MC5 founder, guitarist and driving force Wayne Kramer dead at 75

Wayne Kramer in 1970 - studio headshot
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images)

Wayne Kramer, the livewire guitarist and driving force behind Detroit legends The MC5, has died at the age of 75. The news was confirmed in a short post on Kramer's Facebook page that simply read, "Wayne Kramer passed away today peacefully from pancreatic cancer. He will be remembered for starting a revolution in music, culture, and kindness."

Kramer founded The MC5 – short for "Motor City Five", a tribute to their Detroit roots – in 1963. The band quickly became noted for their wild performances, in which garage rock and blues rock were blended with psychedelia, free jazz and left-wing politics to create a live experience that was as politically charged as it was musically adventurous.

The band recorded just three albums. 1969's live album Kick Out The Jams, with its iconic "Kicks out the jams, motherfuckers!" introduction was followed by Born In The USA in 1970 and 1971's explosive High Time, each imbued with the kind of revolutionary fervour that ensured the band's influence on the generations of musicians who followed far exceeded their commercial success. 

Kramer's influence extended beyond the stage as he became deeply involved in political and social causes. He advocated for civil rights, racial equality, and an end to the Vietnam War. His activism frequently landed him in trouble with the authorities, and in 1975 he was sentenced to four years in prison after selling drugs to an undercover federal agent. 

After his release, Kramer enjoyed a brief stint with Was Not Was before moving to New York and forming the short-lived Gang War with Johnny Thunders, but he spent much of the eighties working as a carpenter in the city, before kicking off a solo career in the 90s, signing to punk label Epitaph for a series of well-received albums that retained the fiery spirit of his old band. 

The new century saw Kramer revive the MC5 name. A 2004 show at the 100 Club in London saw him onstage with original band members bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis "Machine Gun" Thompson for a show that featured guest spots from The Damned's Dave Vanian, The Cult's Ian Astbury and Motörhead's Lemmy, before a series of shows the following year as DKT/MC5 fronted by Mudhoney's Mark Arm, Lisa Kekaula of LA punks the Bellrays, and The Lemonheads' Evan Dando. 

In 2018 Kramer went on the road under the MC50 banner, with a lineup that included Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden, Brendan Canty of Fugazi, Faith No More bassist Billy Gould and Don Was. And in 2022 Kramer announced that a fourth MC5 album, Heavy Lifting, was on on the way, produced by Bob Ezrin and fronted by Bay Area singer Brad Brooks.

"We’ve just barely survived four catastrophic years of a failed presidency and a devastating pandemic." said Kramer. "Brad and I started writing new music with the express purpose of pushing back against the cruelty of it all. It had become so polarised and depressing that bringing in other writers was like a hope injection. 

"Nonstop touring, especially the last decade, I’ve come to understand that the music of the MC5 is as necessary as ever. It’s definitely high time to write and record new songs and to carry a message of uncompromising hard rock to fans around the world."

The album was scheduled for release in October 2022 and never materialised, but in late 2023 Kramer revealed it was scheduled for release this spring, with guest musicians including Slash, Tom Morello, Living Colour's Vernon Reid, Alice In Chains frontman William DuVall and more.

Beyond his musical endeavours, Kramer dedicated himself to advocating for prison reform and rehabilitation programs, and in 2009 he partnered with Billy Bragg to co-found Jail Guitar Doors USA, an organisation that provides musical instruments and education to incarcerated individuals as a means of rehabilitation.

"We took a stand against the war," Kramer said in 2015, as The MC5 were given the keys to Lincoln Park in Detroit. "Because we met a lot of intelligent people that said the same thing: what the hell are we doing here? It was insane. So we got chased by the police, the FBI, state police, county police, distress unit. 

"But today I can say 50 years later much progress has been made. What Kick Out The Jams meant was do your best, find out what you love in life and do it with all that you have… Don’t settle for less, don’t give up, fight."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.