MC5’s Wayne Kramer dies at 75
The Kick Out The Jams guitarist and proto-punk pioneer has passed away, leaving a huge legacy.
Image: Chris McKay/Getty Images
Wayne Kramer, the pioneering guitarist and founder of Detroit proto-punks MC5 has died at the age of 75. Kramer’s death was announced via a brief announcement on the artist’s Instagram page that simply said, “Wayne S. Kramer ‘PEACE BE WITH YOU’ 🕊️ April 30, 1948 – February 2, 2024”. No cause of death has yet been reported.
Kramer was born Wayne Kambes in Detroit, Michigan, who formed the band that would become MC5 with his high school, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. The MC5’s powerful garage-rock sound would pave the way for what would become the punk movement, and from the off the band were heavily involved with Detroit’s radical left-wing scene.
The band’s incendiary and high-energy live shows became stuff of legend, with Kramer’s gregarious and commanding stage presence its fulcrum. The band released three major label albums, 1969’s Kick Out The Jams, 1971’s Back in the USA and 1972’s High Time, with the former spawning their most iconic and frequently covered blast – Kick Out The Jams.
The band’s militant left-wing political stance would made them heroes to the nascent punk scene that followed a few years later, but it made the band a frequent target for the authorities during the unrest that surrounded the Vietnam War. Radio stations regularly refused to play the band’s music and retailers refused to stock them.
Meanwhile, the band slowly descended into various forms of substance abuse and addiction and this, coupled with the grind of being in a band so politically divisive, and declining sales as the band became more musically experimental, all led them to split up at the end of 1972. Kramer by this point was addicted to heroin and through a combination of drugs and despair at the situation, walked off stage a few songs into the band’s final gig at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom.
After MC5 disbanded, Kramer ended up back in Detroit and soon became, in his own words, a “small-time Detroit criminal”, while also continuing to play in bands locally. In 1975 he was sent to Federal prison for four years for attempting to sell drugs to an undercover police officer.
He emerged from prison sober and began touring as a solo artist and joining various groups and trios through the 80s, before finally reuniting MC5 for a one-off gig in 1992. The surviving members would reunite again in 2002 and would begin touring on and off for the next few decades.
Kramer is most famous for his ‘Stars & Stripes’ Stratocaster – a Strat that had a humbucker in the middle position and was painted in the colours of the American flag. In 2022 Kramer told Guitar.com about the origins of his iconic instrument:
“I decided to have my guitar painted with that motif, the idea behind that was, it’s my flag too. It’s not just the right-wing flag. In my coming-of-age years, that was the Vietnam War period. The Hawks tried to co-opt the symbol of the flag. And I said, ‘Hey, not so fast. This is my flag, too. And I disagree with this war. I don’t support this war and it’s my patriotic duty to say, I don’t agree with what the government is doing.’
“Democracy requires participation. So I’ve just continued with using that symbol to represent the fact that we live in a pluralistic culture with differing views and differing ideas. It’s messy sometimes, but it’s the symbol of the American experiment, which I support. I don’t think it’s the greatest system in the world. But it beats the pants off of whatever is second.”
The original guitar has since been lost but in 2011 Fender created a signature model version that Kramer continued to use live until his death.
Following his time in prison, Kramer would also become a strong advocate for substance abuse recovery, and also a key figure in bringing Billy Bragg’s Jail Guitar Doors initiative to America (fitting given that Kramer is name-checked in the Clash song that gave the programme its name). Since 2009 Kramer worked tirelessly to provide guitars, tuition and concerts to prison inmates across the USA.
Prior to his death, Kramer had announced that the band was working on the first new MC5 album since 1991, with release slated for spring of 2024 – it’s unknown whether the band had completed the record prior to Kramer’s passing.