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MC50 kicks out the jams for MC5's 50th anniversary

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2018

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Wayne Kramer is happy to declare the MC5 "an overnight success."

"It only took 50 years!" he adds with a laugh.

But he is, as the song says, kicking out the jams, nevertheless.

Kramer who co-founded the groundbreaking Detroit rock band circa 1964 in Lincoln Park is making a concerted effort to give the group its due 50 years after recordiing its debut album, "Kick Out Jams," live at the Grande Ballroom. He published a frank memoir, "The Hard Stuff," that's been well received, and launched MC50, an all-star tour celebrating the MC5 legacy.

And in the wake of all that, the group received its fourth Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination.

All told, it's plenty of activity for a group that disbanded 46 years ago.

"Being a player, I like to play," Kramer, 70, says by phone while driving through Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and manager, Margaret, and their young son. "I was just kind of waiting for a good excuse to go on tour again, and when it turned out we were 50 years from the recording of 'Kick Out The Jams' I said, 'Well, there it is. And with my book to hang it on, why not?

"So I've got my guitar strapped on and my fellows on the bus with me and here we come. I think it's a not inconsequential time to acknowledge the record and the MC5's contribution to culture."

That impact is considerable, too.

Formed during the mid-'60s in the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, the MC5 is nothing less than a unique band in the annals of rock 'n' roll history. Influenced by a wide spectrum from rockabilly to the British Invasion, R&B and Sun Ra-style free jazz, the group made challenging, complex music that's often credited along with fellow Michiganders the Stooges as one of the foundations for the punk rock that followed.

Under the tutelage and direction of manager John Sinclair, the group also aligned itself with the counter-culture and political left of the time. Forwarding a credo of "rock 'n' roll, dope and (sex) in the streets," it was the "cultural wing" of the White Panther party and the only major band to play during demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The music was not dominated by politics, but the group seldom shied away from protesting the Vietnam War or championing populist causes.

Fifty years on, Kramer is still proud of playing, and the ideology.

"I think the band represented a sense of unlimited possibilities that there could be a new kind of music and a new kind of politics, that there could be a new kind of lifestyle," Kramer recalls. "Like many of my generation, we saw a seismic shift in the way we approached life than that of our parents' generation.

"In retrospect, with the benefit of being 70 years old, I don't think that shift was as great as we thought it was. Those shifts don't happen by generations, they happen by millennia. But back then I thought we were making an evolutionary break from our parents, and I think the spirit that anything is possible holds up pretty well. That's not subject to decay."

The MC5, unfortunately, eroded after three albums, plowed under by drug use, controversy, Sinclair's jail term for marijuana possession and a reputation that chased away record companies and concert promoters. The group members splintered to their own projects and lives, reuniting at a memorial after frontman Rob Tyner died in 1991. Guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith also died, in 1994. Kramer, drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis, who died in 2012, did some touring as DKT-MC5.

"They're a very important band more important than popular, really," says Grammy Award-winning producer Don Was, who's worked with Kramer and played for an early MC50 show this year in Denmark. "The politics were important, but what that band did musically is really underappreciated. They didn't sell a lot of records, but a lot of the people who bought them went on to play music and start bands that were influenced by the MC5."

Among those is Kim Thayil, the Soundgarden guitarist who had been laying low since Chris Cornell's suicide in May 2017 in Detroit, but is back on the road with MC50.

"I would consider them to be my favorite band," said Thayil, whose "jaw dropped" when Kramer called with the invitation to be part of the band. "I thought, 'Am I ready to open the door and come out of the fetal position?' Well, how can I be more ready than this opportunity? I had to make myself ready. This is the one. I don't know if I would have done this if anyone else had called, but this is easily my favorite band. I had to say yes."

The rest of the MC50 touring lineup includes members of the band's Fugazi, Faith No More and Zen Gorilla, while former MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson may make some special guest appearances. "I just started calling up people that I knew would be good traveling companions," Kramer explains. "A lot of people can play, but it's more important that it's a genial group of people who understand what we're doing and why we're enjoying it and have a basic enjoyment of the process.

"I've put up with a lot of prima donnas and ego trippers. I don't need it and neither does anybody else, so my main criteria was are they good people?"

Kramer gushes that "the MC5 has never sounded better" and that he's having "the time of my life" with MC50. And he's allowing himself to think that the MC50 could actually become a going concern beyond this year's 50th anniversary tour.

"I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves," he notes, "but I could see it. This is very much a continuation. In a lot of ways it's the realization of the spark that happened 50 years ago at the Grande Ballrom in Detroit to have a band that produces these high-energy rock shows that completely blow people's minds, like it's come to fruition.

"And these guys wanted to do it because they themselves have carried the message of the MC5 all the years, the message of self-determination and self-efficacy and all things are possible if you put in the work. They all live by that message and they're playing their asses off and we're all having a great time, so I think they may want to keep going for a while."


Wayne Kramer's MC50 returns home for three upcoming Detroit shows.

Friday, Oct. 26 at Saint Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress St. Doors at 7 p.m. Detroit Cobras open. $35. Call 313-961-8961 or visit saintandrewsdetroit.com.

Saturday, Oct. 27 at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Detroit Cobras and Easy Action open. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are sold out. Call 313-961-5451 or visit thefillmoredetroit.com.

MC50, joined by Don Was and Pearl Jam/Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, celebrates Zenta New Year and the 50th anniversary of recording "Kick Out the Jams" on Oct. 30 at Third Man Records, 441 W. Canfield St. $50, proceeds benefit Jail Guitar Doors. Call 313-209-5205 or visit thirdmanrecords.com.

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