Wayne Kramer: a complex and influential musician, dogged by lucklessness

Wayne Kramer: a complex and influential musician, dogged by lucklessness


I am not able to reword this.

He was incarcerated in a federal prison in Kentucky for four years due to drug charges. He stated that the term “punk” did not have a positive connotation from his perspective. He explained that in jail, a punk is someone who is physically overpowered and becomes another prisoner’s partner. This type of language could potentially lead to fatal consequences.

This is a narrative that reveals a lot about the significance of the MC5 and the unfortunate obstacles they faced during their career. The three albums they released from 1969 to 1971 served as influential works for aspiring punk bands and had a lasting impact on rock music. When Kramer reunited the three surviving members of the MC5 in the 21st century, he was inundated with requests from musicians to fill in for their deceased vocalist Rob Tyner and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. Notable performers such as Lemmy, Don Was, Ian Astbury from the Cult, and Dave Vanian from the Damned, as well as members from Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Fugazi, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Pearl Jam, and progressive metal pioneers King’s X all participated.

Despite the undeniable excellence of their records, the MC5’s professional journey often mirrored that of a group stumbling from one failure to another – overhyped, disappointing sales, contentious disputes with labels, retailers, and concert organizers, substance abuse, and, ultimately, upon their break-up, Kramer was left practically penniless: bankrupt and dependent on heroin, he resorted to petty crime and drug trafficking, leading to his imprisonment.

The band faced various issues due to their radical political views, which they may not have truly held. According to Kramer, they only associated with political figure John Sinclair, who became their manager, because they saw the growing popularity of the hippie movement and wanted to appeal to that audience. He also admitted that their own political beliefs were limited, with their main motivation being a desire to avoid traditional jobs.

Although the MC5’s true dedication to overthrowing The Man may have been uncertain, their music was undeniably powerful. Guitarist Kramer often mentioned that his first concert was Del Shannon at a Detroit drag strip, and he saw rock’n’roll as similar to the sound of drag racers: loud and fast. This mindset influenced his playing style, which can be heard on the MC5’s influential debut album Kick Out the Jams. Kramer’s guitar work is intense, distorted, and sharp, with one critic noting that it almost seems like he is attacking the guitar rather than playing it. However, Kramer’s musical abilities go beyond just being a proto-punk musician and are much more complex.

He had a great appreciation for jazz and was fascinated by the new developments in the music scene during the mid-1960s, particularly in the works of John Coltrane and Sun Ra. While the MC5 initially presented themselves as a typical American garage rock band, with their first single being a cover of Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything,” Kramer was already incorporating his love for free jazz into their music. Their second single, “Looking At You,” showcased his use of atonality and controlled chaos in his playing. The early MC5 performances were diverse, ranging from covers of songs like “I’m a Man” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” to original pieces like “Black to Comm,” which seamlessly blended a tough riff with free improvisation.

When Kick Out the Jams was produced, during a live performance at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in December 1968, their music had evolved to be more intense and weighty. The main track features one of the most iconic hard rock riffs of all time, while the slow and heavy I Want You Right Now sounds like the MC5 were pioneering grunge two decades ahead of its time. However, their roots in free jazz were still evident, especially in the final song Starship, which was inspired by a poem by Sun Ra and includes bursts of improvised noise.

The debut album was remarkable and provocative, but its release faced obstacles due to conflicts with retailers over the use of the word “motherfucker” in the lyrics and John Sinclair’s liner notes. This ultimately resulted in the band being dropped by their label. Additionally, the MC5’s relationship with the album’s occasional revolutionary stance was strained. Despite gaining recognition for being the only band to perform for protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, their reputation was tarnished when they showed up to a 1969 concert in New York in a limousine. The radical hippie audience turned on them, accusing them of betrayal, causing a riot and destruction of their equipment. This led to promoter Bill Graham banning the band from future events.

When their second album, Back in the USA, was released in 1970, the band was no longer part of Sinclair’s White Panther party due to their “counter-revolutionary ideals.” It seemed like they were relieved, especially since they had used their advance from Atlantic to buy sports cars. The album had less political lyrics and tried to make the band more relatable by including shorter songs, less improvisation, and covers of old rock’n’roll songs. Despite some great tracks like Shakin’ Street, Tonight, and Let Me Try, the production quality was terrible, making the band sound thin and weak, almost like it was being played on a tiny transistor radio.

The next edition of High Time showed significant progress. Kramer frequently expressed his belief that it was the MC5’s most impressive album; undoubtedly, it showcased their widest range, blending energetic rock’n’roll, exemplified by Sister Anne, with chaotic experimentation – the final track Skunk (Sonically Speaking) was their most overtly jazz-inspired piece to date, featuring a horn section – and Kramer’s Miss X, a grandiose rock ballad that hinted at a possible new musical path in the coming years.

However, things did not go as planned and there was no success in the future. The album was a failure, drug issues escalated, and the MC5 disbanded in 1972. Only a small audience of around a few dozen attended their final performance at the Grande Ballroom, the same place where they had once drawn a large crowd for the recording of Kick Out the Jams. In distress, Kramer left the stage before the show was over.

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It was expected that punk music would revitalize Wayne Kramer’s career, but it didn’t quite go as planned. He often claimed that his time in jail improved his guitar skills – he met jazz trumpet player and former Charlie Parker sideman Red Rodney, who was also a fellow drug user, and received lessons in improvisation. Kramer also played a significant role on Was (Not Was)’s self-titled debut album in 1981, showcasing his guitar talents on tracks such as “Wheel Me Out” and “Tell Me I’m Dreaming”. However, he continued to struggle with drug addiction. In the midst of this, he attempted to form a band with renowned rock musician Johnny Thunders, who was known for his unapologetic drug use. While there are some devoted followers of the raw live recordings of their band, Gang War, and their impressive cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”, the project ultimately fell apart before they could even record an original song.

During the remaining years of the 1980s, Kramer worked primarily as a carpenter and only played music sporadically. However, his solo career did not truly take off until the release of The Hard Stuff in 1995. This album, along with several others he recorded for punk label Epitaph, showcased a more direct style of hard rock compared to his previous work with the MC5. Despite being overlooked, these albums featured strong songs with unflinching lyrics that portrayed addiction, such as “Junkie Romance” and “It’s Never Enough” from Dangerous Madness (1996), while Kramer’s guitar solos continued to impress. Arguably his best album during this period was Citizen Wayne (1997), produced by Don Was, which delved into more experimental electronic sounds. This bold risk paid off on tracks like “Dope For Democracy” and “Count Time”.

In the majority of the 21st century, he was mainly focused on participating in successful MC5 reunions and advocating for various causes. He became a supporter of charities that addressed drug addiction and led the American branch of Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors, an organization that supplied musical instruments to prisoners for rehabilitation purposes. He also released a candid autobiography and, spurred by the Trump administration’s impact, began working on a new MC5 album.

He was able to display an appealing lack of concern for the band’s impact, criticizing every album they released (even implying that Kick Out the Jams was not their best performance) and disregarding the music that they influenced, stating that most of it lacked their experimental aspect and that he could find more originality in hip-hop. However, it was evident that Wayne Kramer understood the true power of the MC5 and that their music would always be a motivating force for anyone who wanted to create wild, adventurous, angry yet uplifting rock and roll, regardless of his personal opinions on the outcome.

In a 2022 interview, he stated that the band symbolized endless potential and movement. He clarified that their discussions focused on actively making an impact, rather than simply discussing or distributing ideas.

Source: theguardian.com