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Wayne Kramer, Co-Founder of Revolutionary Detroit Rock Band the MC5, Dies at 75

Wayne Kramer, Co-Founder of Revolutionary Detroit Rock Band the MC5, Dies at 75

Wayne Kramer, the co-founder of the protopunk Detroit band the MC5 that thrashed out such hardcore anthems as “Kick Out the Jams” and influenced everyone from The Clash to Rage Against the Machine, has died at age 75.

Kramer died Friday (Feb. 2) at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, according to Jason Heath, a close friend and executive director of Kramer’s nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors. Heath said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

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From the late 1960s to early 1970s, no band was closer to the revolutionary spirit of the time than the MC5, which featured Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith on guitars, Rob Tyner on vocals, Michael Davis on bass and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson on drums. Managed for a time by White Panther co-founder John Sinclair, they were known for their raw, uncompromising music, which they envisioned as the soundtrack for the uprising to come.

“Brother Wayne Kramer was the best man I’ve ever known,” Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello wrote via Instagram on Friday. “He possessed a one of a kind mixture of deep wisdom & profound compassion, beautiful empathy and tenacious conviction. His band the MC5 basically invented punk rock music.”

The band had little commercial success and its core lineup did not last beyond the early 1970s, but its legacy endured, both for its sound and for its fusing of music to political action. Kramer, who had a long history of legal battles and substance abuse, would tell his story in the 2018 memoir The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities.

Thompson is now the band’s only surviving member.

Kramer and Smith had known each other since their teens and played with various other musicians around Detroit before the core lineup was in place, in the mid-1960s. At Tyner’s suggestions, they called themselves the MC5, short for Motor City Five, and emulated The Rolling Stones, the Who, and other hard rock bands of the era.

By 1968, they had built a substantial local following and were influenced by Marxism, the White Panthers, the Beats and other social-political movements. The MC5 was more radical politically than most of its peers, and otherwise louder and more daring. They were virtually the only band to perform during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, in Chicago, where police were beating up anti-war protesters.

“Kick Out the Jams” was their most famous song, peaking at No. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100 and marking their only appearance on the chart, and opened with an unprintable call to arms: “Kick out the jams mother—-er!” A live album of the same name peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard 200 in 1969, their highest-charting release. They also released the studio albums Back in the USA and High Time before breaking up at the end of 1972.

Kramer would lead various incarnations of the MC5 over the following decades, and perform with Was (Not Was) among other groups. But for a time he sank into the life of what he called “a small-time Detroit criminal.” He was arrested on drug charges in 1975 and sentenced to four years in prison. Jail Guitar Doors is named for a Clash song that refers to his struggles: “Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine.”

Survivors include his wife, Margaret Saadi, and son, Francis.

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