Wayne Kramer, the co-founder, lead guitarist, and vocalist of the legendary Detroit proto-punk band MC5, has died. The news was confirmed on Kramer and the band’s social media pages. “Wayne Kramer passed away today peacefully from pancreatic cancer,” a follow-up message read. He will be remembered for starting a revolution in music, culture, and kindness.” Kramer was 75.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Kramer founded MC5 in nearby Lincoln Park with fellow guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and singer Rob Tyner. In 1967, the band – whose name is short for Motor City 5 – became the house band at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, and they were managed by John Sinclair, a poet, left-wing activist, and co-founder of the White Panther Party. Along with progressive politics, Sinclair introduced the then 20-year-old Kramer to the world of free jazz, an influence they incorporated into the band’s increasingly heavier sound. They protested against the Vietnam war by playing outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
MC5 signed to Elektra, and their debut album, Kick Out the Jams, was recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and released in 1969. The band put out two more major label albums, 1971’s Back in the USA and 1972’s High Time, for Atlantic Records, before playing a farewell show at the Grande Ballroom on December 31, 1972.
In 1975, Kramer was convicted of, among other charges, selling drugs to undercover officials, and was sentenced to four years in prison. While incarcerated at FMC Lexington, he befriended Red Rooney, a jazz trumpeter who had played with Charlie Parker. Upon his release, he briefly teamed up with Johnny Thunders in the band Gang War and joined Was (Not Was).
In 1994, Kramer signed with Epitaph, releasing his solo debut, The Hard Stuff, the following year. He published a memoir of the same name in 2018. He put out two more solo albums in the ’90s, Dangerous Madness and Citizen Wayne, and in 2001, formed a supergroup to perform MC5 music that featured the likes of the Cult’s Ian Astbury and Motorhead’s Lemmy. In 2009, Kramer, his wife Margaret Saadi Kramer, and Billy Bragg launched Jail Guitar Doors, providing instruments, workshops, and prison concerts across America. A new MC5 release was scheduled for spring 2024.
Among those paying tribute to Kramer following his death was former collaborator and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who wrote on Instagram: “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.”