Iconic proto-punk guitarist brings ‘reanimation’ of MC5 to Bimbo’s

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Original MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer brings his “reanimation” of the revolutionary proto-punk band to Bimbo’s in San Francisco on Friday, May 13, with support from local ’60s rock legends the Flamin’ Groovies.

Wayne Kramer
MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer

Along with New York’s dark sonic adventurers the Velvet Underground and their fellow Detroit brethren the Stooges, pioneering proto-punk outfit the MC5 helped shape the sound of modern rock, influencing and inspiring several generations of bands. The roots of the MC5 date back when teenage friends Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith began playing R&B, surf and garage rock together in 1964.

The pair cycled through bandmates, eventually connecting with commanding lead singer Rob Tyner (who would come up with the band’s name) and the rhythm section of bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson by 1965. The group would hone it’s high- energy mix of back-to-basics hard rock, raw James Brown-style soul and exploratory, free-jazz experimentation highlighting the stratospheric guitar interplay of Kramer and Smith with a constant string of gigs in the Detroit area, gradually building up a sizable following to where the quintet could sell out local venues. The band also developed a left-leaning political philosophy influenced by manager and hippy radical John Sinclair, who would found the militant White Panther Party that intended to work with the Black Panthers on their revolutionary agenda.


MC5 – I Can Only Give You Everything (1966) by
Michaelis Matthaiou on YouTube

The band would issue several singles on small independent labels, covering “I Can Only Give You Everything” by Van Morrison’s Them and recording their first original songs. But it was a tour of the East Coast that served notice to audiences and the music industry that the 5 were a force to be reckoned with. The band routinely blew headliners like Big Brother and the Holding Company and even virtuoso British blues rock trio Cream off the stage, leaving sweat-drenched crowds clamoring for encore after encore.

Several labels expressed interest, with fledgling Elektra Records ending up signing both the MC5 and the Stooges in September of 1968 after Kramer recommended that label rep Danny Fields check out their “baby brother” band. Wisely aiming to capitalize on the electrifying intensity of the MC’s live show, Elektra recorded a pair of hometown concerts at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom for their explosive first album, Kick Out the Jams. While the effort stands not only as one of the great debut records of all time and a classic live concert document, it also exhibited the anti-establishment attitude and politics that soon set the band at odds with the label.


#MC5 Remastered Tartar Field – Ramblin Rose/Kick Out The Jams/Looking At You – July 1970 by
Wayne Kramer on YouTube

In addition to stirring up controversy with the famous expletive-laced introduction to the opening title track, the gatefold featured inflammatory liner notes penned by Sinclair concluded with the same profane exhortation. Elektra quickly issued a censored version of the record, much to the chagrin of the band. When the 5 responded to the record being banned from Hudson’s Midwestern department store chain, they placed an ad in underground newspapers featuring more expletives directed at the chain and the label’s logo. The subsequent threat of Hudson’s to pull all of Elektra’s records from store shelves led to the MC5 being dropped from their contract.

The band was quickly signed to Atlantic Records, but would continue to be plagued by label problems on subsequent efforts. Future Bruce Springsteen mentor and music journalist John Landau produced their sophomore album and first studio effort, 1970’s Back in the USA. While the band members would later say they bristled at what the saw as Landau trying to mold their sound to his concept of him, fiery tracks like “Looking at You” and the politically charged “American Ruse” still stand as classic tunes on another crackling and influential album.


MC5 – Sister Anne by
MagnaMoravia on YouTube

The band had better luck with producer Geoffrey Haslam on High Times, which would stand as the quintet’s most expansive and experimental recording with songs like Sonic Smith’s epic guitar workouts “Sister Anne” and “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)” and Tyner’s fiery declamation “Future/Now.” But relentless touring and growing drug habits were already wearing the band down. Though now revered as classics, both Back in the USA and High Times lost money, leading Atlantic to drop the group. In 1972, Davis was forced out of the band as he struggled with heroin addiction. Thompson and Tyner would also dept. After reuniting a final disastrous New Year’s Eve show that only drew a few dozen fans to the same Grande Ballroom they had packed only a few years earlier, the MC5 disintegrated.


Sonic’s Rendezvous Band – City Slang by
rollnrocksteve on YouTube

The musicians would play in a variety of projects after the implosion, with Smith most notably briefly leading his all-star Sonic Rendezvous Band (though they only released one single during their existence) before retiring from music to raise a family with songwriter wife and fellow music icon Patti Smith. Both Kramer and Davis would spend time in prison on drug charges during the ’70s, with the guitarist eventually emerging and relocating to New York where he played with Johnny Thunders in the band Gang War in addition to performing with other projects and producing punk bands.

Sadly, the MC5 would not come back together until after the sudden passing of Tyner in 1991 from a heart attack with the surviving members participating in a Detroit benefit that raised money for his family. Smith died from heart failure himself in 1994 after several years of declining health. Meanwhile, Kramer relaunched his career, recording several solo albums and touring with help modern punk bands he had influenced like Clawhammer and the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs.

The first proper attempt at reviving the 5’s legend came in the wake of the powerful 2002 documentary MC5: A True Testimonial that would unfortunately get held up in legal limbo over music licensing issues. Kramer would reteam with Davis and Thompson for a series of celebrated shows billed as DKT/MC5 that featured a variety of guest guitarists and singers including Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister Ian Astbury of the Cult, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Nicke Royale of the Hellacopters, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads among others others. The band would periodically tour and play festivals in the years that followed, but it also dissolved after the death of Davis in 2012.


MC5 – Full Performance (Live on KEXP) by
KEXP on YouTube

More recently, Kramer has focused on composing music for film and television and writing his memoir. The finished book, entitled The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities, was published in 2018 by Da Capo Press. Four years ago, Kramer marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Kick Out the Jams with a tour that would feature him playing with an all-star line-up of musicians playing songs from the debut album in its entirety. After a round of acclaimed performances in Europe, a version of the band including Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, Zen Guerilla singer Marcus Durant and San Francisco rock hero Billy Gould from Faith No More on bass played a string of dates across the US, including an incendiary night at the Regency Ballroom.

A few months ago the guitarist announced plans to tour and release the first new studio album under the MC5 moniker in over five decades. The forthcoming effort slated for October release –titled heavy lifting — was produced by Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd) and will feature contributions from such notables as original MC5 drummer Thompson along with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, Alice in Chain’s William Duvall, talented Bay Area singer/ songwriter Brad Brooks — who ended up co-writing most of the new material — and fellow Detroiter Don Was (Was Not Was) on bass among others. The touring band showcasing some of the new material alongside MC5 classics boasts Brooks on vocals along with drummer Winston Watson (Bob Dylan, Giant Sand), bassist Vicki Randle (Mavis Staples), and guitar hero Stevie Salas (David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Mick Jager).

For this show at Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach, the band will be joined. by one of the most legendary garage-rock bands to emerge from San Francisco during the ’60s. The Flamin’ Groovies released a series of albums that made little impact on the charts, but exerted a major influence on many punk and power-pop acts that followed in subsequent decades.

Anchored by the songwriting partnership of wild man lead singer Roy Loney and guitarist Cyril Jordan, the band embraced a mix of ’50s rock and roll (frequently covering songs by the likes of Little Richard and Eddie Cochran), feral garage-rock originals and an ear for punchy pop melodies that are known to the British Invasion bands of the era. While they may have been out-of-step with the psychedelic sounds that dominated the era, the Groovies would endure to have just as much impact on rock as contemporaries the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.

The band first came together in 1965, but it wasn’t until they self-released their Sneakers EP in 1968 that they scored a record deal with Epic. The resulting debut supersnazz had so little commercial impact that the label dropped the group within a year of its release, but the album has become a cult classic. Embodying the same kind of joyful celebration of primitive rock and RB that would be echoed in both the New York Dolls and the Ramones, the Groovies delivered ferocious originals like “Love Have Mercy” that stood up alongside renditions of already classic tunes “The Girl Can ‘t Help It” and “Something Else/Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

The band bounced back by signing to Kama Sutra Records and producing the equally spectacular flamingo and Teenage Head (featuring the monstrous proto-punk title track), but growing tensions between Loney and Jordan would lead to the singer’s departure. Taking complete control of the band, Jordan brought guitarist/singer Chris Wilson on board and moved into a power-pop direction for what many consider its finest post-Loney effort. Shake Some Action came out in 1976 on Sire Records and revealed a sound that ditched some of the ’50s rock flavor for ringing Rickenbacker guitars and mod British Invasion pop. The current version of the band led by Jordan continues to tour and release new music.

The MC5 with Flamin’ Groovies
Friday, May 13, 8pm $39.50-$45
Bimbo’s 365 Club

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