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Wayne Kramer, MC5 Co-Founder and Activist, Dead at 75

Wayne Kramer, founding member of the legendary Detroit proto-punk outfit MC5 and one of rock’s greatest guitarists, has died at the age of 75.

The singer-songwriter-political activist’s death was announced Friday via his official social media accounts; no cause of death was provided.

On Rolling Stone’s 250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list — with Kramer sharing placement alongside Fred “Sonic” Smith — we wrote, “Forged in Detroit during the 1960s, the MC5 guitar tandem of Kramer and Smith worked together like the pistons of a powerful engine. Combining Chuck Berry and early Motown influences with a budding interest in free jazz, the pair could kick their band’s legendarily high-energy jams deep into space while simultaneously keeping one foot in the groove.”

Formed in Detroit in the mid-Sixties, MC5 (shorthand for Motor City Five) first came to prominence as the house band for left-wing rallies in the city at the time. Following a performance outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Kramer and company returned to Detroit and its Grande Ballroom in October of that year to lay down what would become their landmark album Kick Out the Jams.

The live LP — with its rallying cry “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers” — would ultimately land on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. “Kick Out the Jams writhes and screams with the belief that rock & roll is a necessary act of civil disobedience. The proof: It was banned by a Michigan department store,” Rolling Stone wrote of the album. “The MC5 proved their lefty credentials the summer before the album was recorded when they were the only band that showed up to play for the Yippies protesting the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.”

While MC5’s tenure was short-lived — the band only released two studio albums, 1970’s Back in the USA and 1971’s High Time before their initial break-up — the group had a lasting impact on what would become punk rock, both in its overtly political lyrics and the Kramer/Smith tandem’s explosive riffs.

Following the demise of MC5, Kramer remained in Detroit, and while he remained musically active, he also found himself in trouble with the law: In 1975, he was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover police officer, resulting in a four-year prison sentence. Although he was released in 1979, the experience left an indelible mark on Kramer, who would later found the non-profit Jail Guitar Doors – named after the Clash song Kramer’s ordeal inspired; “Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine/A little more every day/Holding for a friend till the band do well/Then the DEA locked him away” – which provided musical instruments to those incarcerated as a means to rehabilitate “through the transformative power of music.”

Throughout the Eighties, Kramer bounced from city to city, working with artists wherever he landed, including stints with Was (Not Was) and Johnny Thunders. However, by the Nineties, the legions of punk acts that were indebted to Kramer and MC5 began showing their appreciation, with Kramer eventually signing with famed punk label Epitaph Records to begin his solo career in earnest.

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Kramer’s first LP on the label, The Hard Stuff, arrived in 1995, and featured guests like the Melvins’ Dale Crover, drummer Josh Freese, Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, and many more. Kramer also remained politically active over the ensuing decades, performing along Rage Against the Machine at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver (a guerrilla show that mirrored the MC5’s gig 40 years earlier) as well as playing shows in support of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

This story is developing

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