And so, we write songs about it. We make paintings about it. We write poems about it. We write plays and theater pieces and movies. Just one step ahead of people in general. It’s kind of our job, our mandate as artists.

Well, MC5 have certainly been cited as not just a punk influence, but as one of the first actual punk bands. You’ve been credited with inventing punk. The Clash even wrote their song “Jail Guitar Doors” about you. But I get the impression that you didn’t have much interest in the punk movement — that it wasn’t your thing.

It wasn’t that I was disinterested or didn’t like it; I just was completely ignorant of it. I was in prison in the state of Kentucky in the federal prison system [for two years, for selling cocaine to undercover federal agents], and punk rock was not being played on the radio down there. And radio was all I had to have any idea of what was going on in the world. So, I had no idea what punk sounded like until I came home.

But do you now agree with that assessment: that MC5 were a punk band, or even one of the first punk bands?

In the sense that each generation has to find its own voice as distinct from the generation preceding it, yes. The MC5 had to find their own sound as distinct from my parents’ generation. So in that sense, Beethoven was a punk. Picasso was a punk. Bukowski was a punk. Musically, there were some connections [between MC5 and punk rock], because it was guitar and it was aggressive, but it took me a while to actually see the connection.

You mentioned MC5’s mission, which you now are carrying on with MC50. I know this is kind of a loaded question, but when you started out, did you have a sense that what you were doing was important? Did you feel like you were part of a counterculture revolution? Or was that something you only could see in hindsight?

Of course, when we first started out, we were just trying to learn how to play our instruments and how to write a song! But once we started to have an identity that we could articulate and we understood the range that we were trying to cover, we talked a lot about historical validity. Say we were writing a new song: “Is this song musically part of a fashion trend, or is it something that’s actually a style that is eternal?” Fashion is temporary; style is eternal. And I think the fact that our music was rooted in Little Richard and Chuck Berry — these high-energy, raw expressions — served us well to have the music be as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. I mean, it didn’t happen by accident. We actually worked on that.

So, please give me some final thoughts about what’s going on in the world right now. You have seen so much in your life. You must be having déjà vu these days. Are things worse now than they were in your youth?

Well, they’re different. I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily worse now, because we did accomplish a lot of important goals in the ’60s and the ’70s. But I think that if there’s a metaphor in the problems, there’s also a metaphor in the solutions. People of good conscience and young people are starting to step up, and to see how the Democrats are responding to this aberration of a president is encouraging. People are getting involved. Democracy is participatory; it’s not just a theory. It’s something for us to do. I believed in the ’60s that it was my responsibility as an American, if I didn’t like the way the government was doing something, to say something about it and do something about it. You know, John Lewis, the great congressman, says he likes seeing young people get into “good trouble.” [What’s going on now] is good trouble.

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