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MC5’s Wayne Kramer talks punk, politics ahead of new album, tour

Of the MC5's original five-person lineup, Kramer is one of two surviving members along with drummer Dennis Thompson.
Shore Fire Media
Of the MC5's original five-person lineup, Kramer is one of two surviving members along with drummer Dennis Thompson.

More than 50 years ago, Detroit proto-punk band MC5 set political and musical trails ablaze with Kick Out the Jams, a fervent and revolutionary live album released in 1969. Now, founding member and guitarist Wayne Kramer is relighting the fire.

Kramer is fronting a new lineup, with two forthcoming singles along with The Heavy Lifting Tour, which begins May 5 at Detroit’s El Club. Under the name WE ARE ALL MC5, Kramer will perform alongside singer Brad Brooks, drummer Winston Watson, bassist Vicki Randle of Mavis Staples, and Stevie Salas, who worked with David Bowie, on rhythm guitar.

The endlessly influential band hasn’t released new music since 1972. Kept off stages during the pandemic, Kramer says he’s more than ready to pick up a guitar onstage. In fact, Kramer said: “I never put it down.”

Kramer cited the current political moment as a “motivating factor” in this incarnation of the MC5.

“[Music] is the most powerful tool I have to carry a message that we are in great danger, that all that we know and cherish about life in this country and many other countries around the world is in danger of going away. Fascism and authoritarianism is serious… They're playing for all the marbles, and this is like we're in a war and only one side is doing the fighting, and it's not us.”

He also had another, cheekier explanation for his return to the live stage.

“It's one of the few places that I feel completely comfortable. I'm a natural born star: I can't do anything. So I can get up in front of a bunch of people with an electric guitar and jump around, act like a fool. And they enjoy it. So it's perfect for me.”

In the decades since MC5’s break-up, Kramer has stayed busy both musically and politically. In 2015, he supported Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign at multiple fundraising events. He also works as a composer, scoring films and TV shows including Eastbound & Down.

“All these things give you another perspective to understand what it is you're trying to do with music,” he said. “You know, what are the tools that we have? What are the articulations of the instruments? It's our vocabulary.”

Over the years, Kramer has been able to reflect on his role in a band that was widely viewed as a voice of political leadership.

“There were times when I would be confronted by a journalist or a young person, and they would have a complex ideological question that they would throw at me. And you know, I hadn't read Marx and Lenin. I was a rock and roll kid. We were for the people and we were for change and we were for ending crappy laws and stupid 50s morality. But man, the finer points of, you know, Marxist theory — I'm not so sure. And, you know, it left me feeling inadequate and like a complete fraud.”

Having experienced this during the MC5’s first go-around, Kramer feels better prepared to tackle today’s political climate.

“It was a trial by fire, that's for sure, for a long time. I used to sweat it. We all kind of did.”

On the subject of reigniting the political fire that the original MC5 instilled in its followers, Kramer pointed to his creative ancestors, whose teachings he still adheres to.

“You know, the great rock artists and the great free jazz artists. I owe a debt of gratitude to the mostly African-American musicians that were the free jazz pioneers. These guys endured the most awful criticisms from the establishment and yet maintain their dignity and continue to be creative in spite of it. And that inspired a young Wayne Kramer to try to do that with his rock and roll band. And I'll never be able to fully repay that debt.”

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Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.
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