Panther, Panther Burning Bright

MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things

"I talk to Sinclair regularly," Kramer says. "We're very dear friends. We have been all our lives." Contrarily the surviving Motor City band members don't all share Kramer's warm feelings for the "spiritual guidance" of their former image-handler; a onetime DJ/rock critic, he also functioned as the White Panther Party's founding "Minister of Information," and attempted to forge an alliance between the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman's Yippies, seeking the overt politicization of the hippie milieu. In a recent interview with the British music magazine Mojo, drummer Thompson went so far as to say that putting a bullet in Sinclair's head right off the bat would've changed the whole course of history, saved the revolution, and made him a trillionaire.

"I'm troubled by Dennis's remark," Kramer admits. "It reflects a degree of bitterness that seems almost incomprehensible. Dennis and I don't talk much anymore." Kramer has plenty to say, though, when it comes to reacquainting old fans and introducing new ones to the thunderous, gear-headed sounds of the "mother-country madmen." With the help of Gary Stewart and Rhino Records, he's coproduced The Big Bang!, a new 21-track compilation. Spanning five years, from 1968-1972, the album catalogues rare singles and the best bits from the MC5's loud, truncated career. A cover of Van Morrison's "I Can Only Give You Everything" kick-starts the band's now-dated assault on Yankee culture and "greed creeps"; astute listeners will no doubt recognize the riff Beck boosted for "Devil's Haircut." "Come Together" has nothing to do with mojo eyeball and everything to do with exchanging gametes, as does the hormonally charged siss-boom-bah pep-rally anthem "High School," a song the glue-sniffin' Ramones included on the soundtrack of 1979's Rock 'n' Roll High School.

The best cuts, though, are the live, excessive, fuzz-toned ones from Kick Out the Jams -- and don't worry, they've included the uncensored version of the title track, a notorious Oedipal reference to maternal coupling that made most record stores refuse to stock the album. "We used [the word motherfucker] because it described that particular feeling of the moment ... eloquently," Kramer notes. Although it's lost its impact through gratuitous gangsta-rap usage, Kramer believes the MC5 helped solidify the term into our nation's lexicon. "We all do what we can," he laughs.

Re-examining the cultural legacy of the MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things
photo courtesy of Showtime Archives (Toronto)
Re-examining the cultural legacy of the MC5: Gun-toting revolutionaries say the darndest things

On Jams the MC5 stumbled onto the sound of punk. Like their contemporaries the Stooges and the Troggs, they laid the groundwork of raw noise and unembarrassed distortion that countless bands from Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine to Bad Religion and Sweden's Hellacopters would later harness and expand upon. Combining the aesthetics of microphones in speaker cones and amps set to overkill, the tracks confirm that the MC5 was a band best experienced live. Yet the lion's share of material on Bang! (eight tracks, surprisingly) comes from the cleaner, leaner, more trebly and Chuck Berry-influenced Back in the USA, the underrated followup to Jams. That structured but commercial flop utilized novice studio producer Jon Landau and marked the beginning of the end for the MC5. Dispensing with the customary reckless energy that got them noticed, they were soundly dissed by stateside critics for sacrificing fan appeal for a new, tight, "hit-single" sound.

"The British, you know, Nick Lowe and the Clash and those guys, all told me that Back in the USA was their favorite record because it was concise, with focused pop songs in a day that was featuring the fifteen-minute guitar wank," says Kramer. Needless to say Eric Clapton's slow hand provides no inspiration for the record's unsettling Vietnam protest tune, "The Human Being Lawnmower," nor for the sarcastic, scorching dandy "The American Ruse." High Times, the band's third and final album released in 1971, ventured into longer free-jazz territory; the stand-out track "Skunk (Sonically Speaking)" blends Sun Ra and Archie Shepp-style horn experimentation with blatant metal. Moreover it points to what the MC5 might've sounded like had commercial, personal, and pharmaceutical setbacks not been their unraveling. In the extensive liner notes Kramer penned for The Big Bang!, he laments the reception the album received.

"High Times was ignored across the board," he writes. "And that was the best one. We learned that making records was not about leaping up and down and sweating, that it was about focus, about exploring your innate creativity." Full of lengthy, meandering tracks, High Times didn't chart, and the MC5 was left without a label. Worse yet Kramer soon found himself serving 26 months in a federal prison in Kentucky for selling cocaine. There was one compensation, however: He became friends with veteran bebop trumpeter Red Rodney, a regular member of the Charlie Parker Quintet who'd been in and out of jail on charges related to his heroin addiction.

"He was just a prince of a man. I consider him my musical father. And my mentor. He taught me a Berklee College of Music course in writing and arranging while I was in prison with him. We had a regular band, and we played regular concerts, and a couple of times we got to go out in the community and play concerts in the park with local jazz musicians." But an education in Graystone College, as Kramer learned, ain't all fun and games. "I had a lot of time to think about how I got there," he says, "and what I needed to do to make sure I never came back." Nowadays Kramer is as reflective as ever. And busy as a whirling dervish. Having launched his own Internet label, www.musicblitz.com, he's producing a compilation set to include John Doe, Stan Ridgway, Dee Dee Ramone, David Thomas from Pere Ubu, and Dead Boy Jimmy Zero's new outfit, Lesbian Maker. Kramer also sits on the judge's panel for the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas. Finally there's his dream project: a comprehensive, feature-length documentary in the works titled MC5: A True Testimonial. Produced by the Chicago-based Future Now Films, the effort is slated for release sometime in 2001 -- that is, if the funds are there.

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