Rolling Stone magazine put the MC5 (short for Motor City Five) on their January 1969 cover before the world ever heard a note of their music. Considered the missing link between free jazz and punk, the MC5 were a raw and primal band, considered to be unstoppable when they were clicking. A generation of bands, including The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, and Rage Against the Machine, would be inspired by their sonic and political blueprint. Led by guitarist Wayne Kramer, the MC5 reflected their times: exciting, sexy, violent, chaotic, and seemingly out of control–characteristics that ensured their time in the spotlight would be short-lived. Members of the band were galvanized by the racial and class politics of the 1967 Detroit riots, which left many of the local neighborhoods Kramer knew decimated. He and the MC5 toured the world, played with a number of music legends, and garnered a rabid following, their music acting as the blistering soundtrack to blue-collar youth movements springing up across the United States and elsewhere. Their vehement antiauthoritarian stance found especially fertile ground in the 1960s antiwar movement. The lyrics of their 1970 song The American ruse (from the album Back in the U.S.A.) perfectly captured the sentiment of the movement during that political moment.
“69 America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick, it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse.”
Listen to American ruse below.
Kramer wanted to redefine what a rock ‘n’ roll group was capable of, and although there was power in that cause, it also was also a recipe for disaster, both personally and professionally. The band recorded three major label albums, but by 1972, it was all over. Kramer’s story is literally a revolutionary one, but it’s also one of deep personal struggle as an addict and an artist, as well as a survivor and rebel. From Kramer’s early days in Detroit to becoming a junkie on the streets of the East Village, from Key West to Nashville and Los Angeles, in and out of prison and on and off drugs, his life was that of a classic journeyman, only with a twist.
By 2009, Kramer had cleaned up and established Jail Guitar Doors U.S.A., a nonprofit organization that offers songwriting workshops in prisons and donates musical instruments to inmates. As Kramer described in a 2015 interview, “The guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell. It can be the key that unlocks the prison gate, and it could be the key that unlocks the rest of your life to give you an alternative way to deal with things.” Possibilities that Kramer understood well from personal experience.
Wayne Kramer passed away on 2 February 2024.
Read more in The hard stuff: Dope, crime, the MC5 & my life of impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Da Capo Books, 2018). Find it in RILM Abstracts.
Below is a video of the MC5 performing live and outdoors at Wayne State University in Detroit, July 1970 (Kramer is on vocals and guitar for the first song Rambin’ Rose).