Perfect Sound Forever

by Alan Crandall
(November 1998)

Sometime in 1972 (I'm sure someone has the date), the MC5, Detroit's hard-rock pioneers, the band who threw deafening guitars, free jazz, and sexy rock`n'roll into one big musical stew, the band once touted as "America's Rolling Stones" (something of a screwy concept given the Stones' r&b/blues/Chuck Berry/Buddy Holly fixation, but never mind...) threw down their last rift and vanished into a haze of drug busts, jail terms, bad memories, and growing legends. Enshrined in a canon of saints of the same sect that worshipped other 60's/70's-era renegades -- The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls.

Somehow, the `5, to me, always seemed to live in the shadow of their more celebrated fellows. Sure they were always mentioned in the same breath, yet at the same time, they seemed a lot more obscure. In some ways it's easy to see why. Unlike The Stooges or Velvets, no ex-member emerged into any kind of cult or pop-stardom the way Lou Reed or Iggy or even John Cale, or Johnny Thunders or David Johansen, did. There was no one to bring their repertoire to a new audience. Once the `5 split, the members all but vanished, lurking in the background of the music industry or getting out altogether. I suppose if anyone was expected to carry the banner, it was Fred "Sonic" Smith. A few years with Sonic's Rendevous Band and his marriage to icon Patti Smith promised potential big things.

But Fred never did emerge in that role. Sonic's Rendevous Band never broke out of total obscurity; a local phenomenon at best. His marriage to Patti produced only one (somewhat disappointing) record, no tours. For whatever reasons, he remained in seclusion. Once he passed away in 1995, it was over. With Rob Tyner also in the grave, it looked unlikely that anyone would ever come forward to carry that `5 flag. And then Wayne Kramer came out with The Hard Stuff.

Wayne hadn't been totally absent all those years. He'd done some hard time in jail, which had garnered him some attention, even a footnote on a Patti Smith album (look on the back of "Radio Ethiopia") which at least showed that someone out there remembered. After that, he did some studio work on and off with Was (Not Was), a few other punks bands, and a stint in a group with fellow punk legend Johnny Thunders which ended pretty much the way all associations with ol' Johnny seem to have (for details see Wayne's song "Snatched Defeat" on Citizen Wayne). Still this was all pretty low-profile. Also along the way there was actually an early CD called Deathtongue. I don't know much about the genesis of Deathtongue but it's conspicuous absence from mention whenever the Kramer discography comes up, and the fact that it sounds like a demo (a bad one at that) leads me to believe it's nothing Wayne himself really wants to recall. I could be wrong.

All in all this is still keeping a pretty low profile. But in Spring `95 I picked up a local music magazine and found a prominent article about Wayne Kramer, and his forthcoming album The Hard Stuff. From the description it sounded like it might actually be pretty cool. Released on Brett Gurewtiz's Epitaph label at least lent the possibility that it wouldn't be particularly compromised, commercially speaking... a good sign. So, curious, hopeful, I bought it.

It didn't kick in at first. I rarely listen to what I would call punk/metal-type music anymore, and certainly The Hard Stuff could be not-inaccurately described in those terms. But The Hard Stuff had something, that undefinable "oomph" that keeps you throwing on a particular album because you just really like it for no easily-articulated reason. And further listening to this album, and it's follow-ups, revealed to me the secret... two dozen years since the end of the MC5, their legacy was being honorably carried on by one of their own.

The Hard Stuff starts off with a bang... actually it starts off with a riff; a killer riff that I just realized when I sat down to write this is copped straight from Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything" ... a song which the `5 themselves recorded as an early single and which looms large in the early punk/underground canon. Wayne begins to bark out a story... a man moves to the suburbs to get a better life for his family -- until that better life is cut short by criminals... a nice girl from Queens falls in with a bad crowd and ends up dead on a city street... Wayne himself runs into a shooting spree at the local post office... cliches, but powered by charging power chords and a wailing harmonica which proves that Wayne hasn't forgotten where this music really came from. Chronicles of social breakdown... nothing new for punk/metal type music, but rarely performed with this much style and aplomb. The stage is set for what will follow. Wayne Kramer returns with his strengths intact, and new ones to show off. The music is pretty basic ... mostly aggressive hard-rock not untypical of numerous other Epitaph releases including Gurewitz's own Bad Religion. The backing is pretty straightforward, solid, unspectacular hard-hitting bass and drums. Wayne's voice is decent, he puts himself across well but will probably never be called a great singer. The songs generally chronicle social breakdowns, street violence, cautionary tales of the dangers of romancing drugs and guns. The lyrics, like the playing, are solid, not bad, occasionally flashing something memorable, but they are felt and that matters. Nothing seems done for cheap effect; when Kramer sings "So ya wanna look like Johnny/And ya wanna be like Keef... it's a junkie romance, kid... nothing comes for free," you know that he means it, and not just because he's been there. But there's at least one thing that really sets it apart... the guitar. Wayne's a master. In the `5 he shared space with Fred "Sonic" Smith. Here he's one his own and we get to hear just how outstanding he really is. Hendrix-like, Wayne's guitar growls, snarls, hums, rumbles, screams, shrieks, howls and rattles, and never stops moving. It surges ahead of the songs like a sprinter running a race, darts and weaves like a moving target; he crams every song so full of licks and solos they're about to explode. The effect is nothing like guitar-hero grandstanding... it's a thrilling sound. As Henry Rollins' liner notes (which are well-meant but weak on a few facts -- someone needs to inform Henry that The Stones were an early influence on the `5 and not the other way around) accurately note - "people don't play guitars like this anymore..." There are other highlights... an incendiary remake of the `5's "Poison" that, frankly, shreds the original; "Edge of the Switchblade" --- at once an homage to (John Sinclair? Rob Tyner? Fred "Sonic" Smith? All or none of the above?), a remembrance of what it was like to be young, loud and radical in the 60's, and an exhortation to today's artists to match the game; "Sharkskin Suit," a joyful ode to dressing sharp that proves that Wayne hasn't forgotten that great rock`n'roll isn't about deep subjects, and proof that he still remembers Elvis and Little Richard; and finally, perhaps my favorite track, the hidden number that appears after "Sharksin Suit," a jazz/punk/funk/spoken word farewell song to Charles Bukowski, which proves that Wayne hasn't forgotten the `5's jazz experimentations, or John Sinclair's lingering influence.

Dangerous Madness followed a year later. At first it seemed like little more than a repeat; there were more songs about guns, dope and street violence, more 90 m.p.h. guitar playing, more remembrances of the 60's. But you can hear some seeds being planted here... the political content has been upped. He sings movingly about the deterioration of old hometown Detroit ("Kid could ride his bike through any neighborhood in town/No fear of getting jacked for his sneakers") in "Back To Detroit." "Wild America" and "Something Broken in the Promised Land" recall Bruce Springsteen's more anthemic moments, but hit harder (Springsteen never came up with a line like "where's Lee Oswald when you need him"). Other numbers like the Tom Waits-like "God's Worst Nightmare" (probably my favorite track) and the autobiographical "Dead Man's Vest" (also probably my favorite track) bring back the jazz and experimental element which was always one of the `5's stronger weapons. Dangerous Madness is a good album that, if it can be faulted, only for not being quite as good as The Hard Stuff. His next excursion would take him into whole new territory.

Citizen Wayne may in fact be his richest yet. In part because it's the weirdest and most diverse, and shows Wayne for the master musician he is. Going way beyond the punk/metal anthems and delving deeper into reggae, jazz, and hip-hop like sounds (yet none of the songs could really be called reggae, jazz or hip-hop). The tricky rhythms, bursts of loud guitar, free-form songwriting and snatches of saxophone and keyboards add up to a genuine departure for Wayne. Also, it's his smartest album yet. Songs like "Revolution in Apt. 29" and "Dope For Democracy" show the evolution of the 5's leftist politics from "dope, guns and fucking in the streets" to sharp indictments of the guilty that go way beyond mere sloganeering. This album's ode to kicking drugs ("No Easy Way Out") risks turning into a pep talk before redeeming itself with "there ain't no easy way out of this... without your kiss... and your tenderness..." "Back When Dogs Could Talk" is another grand salute to the glory days of the `5 ("Dropped plenty acid, listened to Coltrane/Pissed off our parents and angered the police/With guns and guitars both loud and profane") that's also some of the most exciting music Wayne's made to date, it's stop/start rhythm and saxophone blares serve as another reminder of the `5's jazz influence. "Snatched Defeat" is a beautiful-loser anthem that recalls The Replacements in spirit, if not sound. "Farewell To Whiskey" is a lovely solo guitar piece that ends the album on a quiet note.

Wayne Kramer's return to active duty after a long absence has been one of the great joys of the past five years. Not only because Wayne, as an ex-member of the legendary MC5, one of the most visionary bands of it's time, is an unheralded rock`n'roll hero of the first degree, but even better because his recent trio of solo albums (and some side projects) have been just as rewarding and exciting as you might hope. And, best of all, they have carried on the strengths of and the ideas explored by The 5; high-powered, sexy rock`n'roll; leftist political and social commentary; free-jazz experimentation, pure noise; a genuine determination to melt-minds and get butts shaking, to explore sophisticated musical and artistic ideas while never forgetting that this is rock`n'roll and that Little Richard still means just as much in the spectrum of things as Archie Shepp, or John Sinclair. What's more he extended these ideas into the 90's without compromising their integrity or their defiance. In an era when political rock usually means shrill hairsplitting, obnoxious blasts of PC slogans, or worst of all, condescending sermons from on high, Wayne has stuck to the same guns the 5 manned in the 60's (with one difference -- he's wiser now, and "dope, guns and fucking in the streets" has given way to "selling that dope for democracy"). Musically, he's carried on the 5's blend of high-energy rock (the father of punk and heavy metal) and free-form jazz with exciting musicianship beyond the reach of any of today's alterna-arena heroes.

I often think of a "Doonesbury" strip from a few years back; Mark Slackmeyer, campus radical, anti-war activist, the revolutionary who likes chocolate chip cookies, is at a party. A college buddy starts talking to him, joking about how their whole generation has left behind the countercultural values they once fought for. Mark counters by pointing out that he is still politically active, fighting for the same beliefs he did in the 60's, and the victories he feels have been made. It's a great moment and I wish I had it here to reprint. Because I think it sums up what I want to say most of all about Wayne... like the fictional Mark Slackmeyer, he hasn't gotten cynical, hasn't thrown in the towel, and continues to fight for the musical, spiritual and political values he did way back when. This would make him a hero even if his albums sucked, which they do not. He's promised us "an album a year for the next ten years." That's seven more fine albums to look forward to. I hope he delivers.


Death Tongue (1991)

The Hard Stuff (1995)

Dangerous Madness (1996)

Citizen Wayne (1997)

LLMF (1998)

...side projects...

Gang War, with Johnny Thunders (recorded 1980)

Human Garbage, Deviants (1984) - thanks to Doug Pearson for the info

Who Shot You Dutch?, EP with Mick Farren (1987)

Dodge Main (1996) - with ex-members of Radio Birdman and Sonic's Rendevous Band... and excellent.

Eating Jello With A Heated Fork Mick Farren (1996)

Full Circle John Sinclair and His Blues Prophets (1996)

Closed On Account Of Rabies- Edgan Allen Poe tribute (1998)

NOTE: Many of these are available from Alive/Total Energy

---others I'm sure I've missed..

Some other related links...

Epitaph Records

A long and excellent interview with Wayne Kramer

Return to the MC5 tribute

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER