Perfect Sound Forever

MC5- Wayne Kramer interview

photo by Margaret Saadi

by Jason Gross
(November 1998)

PSF: How did Detroit breed a band like the MC5?

Detroit is the heart of the industrial Midwest, nowadays referred to as the Rust Belt. But in the '50's and '60's, after World War II, Detroit was booming. It was a blue-collar factory, manufacturing center, pretty much the manufacturing center of the universe. If you wanted it built, you could build it in Detroit. It gave rise to an entire culture built around work in industry and manufacturing. After World War II and the Korean War, there was a great immigration to the cities in the North to look for work there. So the entire culture revolved around work and essentially, work in the factories.

So if you fast-forward to the mid-'60's when me and the other guys in the MC5 were in our teens and started to think ahead to what our futures would hold, all you'd see around you was the factory. The MC5, and music, represented a way not to continue in that line, which was a fine and admirable... I mean, I honor work and I honor people who work hard for their money. But when I was a teenager, the idea of spending the rest of my life in a factory was real depressing. So the idea that I could become a musician opened up some possibilities I didn't see otherwise.

PSF: You've said before that you and Fred were the heart of the band. What kind of chemistry do you think the two of you had?

When we first met, I was trying to put a band together. I asked around at school for other guys who wanted to play in a band. Someone told me about a juvenile delinquent they knew who played bongos. I thought 'any good band needs a bongo player.' I met this kid Fred Smith and he was real interested in music and a good looking kid, a tough kid, knew how to fight, popular, very funny, bright. He really said he wanted to learn how to play the guitar. His father was from the South and most Southern homes have a guitar laying around. My step-father was from the South so we had a guitar laying around and music was part of the day-to-day routine.

For one whole summer, I would go over to Fred's house every day and teach him the guitar. I already knew how to play some songs and knew some chords and melodies, so I would show him the accompaniment and I would play the melody. Being 13 or 14 years old, we both learned really fast. We kind of learned how to play the instrument together. I was a little ahead of him but that didn't matter after awhile.

As time went on, we formed a number of different bands. We played in rival, neighborhood bands. We learned more songs and we learned how to play Chuck Berry music and we learned Ventures songs. Then after the MC5 started, we would define ourselves as being the guitarists. I was the lead guitarist and he was the rhythm guitarist. Rhythm guitar was a matter of honor and pride in those days- it's a lost art. Nobody's a rhythm guitar player anymore. Everybody's the lead player. Fred really took pride in it.

It wasn't a class system where I was the better guy and he was the second-rate guy. That was his role and my role was to play the solos. But he took great pride in his technique as a rhythm guitarist. He followed in the school of Chuck Berry rhythm guitar playing, of Brian Jones rhythm guitar playing, of John Lennon rhythm guitar playing and that's how it all started. It's very difficult- it's a very physically demanding role to play in a band. It takes a great deal of concentration and consistency. That's something that most lead guitar players don't have. (laughs)

So we evolved from the traditional point of view of him being the rhythm guitarist and me being the soloist. I started to discover the value of the rhythm guitar from him. He started to play some solos from me. Pretty soon, we developed a technique of playing together that's characterized as ego-loss. EGO-LOSS, where we would play whatever was appropriate to be played. Sometimes we would be playing syncopated rhythm parts, we could solo simultaneously and it really had to do with listening to each a great deal. We really could LOCK in on a really fundamental level. We played together for so long and we got to the point where our styles blended together. Even today, sometimes I'll hear our records and I'm not really sure who played what. And we took a bunch of acid together too.

PSF: The MC5 was blending together jazz with the rock they were playing, years before Miles and other people were playing 'fusion'.

I never really thought of the MC5 as a fusion band. I hate that expression, 'fusion.' What it means to me is this movement where nothing ever really fused. It ended up being the curse of Miles Davis. Where Miles discovered that playing for the rock audiences, he could reach more people with the Grateful Dead than he could playing four sets a night at the Village Vanguard for three years. What happened was that he influenced a new generation of musicians and the way he influenced him was cool but what you ended up with was Kenny G and jazz-lite. It was cool and restrained, which were all dimensions of Miles' personality.

The MC5 took a different tact. Although we loved Miles, we plugged into the more angry and the more passionate visceral free jazz movement of the late '60's- the music of Coltrane, Ornette and Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. Joseph Jarman (Art Ensemble of Chicago) lived next door. This was the community that we had. We were all sharing this sense of what was happening in this off-shoot of jazz that seemed to parallel what we felt what was happening conscious-wise in the streets. They were way more committed and way more passionate than what Miles did.

What we were really trying to do was, in my opinion, the same thing. There was no difference between what Joseph Jarman and Charles Moore and the MC5 were doing even though we came from a guitar rock perspective and they came from a traditional jazz perspective. We were all trying to get through that door that Sun Ra opened up, that Ayler opened up, that Coltrane opened up, that Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp opened up. That was the music that inspired (us). That's what we were striving for.

PSF: How successful do you think the MC5 was with that?

Aesthetically, we were enormously successful. Economically... there was no success. It was all about music of the future and unfortunately it was a band that didn't have any future. (laughs)

PSF: Did you see that the band changed once you started working with John Sinclair?

John Sinclair was the only person that we respected and whose direction we would accept. We had a long series of second-rate music business hustlers and penny-ante music business entrepreneurs that were trying to manage the MC5. We were not MANAGEABLE. We were barely sane. (laughs)

PSF: How did the MC5 get from a cover band to the group that was doing the material you hear on the first album?

When we first started playing in the early days, none of us really had any idea about writing our own songs yet. We were struggling how to learn our instruments and play songs to be able to perform for people. We gravitated to a certain kind of material, like the music of Chuck Berry and instrumental records and certain records that had a... what we'd call... 'high energy'. We later became articulate enough to define it as music that was real visceral. It was about a lot of heat and energy, like the music of James Brown, black gospel music. Not what we were hearing on the radio but you had to search it out. It created kind of a problem in the early days because if you didn't play the kind of music that they were playing on the radio, you couldn't work.

If you put this in the context of Detroit in '64 or '65, the economy was booming. Everybody had jobs and there was a whole nightclub culture where bands could work. You'd do five sets a night- 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off. You could work seven nights a week and you could literally be booked months and months in advance, getting a steady job in a bar. This was the gig to have- this is what we all aspired to. You would be a full-time musician you'd be part of that whole musician culture- late-night, night club musician. Drugs, sex, booze, all the stuff that we wanted to do. The problem was that we didn't want to learn the top 40 'cause most of the music was awful and we had this other idea about what we wanted to do. We had to make a lot of compromises because after a while we started to realize that you don't get on the radio by learning all the songs that are already on the radio. You get on the radio by writing your own songs. But we had the dilemma of not being able to play anywhere because we weren't able to play anything that anyone wanted to hear. So we learned songs that we thought that we could do without puking. (laughs)

And there was some newer stuff coming through. The British Invasion was happening. You could do Rolling Stones songs and you could still work. When I first started playing in a band, before the Beatles, working bands played standards and they saved their rock material til the end of the night when they were really stretched out. It could be pretty lame.

So we played covers but also had our own songs that we were working on. The break-through came in about '67 when Russ Gibb went to California and saw the Filmore and brought the idea back to Detroit to start a ballroom. He was looking for a band that could play its own music but had a psychedelic edge to it and play good, danceable rock music. There was only one band in Detroit that could do that.

PSF: And who was that?

Us! (laughs) So, that opened the door to us doing our own material 'cause we had this idea of artistic freedom and originality. The focus wasn't on how good could you play the songs on the radio, the focus was on 'what are you doing' and 'what are your songs all about' which was the end of our compromising. Then we were free to write our own material and be the MC5. That was what we knew we had to do all along but there's a lot of knuckleheads you have to get through in the meantime.

PSF: A lot of subsequent live albums of the MC5 have come out since the first record. How do you think the first album stacks up with the other material and shows from then?

It's OK... I'd give it an 80 out of 100. Actually, I think Babes In Arms is the best one 'cause it shows a lot of the early singles and more of the diversity of the band and more of the stretched out stuff that we were getting into. High Time was probably the best. Kick Out The Jams has always been kind of an enigma to me. Elektra Records lied to us, about a great many things. They told us that if we didn't like the recording, we could record again to capture what we considered was a great performance. I remember clearly saying 'we didn't play that well that night.' We were intimidated. The MC5 was a mercurial kind of band, very subject to being in the heat of the moment. We could rise to great heights but we were also inconsistent. If something threw us off, we were capable of playing pretty badly. (laughs) I remember just thinking 'we didn't play all that well that night but it's OK 'cause they told us that we could record again.' But no, it never happened. They said 'Oh no guys- this is fine, this'll be great.' 'Yeah but you said...'

PSF: Did you see that the band was part of a music scene in Detroit at the time?

The MC5 I would say was the undisputed heavy-weight champion of the Midwest. Of the world, I would say... Let me take a chance here and go out on a limb. (laughs) We were the undisputed, undefeated heavy-weight champs!

But we were part of a great community that was really unique. It didn't really exist anywhere else. It had to do with Detroit being a factory town, being a hard working town. This work ethic cut across to everything. The people worked hard and they wanted to see their bands play hard. It also created an openness for the cross-pollination between black music and what we did as white rockers, that didn't exist anywhere else. We had friends in P-Funk. Detroit had a kind of proletariat, utopian thing happening because everybody worked. There wasn't the class distinction that I think existed in other parts of America at the same time. I didn't realize til years later that in other cities all the white people grew up in one place and all the people of color grew up in another place. It wasn't like that in Detroit. There was room for everybody 'cause everybody had jobs and that's the real issue.

So, the cross-pollination and the influence of Motown... we all wanted to grow up and be the Motown recording band. Those were our idols. Even later in the MC5, we still did Motown covers 'cause that was the most stretched-out music happening in pop. I think the Beatles were a pretty good band but they weren't as good as that Motown session band as far as I'm concerned. They were better players, more sophisticated. It's still more sophisticated.

There was blues in Detroit, gospel, r&b, rock and jazz. It made more of a community- 'we're from Detroit and proud of it.' This pride developed and the MC5 was the spearhead, taking this message to the rest of the world. Bob Seger and Ted Nugent were just the cats. They were in other bands. They weren't very good but we liked them anyway. Bob wrote some pretty good songs. Ted was always kind of a knucklehead and that hasn't really changed.

PSF: What were the dynamics of the band in terms of leadership? Did you and Fred struggle over this?

I was the chief cook and bottle-washer. I was the leader of the band, I started the band, I got everyone together. We rehearsed in my mother's basement. (laughs) At the risk of breaking my arm to pat myself on the back, I really pushed the MC5. I really believed in the MC5. It was my vision, my idea, my future.

And what happens a lot of times in bands, the center never holds. After awhile, everybody resented my leadership around the period of Back In the USA. So we had a rebellion and my loyal troops revolted. They all said 'it's always what Wayne wants' and 'Wayne wants to do it this way.' So I abdicated my position and moved into a kind of co-leadership with Fred. And Rob started to pull himself out of the picture a bit.

Fred and I had a great kind of sibling rivalry happening. At a certain point, they all just got frustrated that things weren't turning out the way that we all hoped and dreamed they would. So, somebody's gotta pay and be the scapegoat. So, it was my fault of course! (laughs)

PSF: So how did you things change for the band when Fred took a more active role?

It didn't change at all. Fred didn't take an active role in anything, except songwriting. He started to really come into his strength as a songwriter but he really wasn't a pro-active kind of guy. That's the crux of me and Fred's problems. I was like 'let's go do this' and his attitude was 'let's get out of doing this' and 'let's avoid making this happen.' Like 'it's time to load the gear, where's Fred?' 'I don't know, I haven't seen him.' We'd rehearse at six o'clock whereas with Fred, it's eight-thirty. I hate to dog the guy, God bless him and all...but it's the truth.

PSF: The MC5 played at the '68 Democratic Convention and was involved in a lot of other political activities with Sinclair. Did the group really think that music could have an impact as a political force?

We believed it with our entire hearts and souls. We really felt that we could influence the youth of the world with these new thoughts about music and this new way of living and this new kind of politics and this new kind of frame of reference. We really believed it- totally and completely. You know, I'm not terribly cynical about it now. I still believe that you gotta take a stand and pick what side you're on. I still pick the side of creativity and thinking and of being responsible and following through and self-efficacy, championing what you're trying to do. Which is what we were trying to do in the MC5. We were an advocate for what we believed in. We were, to quote Abbie Hoffman, young and arrogant and crazy and naive but we were right.

PSF: So you don't see it as a failure then?

Hell no! We lost the revolution. (laughs) But I can't look at it as a failure. That's not a fair judgment to make. We came from nothing. We made this whole big stink. We do have a place in the story. The MC5, contrary to what MTV and the mainstream historians will tell you, has a place in the history of popular culture. So it's not fair to say it was a failure. It IS fair to say that it was a commercial failure and business-wise, it was a failure.

But that isn't what we were trying to do anyway. We idolized avant-garde jazz musicians and beatnik poets. We never really aspired to be international jet-set multi-millionaire celebrities. We really wanted to grow up and be John Coltrane or Chairman Mao. We related to Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. We really had some grandiose visions of things, which isn't to say that we weren't trying to be successful. We were making records and we did realize that was a way to reach a lot of people. But that wasn't the thing that motivated us.

PSF: Do you think that in the end, drugs tore the band apart? Michael, Dennis and Sinclair said they thought this was what happened.

Is that what they all say? Ah, they're all wrong. They're all full of shit and on drugs- that's why they said that! (laughs)

Drugs, were a symptom- they weren't the cause of anything. Drugs were the relief from the hard and real, painful fact that we got dropped from our record company and we weren't going anywhere and it was all turning to shit. It was all collapsing. All our dreams and all our visions and all our hopes weren't gonna turn out alright. Of course, drugs bring along their own problems with them but they're not the cause of anything. They're the result of other issues that need to be dealt with.

See part two of Wayne's interview

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