By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Original MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer brings his all-star MC50 tribute to the iconic band’s influential debut album featuring members of Soundgarden, Fugazi and more to the Regency Ballroom Thursday night.
Along with New York’s dark sonic adventurers the Velvet Underground and their fellow Detroit brethren the Stooges, pioneering proto-punk outfit the MC5 helped shape the sound of modern rock, influencing and inspiring several generations of bands. The roots of the MC5 date back when teenage friends Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith began playing R&B, surf and garage rock together in 1964.
The pair cycled through bandmates, eventually connecting with commanding lead singer Rob Tyner (who would come up with the band’s name) and the rhythm section of bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson by 1965. The group would hone it’s high-energy mix of back-to-basics hard rock, raw James Brown-style soul and exploratory, free-jazz experimentation highlighting the stratospheric guitar interplay of Kramer and Smith with a constant string of gigs in the Detroit area, gradually building up a sizable following to where the quintet could sellout local venues. The band also developed a left-leaning political philosophy influenced by manager and hippy radical John Sinclair, who would found the militant White Panther Party that intended to work with the Black Panthers on their revolutionary agenda.
The band would issue several singles on small independent labels, covering “I Can Only Give You Everything” by Van Morrison’s Them and recording their first original songs. But it was a tour of the East Coast that served notice to audiences and the music industry that the 5 were a force to be reckoned with. The band routinely blew headliners like Big Brother and the Holding Company and even virtuoso British blues rock trio Cream off the stage, leaving sweat-drenched crowds clamoring for encore after encore.
Several labels expressed interest, with fledgling Elektra Records ending up signing both the MC5 and the Stooges in September of 1968 after Kramer recommended that label rep Danny Fields check out their “baby brother” band. Wisely aiming to capitalize on the electrifying intensity of the MC’s live show, Elektra recorded a pair of hometown concerts at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for their explosive first album, Kick Out the Jams. While the effort stands not only as one of the great debut records of all time and a classic live concert document, it also exhibited the anti-establishment attitude and politics that soon set the band at odds with the label.
In addition to stirring up controversy with the famous expletive-laced introduction to the opening title track, the gatefold featured inflammatory liner notes penned by Sinclair concluded with the same profane exhortation. Elektra quickly issued a censored version of the record, much to the chagrin of the band. When the 5 responded to the record being banned from Midwestern department store chain Hudson’s, they placed an ad in underground newspapers featuring more expletives directed at the chain and the label’s logo. The subsequent threat of Hudson’s to pull all of Elektra’s records from store shelves led to the MC5 being dropped from their contract.
The band was quickly signed to Atlantic Records, but would continue to be plagued by label problems on subsequent efforts. Future Bruce Springsteen mentor and music journalist John Landau produced their sophomore album and first studio effort, 1970’s Back in the USA. While the band members would later say they bristled at what the saw as Landau trying to mold their sound to his concept, fiery tracks like “Looking at You” and the politically charged “American Ruse” still stand as classic tunes on another crackling and influential album.
The band had better luck with producer Geoffrey Haslam on High Times, which would stand as the quintet’s most expansive and experimental recording with songs like Sonic Smith’s epic guitar workouts “Sister Anne” and “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)” and Tyner’s fiery declamation “Future/Now.” But relentless touring and growing drug habits were already wearing the band down. Though now revered as classics, both Back in the USA and High Times lost money, leading Atlantic to drop the group. In 1972, Davis was forced out of the band as he struggled with heroin addiction. Thompson and Tyner would also depart. After reuniting a final disastrous New Year’s Eve show that only drew a few dozen fans to the same Grande Ballroom they had packed only a few years earlier, the MC5 disintegrated.
The musicians would play in a variety of projects after the implosion, with Smith most notably briefly leading his all-star Sonic Rendezvous Band (though they only released one single during their existence) before retiring from music to raise a family with songwriter wife and fellow music icon Patti Smith. Both Kramer and Davis would spend time in prison on drug charges during the ’70s, with the guitarist eventually emerging and relocating to New York where he played with Johnny Thunders in the band Gang War in addition to performing with other projects and producing punk bands.
Sadly, the MC5 would not come back together until after the sudden passing of Tyner in 1991 from a heart attack with the surviving members participating in a Detroit benefit that raised money for his family. Smith died from heart failure himself in 1994 after several years of declining health. Meanwhile, Kramer relaunched his career, recording several solo albums and touring with help modern punk bands he had influenced like Clawhammer and the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs.
The first proper attempt at reviving the 5’s legend came in the wake of the powerful 2002 documentary MC5: A True Testimonial that would unfortunately get held up in legal limbo over music licensing issues. Kramer would reteam with Davis and Thompson for a series of celebrated shows billed as DKT/MC5 that would feature a variety of guest guitarists and singers including Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister Ian Astbury of the Cult, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Nicke Royale of the Hellacopters, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads among others others. The band would periodically tour and play festivals in the years that followed, but it also dissolved after the death of Davis in 2012.
In recent years, Kramer has focused on composing music for film and television and writing his memoir. The finished book, entitled The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, was published the past summer by Da Capo Press. To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Kick Out the Jams, earlier this year Kramer announced a tour that would feature him playing with an all-star line-up of musicians playing songs from the debut album in its entirety. After a round of acclaimed performances in Europe, the current version of the band including Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Zen Guerilla singer Marcus Durant and San Francisco rock hero Billy Gould from Faith No More on bass comes to the Regency Ballroom Thursday night. Pop-minded LA-based sludge-punk crew Starcrawler and left-field SF garage-punk band Locus Pocus also appear.
MC5o Presents Kick Out The Jams – The 50th Anniversary Tour
Thursday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m. $38-$42