Wayne Kramer, MC5 Co-Founder and Activist, Dead at 75
The founding member of the legendary Detroit proto-punk band was one of rock’s greatest guitarists
BY DANIEL KREPS
FEBRUARY 2, 2024
Wayne Kramer, founding member of the legendary Detroit proto-punk outfit MC5 and one of rock’s greatest guitarists, has died at the age of 75.
The singer-songwriter-political activist’s death was announced Friday via his official social media accounts. Kramer died at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer, Jason Heath, an executive director of the artist’s nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors, told Billboard.
On Rolling Stone’s 250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list — with Kramer sharing placement alongside Fred “Sonic” Smith — we wrote, “Forged in Detroit during the 1960s, the MC5 guitar tandem of Kramer and Smith worked together like the pistons of a powerful engine. Combining Chuck Berry and early Motown influences with a budding interest in free jazz, the pair could kick their band’s legendarily high-energy jams deep into space while simultaneously keeping one foot in the groove.”
Formed in Detroit in the mid-Sixties, MC5 (shorthand for Motor City Five) first came to prominence as the house band for left-wing rallies in the city at the time. Following a performance outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Kramer and company returned to Detroit and its Grande Ballroom in October of that year to lay down what would become their landmark album Kick Out the Jams.
The live LP — with its rallying cry “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers” — would ultimately land on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. “Kick Out the Jams writhes and screams with the belief that rock & roll is a necessary act of civil disobedience. The proof: It was banned by a Michigan department store,” Rolling Stone wrote of the album. “The MC5 proved their lefty credentials the summer before the album was recorded when they were the only band that showed up to play for the Yippies protesting the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.”
While MC5’s tenure was short-lived — the band only released two studio albums, 1970’s Back in the USA and 1971’s High Time before their initial break-up — the group had a lasting impact on what would become punk rock, both in its overtly political lyrics and the Kramer/Smith tandem’s explosive riffs.
Following the demise of MC5, Kramer stayed in Detroit, and while he remained musically active, he also found himself in trouble with the law. In 1975, he was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover police officer, resulting in a four-year prison sentence. Although he was released in 1979, the experience left an indelible mark on Kramer, who would later found and become the executive director of the non-profit Jail Guitar Doors. Named after the Clash song Kramer’s ordeal inspired — “Let me tell you ’bout 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” — the charity provides musical instruments to those incarcerated as a means to rehabilitate “through the transformative power of music.”
“In the end, (prison) may have saved my life, because I was traveling in a very dangerous world in Detroit, at the peak of my drinking and drugging,” Kramer told Rolling Stone in 2014. “But I don’t think prison helped me. Prison time doesn’t help anyone, the way we approach punishment in America.”
Throughout the Eighties, Kramer bounced from city to city, working with artists wherever he landed, including stints with Was (Not Was) and Johnny Thunders. However, by the Nineties, the legions of punk acts that were indebted to Kramer and MC5 began showing their appreciation, with Kramer eventually signing with famed punk label Epitaph Records to begin his solo career in earnest.
Kramer’s first LP on the label, The Hard Stuff, arrived in 1995, and featured guests like the Melvins, drummer Josh Freese, Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, and many more. Kramer also remained politically active over the ensuing decades, performing along Rage Against the Machine at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver (a guerrilla show that mirrored the MC5’s gig 40 years earlier) as well as playing shows in support of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“Brother Wayne Kramer was the best man I’ve ever known,” Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello wrote on social media Friday. “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 and was the only act to not chicken out and performed for the rioting protestors at the 1968 Dem National Convention. I’m pretty sure every album I’ve ever worked on the rawest fastest track had the working title “MC5” (‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ for example). Wayne came through personal trials of fire with drugs and jail time (the Clash song ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ was written about Wayne) and emerged a transformed soul who went on to save countless lives through his tireless acts of service.” “My life back then wasn’t boring, and my life now isn’t either,” Kramer told Rolling Stone in 1998. “I’m motivated by the sheer terror of being an old person with no money and no health insurance, and finding myself homeless and sick. That’s what gets me out of bed and motivates me to go write new songs and get going. This is not all fun and games — this is serious.”
Last year, Kramer announced the upcoming release of Heavy Lifting, the first MC5 album since 1971’s High Time and featuring original drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson alongside Tom Morello, Don Was, Vernon Reid and Slash. “At the risk of sounding grandiose, fate has cast me as the curator of the MC5 legacy,” Kramer told Uncut last year. “And to be true to the legacy, I have to stay connected to the basic founding principles the MC5 represents: that we have a working-class approach to the art, and that we continue to try to push the music forward to reflect the world that we live in.”