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Wayne Kramer Dies: MC5 Co-Founder Was 75

Wayne Kramer, the cofounder and guitarist-vocalist of the iconic Detroit punk band MC5, has died at age 75. The news was shared on Kramer and MC5’s official social media pages today, but a cause of death was not disclosed.

Born Wayne Kambes on April 30, 1948, the guitarist formed the MC5 (for Motor City 5) as a teenager with his friend, Fred “Sonic” Smith. They played locally, eventually becoming the house band at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit.

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John Sinclair, a left-wing activist, became the band’s manager, and they soon were a staple of the late-’60s political movements, aligning with the White Panther Party, the anti-racist group that Sinclair cofounded.

The group’s sound was hard to define, but it was defiant, and was widely credited with sparking what was to come in punk. The group performed at the protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention and at other rallies before signing with Elektra and recording their 1969 debut album, the classic Kick Out the Jams, live at the Grande Ballroom. Featuring the raucous title single, the album was a gateway to the coming tidal wave of punk, opening with an expletive battle cry.

MC5 toured with Cream and the Janis Joplin-fronted Big Brother and the Holding Company, and they served as mentors to fellow Detroit rock expressionists Iggy and the Stooges, who signed to Elektra on Kramer’s recommendation.

Wayne Kramer in 2019 and top right with the MC5 circa 1970
Wayne Kramer in 2019 and top right with the MC5 circa 1970

After a public dispute with Detroit department store Hudson’s, which refused to stock the record, Elektra dropped the MC5, even though its album charted, and they signed with Atlantic. They released two more albums,1970’s Back in the USA and 1971’s High Time. They ended things with a farewell Grande Ballroom show on December 31, 1972.

Kramer tried to start a new MC5 lineup, with himself as lead singer. But in 1975, he was arrested for selling drugs to undercover police and he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Upon his 1979 release, Kramer joined Was (Not Was) and briefly started a band called Gang War with Johnny Thunders.

In 1994, Kramer signed with Epitaph as a solo artist. He made his solo debut in 1995 with The Hard Stuff, and released three more solo albums on Epitaph in the ’90s. He also guested on Bad Religion’s 1994 album Stranger Than Fiction.

Eventually, Kramer reunited the surviving members of the MC5 and toured with acts including Rage Against the Machine.

In 2018, Kramer published his memoir, The Hard Stuff. At the time of his death, he was planning a world tour for the latest incarnation of the MC5 and had recorded new music to accompany it. The album, Heavy Lifting, features Slash, Tom Morello, Vernon Reid, William DuVall and original MC5 drummer — and lone surviving original — Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson on two tracks.

Kramer’s survivors include his wife, Margaret, and a son. No memorial details were immediately available.

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