Wayne Kramer, the co-founding guitarist and composer of Detroit’s punk band MC5, whose social activism carried on throughout his lengthy solo career, died on Friday at 75. The news was confirmed on Kramer’s and MC5’s official Instagram with the phrase “Wayne S. Kramer ‘PEACE BE WITH YOU’ April 30, 1948 – February 2, 2024. No cause of death was disclosed at this time.
The only thing angrier than Kramer’s left-wing socio-political radicalism was his gruff guitar sound, a powerful feedback-fueled noise with a gutsy swagger that made every track of his – from his famed, first days with MC5 and “Kick Out the Jams” to his searing solo works such as “Adult World” – ring and sting.
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Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, long an acolyte of Kramer’s rangy guitar sound, told The Mirror UK, “Brother Wayne Kramer was the best man I’ve ever known. He possessed a one-of-a-kind mixture of deep wisdom & profound compassion, beautiful empathy and tenacious conviction. His band the MC5 basically invented punk rock music… Wayne came through personal trials of fire with drugs and jail time and emerged a transformed soul who went on to save countless lives through his tireless acts of service. He and his incredible wife Margaret founded @jailguitardoorsusa which founds music programs in prisons as life changing effective rehabilitation. I’ve played with Wayne in prisons and watched him transform lives, he was just unbelievable … The countless lives he’s touch, healed, helped and saved will continue his spirit and legacy. He was like a non-Tom Joad. Whenever and wherever any of us kick out the jams, Brother Wayne will be right there with us.”
Born April 30, 1948 in Detroit, Michigan, Kramer was but a teenager when he commenced a friendship with guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1963. Fans of the blues, R&B and the revved-up surf sounds of Dick Dale and The Ventures, Kramer formed the garage band the Bounty Hunters before he and Smith – along with vocalist Rob Tyner, bassist Pat Burrows, and drummer Bob Gaspar – became The Motor City Five in late 1964. Using Lincoln Park, Mich. as their launching pad, the MC5 as they eventually came to be known, began to test the waters of distortion and heavy feedback in its songwriting and live sets. By 1965, the MC5 replaced Burrows and Gaspar with the much heavier-sounding bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson, and by 1966, took on the regular gig at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. From there, they happened onto John Sinclair, a radical political writer and White Panther Party leader nicknamed the “King of the Hippies” for his founding Trans Love Energies and its blend of underground events and manifestos. By 1967, Sinclair became the MC5’s manager, made them the official house band of the White Panthers, and fueled their radical politics.
Discovered by Elektra Records A&R executive Danny Fields during Chicago’s Democratic National Convention, the MC5 recorded its debut album, “Kick Out the Jams,” live at the Grande Ballroom on October 30 and 31, 1968. Though the initial reaction was enthusiastic, Tyner’s scream of “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” on the album’s title track kept their 1969 debut out of major department stores until Elektra issued a censored version of their debut against the band’s wishes.
Along with Iggy Pop’s Stooges, whose debut album, “The Stooges,” also came out in 1969, the MC5 and the twin guitar sneer of Kramer and Smith created the gruff, gutsy aesthetic of Detroit’s proto-punk sound. Detroit native Alice Cooper may have found fame and fortune in Los Angeles at the top of the 1970s, but early albums such as “Killer” benefitted from the rough swagger of the MC5, and in 2021, Cooper paid tribute to his hometown’s gusto and Kramer’s raw sound by bringing the guitarist onto his 2021 “Detroit Stories” album.
“When we went to Detroit, and played this big Saugatuck Rock Festival, Iggy & the Stooges and the MC5 were on the bill,” Cooper told Variety in 2021. “When we saw the MC5, wow, they were a show band, a great, in-your-face act. “Wayne Kramer? He was a White Panther, and went to jail for his work in Detroit — and plays better than he ever did.”
MC5 went on to record two additional major label albums, 1970’s “Back in the USA” (produced by Jon Landau of Bruce Springsteen managerial fame) and 1971’s “High Time.”
Forever banned from the radio and besieged by government agencies for its socio-political militancy by 1972, the original group split, leaving Kramer to become, in his own words, a “small-time Detroit criminal.”
In 1975, after forming R&B band Radiation, with Melvin Davis, Kramer was convicted of selling drugs to undercover federal agents, and was sentenced to four years in prison.
The Clash paid tribute to Kramer on their “Jail Guitar Doors” with the lyrics “Let me tell you about Wayne and his deals of cocaine, A little more every day, Holding for a friend till the band do well, Then the DEA locked him away.”
Incarcerated at F.M.C. Lexington, Kramer became friends with legendary trumpeter Red Rodney, and played together in the prison band, Street Sounds. No sooner out of jail in 1979, Kramer began doing session work in Detroit, joining Was (Not Was) on its first, eponymously-titled album and tour.
Kramer also teamed with one-time New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders in the band Gang War in 1979, and produced a handful of punk acts during his time in New York City such as GG Allin and the Liars. By 1980, Kramer became the toast of NYC underground clubs such as the Pyramid where he performed excerpts of his R&B musical, “The Last Words of Dutch Schultz,” that he had written with British author Mick Farren – all while working as a carpenter in New York under the guise of “Mattiello of Manhattan”.
Kramer also began a stellar solo career in 1991 with “Death Tongue,” but truly made his mark when he got to the Epitaph label, and works such as “The Hard Stuff, (1995), “Dangerous Madness” (1996) the beloved “Citizen Wayne” (1997) and the live record “LLMF (LLMF (Live Like A Mutherfucker).”
Along with staying socially active throughout the 2000s, in 2001, Kramer and his manager-wife Margaret Saadi Kramer began the MuscleTone label where he released his 2002 solo album, “Adult World.”
In recent years, Kramer relived his MC5 past, first in 2018 with Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil on a brief tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Kick Out the Jams,” and again in 2022 with Jane’s Addiction’s Stephen Perkins.
Kramer also became famous for his side-job, scoring for film and television with credits in the Will Ferrell comedies “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Step Brothers,” the theme song for Fox Sports Network’s “5-4-3-2-1, Spotlight,” and HBO’s “Eastbound & Down.” In 2014, Kramer and the Lexington Arts Ensemble recorded “Lexington,” a free jazz album released as the score to the prison system documentary, “The Narcotics Farm.”
As of 2023, Alice Cooper’s longtime producer Bob Ezrin continued working with Kramer on what was to be a new album featuring drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson of MC5.
He played guitar at a “Nuggets” show last May in Glendale, Calif., soloing on “Baby Please Don’t Go,” as Mike Peters of the Alarm sang vocals. See video of that performance, below:
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