Hailing from Lincoln Park, Michigan, MC5 was an in-your-face combination of sound and fury.
Formed in the early ’60s, the band was the inevitable result of the friendship between guitarists Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer.
Their debut album, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams, exploded into the music universe in a big way, but the band had already drawn attention the year before when they played a concert at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where the protests against the Vietnam War garnered more attention than the nomination of Hubert Humphrey for President.
Letting Childish Things go
In the years since, MC5 had broken up and been reunited, but the death of Smith in 1994 cast a pall for the band and for fans alike.
But you can’t keep a good man or his band down. This year, Kramer brought together a collection of great musicians to match his own talents — Rolling Stone named him one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
His decision to tour, touting the band as MC50 in honor of the anniversary of their seminal album, began to form as he took on another major project.
“The idea first emerged about 18 months ago,” Kramer said. “I’d been working on my book and knew that it would be done and available for sale around the same time as the anniversary of Kicking Out the Jams, and it just seemed to fit like a hand in glove. It just made sense.”
That memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, was released last year and shared the very real highs and lows of his life in and out of the musical spotlight. His decision to put those stories out came from some new milestones in his life.
“The timing of writing a book can be tricky because if you wait too late, you die,” he said. “I had a buddy who was bugging me for years, but I kept saying that I was nowhere near done. I plan to keep rocking until I drop dead on stage, and I felt like I didn’t have an ending for the book. But the beautiful thing is that I have a young family, a young son, and the truth is that you lead one kind of life until you have children. I felt like that was a good ending for my book because everything else before it were my adventures and misadventures, my accomplishments, and my mistakes. I have to be a responsible person in the world and let childish things go.”
Last Man Standing
Looking back over his life and celebrating the origins of MC5 on this tour — and doing so without Smith or the other fellow members who have since passed on — Kramer is the last man standing. He looks back with clarity on what place MC5 has in the musical world.
“It does open up those neural pathways, those thoughts and ideas that first emerged,” he said. “Looking back on those memories from 50 years ago when we began as MC5, all of those feelings still have a value to them as much as anything in recent history. We were a high-energy, political rock band, not content to sit on the sidelines and aware of the contradictions that we saw in the highest level of government.
“We had our sonic balls to the wall and made a total commitment. It still feels appropriate, feels right, and hits as hard as it ever did. And I think we’re all better players today. I’m surrounded by absolutely first-rate musicians.”
When asked if he thinks musicians today should be as firm in their convictions as MC5 was, Kramer addressed some of the strife we see in our current political landscape.
“Democracy is participatory,” he said. “There is always something for us to do, and it’s not just sitting around talking at the kitchen table. We have to get away from the table and go outside and organize. Get your voice heard.”
Busy in the music industry
The renewed presence of MC5 or MC50 is likely not limited to just a tour in celebration of an anniversary. Kramer has remained a busy musician even without MC5. He has contributed scores to several PBS and HBO documentaries and series and was the man who put the music to Will Ferrell’s comedies Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers.
But he still hopes to record again in his current band.
“We’re talking about making a record,” he said. “We’re playing well together and enjoying each other. Who knows what a record is anymore, but I still enjoy the process. I have a job writing music for film and television, but I also like that in making a record, there’s always the possibility of capturing something for an instant.”
Kramer appreciates the acclaim he and his band have received over the years, including his placement on the Rolling Stone list.
“It’s always nice to be recognized by your contemporaries and appreciated for your efforts, but it’s not something I dwell on.”
Nor does he concern himself with the possible ascension into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status. Though already inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2006, nominations to the Rock Hall in 2002, 2016, and 2018 did not result in induction.
Kramer remains philosophical on the matter, which befits a man who has accomplished and overcome much in the last 50 years and manages to keep on rocking.
“We get close, but it never seems to happen. It is beginning to feel a little bit like we’re Susan Lucci.”
But Lucci eventually won, and so too — hopefully — will MC5.
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