Obituaries: Wayne Kramer, ​co-founder of garage rock revolutionaries the MC5

​Wayne Kramer, musician. Born: 30 April, 1948 in Detroit, Michigan. Died: 2 February, 2024 in Los Angeles, California, aged 75.

Hailed as “Brother Wayne Kramer” by Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and “the best man I’ve ever known” by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, Wayne Kramer was one half of the lethal guitar-wielding pincer attack of garage rock firebrands the MC5, beside his childhood friend Fred “Sonic” Smith.

The Detroit band were cultural as well as musical titans. Along with fellow Motor City maniacs The Stooges, they blazed a trail for the punk movement to follow, and influenced a subsequent generation of grunge bands in the late Eighties and early Nineties. However Kramer, who has died aged 75 of pancreatic cancer, was a lover of free jazz as much as rock’n’roll, ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

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The MC5 formed in the mid-Sixties as the Motor City 5, sounding more like a criminal gang than a rock group. Fuelled by the Detroit riots in the summer of 1967 and sharpened by a weekly residency at the city’s Grande Ballroom, they detonated their debut album Kick Out the Jams in 1969. This live snapshot of a riotous Grande gig sealed their reputation as anti-establishment disruptors with the rallying cry “kick out the jams, mother*ckers”, a testifying two-fingers which ultimately trammelled their ability to tour and sell records.

Wayne Kramer was hailed as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone (Picture: Donna Ward/Getty Images)Wayne Kramer was hailed as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone (Picture: Donna Ward/Getty Images)
Wayne Kramer was hailed as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone (Picture: Donna Ward/Getty Images)

Kramer would later play down their radical credentials but their actions spoke almost as loudly as their music. The band were managed by John Sinclair, the founder of the White Panther party, and were the only artists to perform for the anti-Vietnam War protesters outside the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Their appearance was later described by Norman Mailer as “the roar of the beast in all nihilism” and the band featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in January 1969.

The MC5 burned brightly but briefly, getting themselves expelled from the White Panthers when they bought sports cars with a record company advance. “We were goofing on everything,” recalled Kramer. They were later managed by Radio Caroline founder Ronan O’Rahilly but their two studio albums, 1970’s Back in the USA and 1971’s High Time, failed to equal the success of their incendiary debut and the band split in some disarray.

Kramer fell into drug addiction and petty criminality. He was convicted for selling drugs to undercover federal agents and spent four years in federal prison, later telling Rolling Stone that prison “may have saved me…but I don’t think prison helped me”. While inside, he formed a musical alliance with jazz trumpeter Red Rodney and came to believe that “the guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell”.

In 2009, he founded the US wing of Billy Bragg’s charity Jail Guitar Doors, a rehabilitation initiative providing guitars and music tuition in more than 100 prisons across the country. His involvement was particularly germane; Bragg had named the charity after a Clash song which references Kramer and his misadventures in the opening line “let me tell you 'bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine”.

Kramer was born Wayne Stanley Kambes to war veteran Stanley and beautician Mable. When his parents divorced, he was raised by his mother and an abusive stepfather. Later, he adopted the surname Kramer to disassociate from his childhood. Music was also an escape and he went on to form the MC5 with fellow guitarist and Chuck Berry enthusiast Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, drummer Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson and frontman Rob Tyner, performing a mix of covers and originals.

They quickly made their mark with the rabble-rousing Kick Out the Jams, released on Elektra Records in February 1969. The album peaked at No.30 on the Billboard charts before the expletive hit the fan. A spat with Detroit department store Hudson’s escalated, with the store dropping all Elektra releases from sale. Elektra responded by dropping the MC5. They moved to Atlantic Records for two more albums, now established in the rock canon, but which sold poorly at the time,

Following the band’s demise, Kramer struggled to get a foothold. On his release from prison, he worked with a variety of bands including an early line-up of Was (Not Was). His Gang War collaboration with ex-New York Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders fractured before they had managed to record anything. From his New York base, he produced local bands and worked as a session guitarist but supplemented his income by working as a carpenter, continuing his dual career when he relocated to Key West, Florida in the late Eighties and Nashville in 1990.

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Kramer described the death of Tyner in 1991 as a wake-up call. He reunited with the surviving members of the MC5 to raise funds for Tyner’s family and his next stop was Los Angeles, where he pursued a solo career, releasing four albums, including the autobiographical Citizen Wayne.

By the early Noughties, Kramer had cleaned up and formed his own label, MuscleTone with his wife Margaret Saadi. The time was ripe for an MC5 revival. Smith had passed away in 1994 so Kramer toured with guests including Lemmy, The Cult’s Ian Astbury and Damned frontman Dave Vanian. He made his own guest appearances live and on record with the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Alice Cooper and embarked on a parallel career as a composer for film and television, including scores for the Will Ferrell films Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, while continuing his charity and advocacy work.

In 2018, he helmed the MC50 tour, marking the 50th anniversary of Kick Out The Jams, with members of Soundgarden, Faith No More and Fugazi in the line-up. At the time of his death, he had recorded a new MC5 album, Heavy Lifting, with Thompson – now the only surviving member of the MC5 – Tom Morello, Don Was, Slash and famed rock producer Bob Ezrin, declaring “we'll take it to the streets ’cause I feel like we are all MC5”.


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