Wayne Kramer

Born: April 30, 1948;

Died: February 4, 2024

WAYNE KRAMER, who has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 75, was

the co-founder of the MC5, who for a time were described as the most radical countercultural rock band in America .

The MC5, who came from Michigan, were the only group to play at the Festival of Life, one of the many open-air protest events staged in Chicago in 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. Anti-Vietnam War sentiment had been reaching a crescendo across much of the country, and the convention saw repeated bloody clashes between police and protesters. The notorious “Battle of Chicago”, as it became known, was recreated a few years ago for The Trial of the Chicago 7, an Oscar-nominated court-room drama written and directed by Aaron Sorkin.

Norman Mailer, one of the journalists and authors present at the convention, was taken aback by the ferocity of the MC5’s music, observing – in his non-fiction book, Miami And The Siege Of Chicago – that “there was the sound of mountains crashing in this holocaust of the decibels”.

The MC5 later caught the ear of the influential record label, Elektra, who released the band’s debut album, a fiery live recording entitled Kick Out the Jams, in the spring of 1969. Some retailers, however, objected not just to a certain incendiary word that appeared in the lyrics but also to the liner notes written by the band’s manager, John Sinclair, a political activist who had launched the White Panthers party, a kind of sister movement to the Black Panthers.

When a leading retail chain refused to stock the album in Detroit, the band responded with a crude advertisement in an underground newspaper. The chain then stopped selling records by other Elektra acts, and so the label dropped the band for “inappropriate activity”.

The MC5 were then picked up by the Atlantic label, but for various reasons they did not live up to their early potential, and broke up in 1972. They remain influential, however, and are something of a cult favourite with many fans and musicians. More than a few of the New York punk bands of the 1970s were said to have been inspired by the MC5.

The band’s level of political engagement raised their profile but brought them to the attention of the authorities. Speaking to Uncut magazine in 2019, Kramer recalled: “The oppressive reaction we generated from the authorities threw a level of complexity to the MC5’s challenges that most bands didn’t have. I mean, most bands, their problem wasn’t the FBI tapping their phones, it was buying a new Marshall amp or something”.

Wayne Kramer was born and raised in Detroit and formed an early and lasting bond with a fellow musician, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith. Kramer, who had been impressed as an adolescent by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and later by The Who and the Rolling Stones, would speak of his admiration for the free jazz movement – Sun Ra and John Coltrane, amongst others. Free-jazz elements can be detected in the MC5’s sound.

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The band, which was originally called the Motor City 5 when formed in 1963, was distinguished by the twin guitar assault of Kramer and Smith. They were joined by singer Rob Tyner, Michael Davis on bass guitar and Dennis Thompson on drums.

They quickly established a formidable reputation as a live act, both as headliners at small concerts and as a support act. One such performance, when they supported The Dave Clark Five in front of 12,000 teenage fans at a Detroit venue in December 1965, changed Kramer’s life. “I was so high on just being there, it was like taking acid or something,” he told Uncut writer Jaan Uhelszki shortly before his death. “You could literally wave at one side of the sports arena and it would erupt in cheers. It was like being Mussolini. That experience powered our dreams”.

After encountering Sinclair, Uhelszki observes, the MC5 championed the communal anti-capitalist rhetoric and the idea of music as a revolutionary tool, but there was at least a part of them that still wanted to be pop stars.

The band broke up in 1972 after recording two studio albums, Back in the USA, and High Time. Kramer became drug-addicted and was arrested in 1975 for selling drugs to an undercover policeman. He spent two-and-a-half years in prison. There he befriended Red Rodney, a be-bop jazz trumpeter who had played with Charlie Parker in the Fifties. Rodney taught Kramer about improvisation and became a mentor to him.

Kramer returned to music after his release, playing with such acts as Was (Not Was). He worked, on and off, as a carpenter, and released solo albums that showcased his guitar skills. There were various MC5 reunions, too. Kramer made guest appearances as a musician, and in 2018 he wrote a candid autobiography, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities.

In interviews in his later years Kramer looked back on his career and his time with the MC5. He touched on occurrences that had radicalised the band, including what he described as “naked, aggressive power on the part of the police and of government agencies” during riots in Detroit in 1967.

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2018, he recalled the MC5 had been founding members of the White Panthers, to “express our frustration with the slow pace of change. We saw great injustices in the world around us. Being young and being extremely idealistic, we wanted to do something about it.” In another interview he said: “The band always represented an unlimited sense of possibilities and action. We were talking about kicking out the jams, not handing out the jams or thinking about the jams. We were talking about taking action.”