The Song Remains: Wayne Kramer (1948-2024)

Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg

An influential guitarist with rare integrity who made a tangible difference.

Activist, film music composer, guitarist, proto-punk and MC5 founder Wayne Kramer died on the 2nd February 2024 from pancreatic cancer. At first glance, not many people would classify Wayne Kramer as an americana artist, and while this is certainly true from an airplay point of view, his influence on the attitude, politics and the soundscape of music in general is incalculable. With his band the MC5 he was one of the godfathers of punk who brought an avant-garde free jazz influence to the electric guitar at a time when blues rock was king and an activist approach to radical politics. The Clash, Billy Bragg, and Joe Henry were all influenced by Wayne Kramer and if you consider the roots of americana in cowpunk and the Paisley Underground that sprang up in the melting pot of Southern California in the early ‘80s you will see that bands like the Long Ryders, Green On Red, The Blasters, Rank and File, Jason and the Scorchers, The Dream Syndicate owe a massive debt to Wayne Kramer.

Wayne Kramer was born on 30th April 1948, in Detroit Michigan, and was only a teenager when he formed the MC5 in 1963 which eventually gained its classic line-up of fellow Detroit musicians Fred “Sonic” Smith, Michael Davis, Rob Tyner, and Dennis Thompson. While the band were influenced by first-generation rock and rollers and R&B music, their awareness of free jazz helped differentiate their sound, particularly the guitar sound of Kramer and Smith. Also, the radical politics of Detroit brought a different perspective and more challenging view of political activism than their more peaceful contemporaries on the West Coast. The fact White Panther founder, poet and activist  John Sinclair was their manager from 1966 until his imprisonment in 1969 for possession of marijuana only increased the radical content of the band’s lyrics and views.

Their debut album ‘Kick Out The Jams’ which was a live recording, was released in February 1969, and while it received a mixed press when it was released it is now regarded as a truly classic album. There are various explanations of the original meaning of the phrase ‘Kick Out The Jams’ but it has become a totem for radical thought and music. The MC5 released a further two albums before disbanding in 1972 due to pressures from their record label, the government agencies of the day who managed to restrict their ability to play live, lack of radio coverage,  and the band’s increasing drug problems. In 1975 Wayne Kramer was sentenced to four years in prison for drug offences, though he cited this as being positive as it allowed him to refocus his life. When he was released from prison he mixed work in the music business with stints as a carpenter before starting his solo career in 1994. He continued to be an activist supporting various causes with his work with the charity Jail Guitar Doors, which he founded with Billy Bragg and his wife and manager Margaret Saadi Kramer, being particularly successful in its aim of bringing instruments, workshops, and concerts to prisons. The charity was named after the Clash song, ‘Jail Guitar Doors’, which was about Kramer’s conviction for selling cocaine in 1975.

History has shown that the MC5 were one of the most influential acts of the ‘60s and while they didn’t achieve any great commercial success they did help lay the foundations for the punk movement of the late ‘70s. Their influence wasn’t just on the soundscape of music but also they brought a sense of radical politics and activism that was very different to the hippy ethos that had flowered on the West Coast. A key characteristic of good americana is that it is honest music, and Wayne Kramer and MC5 probably created some of the most honest music ever, and that influence is still felt today. It seems appropriate to leave the last word to Billy Bragg, “Wayne Kramer was a revolutionary artist who walked it like he talked it”.

About Martin Johnson 408 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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