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MC5, a six-time Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee, revs up for first album in 51 years and new tour

Members of MC5 in 1969
MC5 is shown at a 1969 performance in its native Michigan. From left are drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson, lead guitarist Wayne Kramer, rhythm guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and lead singer Rob Tyner, the latter two of whom are since deceased. Kramer is heading a new edition of the band and completing the first new MC5 studio album since 1971.
(Leni Sinclair / Getty Images )

Guitarist Wayne Kramer, who leads the new edition of the band, likens its mission to Paul Revere’s. ‘We want to warn people: “The fascists are coming! The fascists are coming!” ’

How many 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees are now recording their first new album in more than half a century — and performing at a 230-capacity San Diego music bar this month?

One.

How many 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees have been a key influence on such previous inductees as the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash, as well as such disparate acts as White Stripes, Bad Brains, KLF, San Diego’s Schizophonics and Los Angeles’ Rage Against the Machine (which was also on the Rock Hall ballot this year and also failed to make the cut)?

One.

And how many 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominees imploded 51 years ago, did not tour between 1972 and 1992, and then did not tour again until 2004 (each time with partially revamped lineups)?

Again, the answer is one.

Make that the one and only MC5.

The Detroit-bred band is moving full steam ahead as its revs up for a new tour, with a mostly new lineup, that will be followed by the first new MC5 studio album since 1971.

It is doing so despite having this week failed — for the sixth time — to win enough votes for induction into a hall of fame where its influence on past inductees is a matter of record.

Other artists voted in this year include Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Eminem and Lionel Richie, while multiple nominees MC5, New York Dolls, Kate Bush, Dionne Warwick, Devo and Fela Kuti are shut out again

MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer and the band
MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer is shown performing with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-nominated band in 2018 in Milan, Italy. He will lead a new iteration of MC5 May 15 at the Soda Bar in City Heights.
(Sergione Infuso - Corbis / Corbis via Getty Images)

Rock as a revolutionary force

Granted, this ferociously hard-rocking band released only three albums between 1969 and 1971. But those albums, the first two of which — “Kick Out the Jams” and “Back in the U.S.A.” — are still standouts, helped pave the way for both heavy metal and punk rock.

So did MC5’s incendiary, take-no-prisoners live shows and its devotion to political activism, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and using rock ‘n’ roll as a clarion call for a music-driven revolution against the conservative establishment.

While hit songs eluded the band, such classic MC5 songs as “Kick Out the Jams,” “Looking at You,” “The American Ruse” and “Sister Anne” still reverberate. Recognition by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s voters, if and when it finally does come, will be long overdue.

“I think there are people out in the world, in the music community, that recognize the contribution the MC5 has made to our culture and would like to see it acknowledged by the rock establishment. And I’d like to see it, too, for their sake — if not mine,” said lead guitarist Wayne Kramer, who co-founded the band in 1964. He performs here with the latest edition of MC5 next Sunday at Soda Bar in City Heights.

“We were never a ‘hit’ band, and we never made any money,” Kramer continued. “But our work stood the test of time and people still appreciate what we’ve done, and that’s always nice.”

People, specifically, like Oceanside native Stevie Salas, who is handling rhythm guitar duties for the upcoming MC5 album and tour.

Salas is best known for his lead guitar work with everyone from George Clinton and Rod Stewart to Mick Jagger, Public Enemy and cutting-edge jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. A Native American, he has served as the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s contemporary music adviser. In 2017, he produced the film “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.”

“I think MC5 needs to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” said Salas, who was the music director for “American Idol” from 2006 to 2010.

“MC5 are a massive influence on everything now, especially all the young bands coming up.”

Stevie Salas was just 23 when he became Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist in 1988, followed by collaborations with Mick Jagger, Public Enemy, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Was (Not Was), Justin Timberlake, jazz drum great Ronald Shannon Jackson and more.

“Stevie is a wonderful musician,” said Kramer, 74, speaking from his Los Angeles home. “He understands the value of the art of playing rhythm guitar. He’s such a sweetheart of a man, and I’m honored to have him in the band.”

The Austin, Texas-based Salas, 57, is equally complimentary about Kramer and MC5.

“Wayne is great!” said Salas, who replaced Kramer as the lead guitarist in the band Was (Not Was) in 1987.

“I met him in 2014 in Austin at South by Southwest, through Jimi Hendrix’s sister, Janine. Because of the fury of MC5’s music I thought Wayne would be a wild man, but he’s a gentle soul. He’s a musicologist who ended up being in my film, ‘Rumble,’ and we became pretty close. I jumped at the chance when he told me, ‘I’m going back out on the road with MC5, do you want to do it?’ ”

MC5
The rock group MC5 is shown in 1967. From left are Fred “Sonic” Smith, Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson, Rob Tyner, Wayne Kramer and Michael Davis. Kramer and Thompson, who is retired, are the only surviving members.
(Leni Sinclair / Getty Images)

Tenacity in face of loss

That MC5 still exists in any form is a testament to Kramer’s dedication.

Three of its four other core members are deceased. Bassist Michael Davis died in 2012. Lead singer Rob Tyner died in 1992. Guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith died in 1994, 14 years after he married legendary singer-songwriter Patti Smith.

Kramer’s own life has been marked by tumult, as he vividly chronicled in his brutally candid 2018 memoir: “The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities.”

Wayne Kramer doesn’t hold back in his brutally frank new memoir, “The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities.”

He was arrested for burglary in 1974 and regularly engaged in what he described in his book as “general criminal behavior.” Kramer subsequently served a four-year prison sentence for drug dealing. In the years after his release, he became an alcoholic and later contracted cancer, from which he has since recovered. He got clean and sober in 1998.

“My problem wasn’t my drug use and alcohol abuse. My problem was I couldn’t get along in the world with people,” Kramer told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a 2018 interview.

“Everything bothered me, to a great degree. When I got high, I got some relief. It’s an effective and reliable form of relief. Opioids have been pain-killers for 7,000 years of human life and will continue to be.

“The trouble is, they have side effects, like all medicines. In my case, that included homelessness, sickness, poverty, prison, joblessness, depression. The host of negative side effects of drug and alcohol abuse — which is early death for many people — is immense. So, at a certain point, I had to face who I was and what my behavior meant, and decide if I wanted to live or not.

“I chose to live. I chose life. I accepted help. Help was available, and I finally listened to people who knew more about the subject than I did. Slowly, but surely, I changed, got better and healed.”

MC5’s original drummer, Dennis Thompson, is retired. But he is featured on two songs on the upcoming MC5 album “Heavy Lifting.” It is being produced by Bob Ezrin, who has helmed classic albums by everyone from Alice Cooper and Kiss to Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel.

Guest artists on “Heavy Lifting” include Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and such varied songwriting collaborators as Kesha, Alejandro Escovedo, Tim McIlrath of the band Rise Against, and Brad Brooks, who is handling lead vocals on the current MC5 tour.

The band’s new touring lineup also features Salas, former Aretha Franklin/Herbie Hancock bassist Vicki Randle and former Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson, who is an alum of Salas’ band, Color Code.

‘A genius collaborator’

“We’re not really in a hurry to finish the album; I’m thinking the fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2023,” Kramer said. “Bob Ezrin is such a genius collaborator, and I want to give him time to get it right.”

Having a new album follow MC5’s sixth and most recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination is a good way to refocus attention on the band’s legacy. But Kramer cites a different inspiration: the upcoming national congressional midterm elections.

“Music is a powerful tool. And MC5 is the biggest megaphone I have access to carry MC5’s message of taking action when action is needed,” he said.

“If we don’t take proper action to prevent these autocrats and the religious right and Republican Party, well, I would lump them all together as fascism, pure and simple. If we don’t do what we need to do in these coming midterms and then in the presidential election in 2024, then all the things we know and love about living in America will go away. ...

“I don’t believe we have a special dispensation from God to protect our democracy. We can fall just like those banana republics and Eastern European countries. History has proved this. I’m often asked if today reminds me of the 1960s. No, it reminds me of the 1930s and the Nazis.

“Music and art can’t effect social change, but they have a role to play as part of a much larger, nonviolent political movement.”

MC5 was the only major band to play in Chicago’s Grant Park during the adjacent 1968 Democratic Convention.

Its performance concluded moments before a full-scale riot between protestors and the police erupted in the park and on nearby streets. The band’s revolutionary zeal was chronicled in the 2004 film documentary ''MC5: A True Testimonial.’'

“We knew the Chicago police were going to be violent against us, and they were,” Kramer recalled. “But we knew it was important to participate, to take a stand and to build the solidarity of the antiwar movement and the emerging environmental movement with the civil rights movement.

“The difference between then and now is those were all policy differences. We didn’t agree with the policies of war and racism. Today, the differences are ideological.

“So, our plan is to work toward the elections and be like Paul Revere riding through towns, ringing bells. We want to warn people: ‘The fascists are coming! The fascists are coming!’ Because they are.

“In the 1960s, many young people felt that the direction the country was going in was wrong and that we, as a generation, had some better ideas and might be able to demonstrate a new way of thinking about the world — a new lifestyle, new music and new politics that weren’t based on the old morality and old way of doing business.

“We had issues with the way our parents’ generation was doing things. And we had the power of rock ‘n’ roll to project our ideas into the world. It seemed like a good idea then, and I think it still is.”

MC5, with The Zeroes

When: 7:30 p.m. next Sunday

Where: Soda Bar, 3615 El Cajon Blvd., City Heights

Admission: $40.38 (must be 21 or older to attend)

Phone: (619) 255-7224

Online: sodabarmusic.com


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