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“It Was The Sound Of Liberation”: How Wayne Kramer Invented Punk Music
WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

“It Was The Sound Of Liberation”: How Wayne Kramer Invented Punk Music

Loud, politically-charged and ready to stick it to the man, Wayne Kramer and MC5 all but invented punk music in the late 60s.


When MC5 guitarist and co-founder Wayne Kramer passed away, aged 75, on 2 February 2024, the rock world was quick to pay tribute to one of modern music’s genuine trailblazers. Iconic figures ranging from Alice Cooper through to Slash from Guns N’ Roses weighed in with well-chosen words, while in an especially heartfelt testimonial, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello even said that Kramer and MC5 “basically invented punk rock music.”

On paper, that reads like one hell of a claim, but there’s plenty of evidence to support it. Famous for their radical politics, anti-establishment stance and their exhilarating, hard-driving rock’n’roll, MC5 were potent agents of change, whose music and attitude influenced the rise of punk in the 70s and inspired successive generations of independent, forward-thinking guitar bands – with Wayne Kramer arguably playing the most pivotal role in the band’s story.

Listen to the best MC5 songs here.

“The electric guitar was liberation – the sound of release and power”

Born Wayne Stanley Kambes, in Detroit, Michigan, on 30 April 1948, the future Wayne Kramer had a typically nomadic post-World War II upbringing. His parents divorced when he was young, and Kramer’s father, Stanley, effectively disappeared from his life. Raised by his mother and stepfather, the young Wayne sought solace in the seismic sounds of 50s rock’n’roll, with one pioneering figure in particular shaping the course of his future.

“Quite simply, Chuck Berry was the reason I played guitar,” Karmer enthused in the sleevenotes for Rhino’s The Big Bang! The Best Of The MC5. “When I heard that sound when I was nine years old, that was it. That was the sound of liberation, the sound of release and of power. And I mean the electric guitar. The sound of the amplifier was a huge part of it for me. That visceral sprit formed me and got me into bands.”

While in his early teens, Wayne found a fellow disciple in childhood neighbour and friend Fred Smith. Obsessed with their instruments, the two young guitarists played with a variety of local acts and sought out the hardest and most dynamic rock’n’roll records they could find (they took their cues from The Rolling Stones as well as Chuck Berry) before forming their own band, christened MC5. Short for “Motor City 5”, the name reflected urban Detroit’s primary industry – the manufacture of automobiles.

“We liked the name. MC5 sounded like a car part,” Kramer wrote in his memoir, The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, The MC5 And My Life Of Impossibilities. “Give me one of those four-barrel carbs, a 4-56 rear end, four shock absorbers, and an MC5.”

By 1965, MC5’s classic line-up had solidified, with Kramer and Smith joined by bassist Michael Davis, drummer Dennis Tomich and vocalist Bobby Derminer. The latter was responsible for doling out more fitting stage names to his bandmates. Having rechristened himself Rob Tyner (after John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner), the afro-sporting singer invented Fred “Sonic” Smith for Smith, Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson for Tomich and suggested Wayne adopt the surname “Kramer” instead of Kambes. Wayne did so, legally changing his name in 1965.

“Our fans were the blue-collar shop rats and factory kids”

During these early years, MC5 gigged constantly in and around the US Midwest. In the same way that punk later connected with the disenfranchised, the group established a solid fanbase among North America’s working-class communities.

“In Detroit, we ruled,” Kramer later asserted. “Our fans were the blue-collar shop rats and factory kids, and they connected with the energy and release in the MC5’s live shows. But our band was generally despised outside of the industrial Midwest power-base cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Cincinnati – and the hundreds of small towns across Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.”

Prior to signing with Elektra, MC5 released a couple of singles – the first a crunching cover of Them’s I Can Only Give You Everything, issued on AMG Records in 1967, with the follow-up pairing two self-penned songs, Borderline and Looking At You, for the small A-Squared imprint. However, while the records sold well locally, MC5’s attitude didn’t go down well with the era’s studio personnel – with Kramer in particular butting heads with the technicians attempting to tame the group’s sound for record.

“I wanted my guitar to sound distorted”

In The Big Bang sleevenotes, Kramer wrote, “I’d start working on my guitar tone and the engineer would say, ‘Turn that down, it’s distorted!’ I said, ‘That’s what I want!’, that the Motown sound is not what I do. I wasn’t looking for a tight sound, I have my own ideas. So we had an adversarial relationship with the recording process from the beginning.”

In another future portent of punk music, MC5’s radical socio-political stance also concerned the powers that be. Until he was controversially jailed for the possession of a minimal amount of marijuana in 1969, poet, visionary free-thinker and activist John Sinclair managed the band, whose collective world view was influenced by the Marxism of the Black Panther Party and Beat Generation poets such as Allen Ginsberg. Black Panther founder Huey P Newton inspired Sinclair to found the White Panther Party, whose ideas seemed radical to the era’s establishment, but now chime with modern-day beliefs surrounding ecology and human rights.

“The White Panther Party was an anti-racist, cultural revolutionary group,” Kramer wrote in The Hard Stuff. “It was a logical extension of our reefer-fuelled political ideas and it was done in the spirit of agitprop theatre. John [Sinclair] wrote up a ‘Ten-Point Programme’ to fight for a cleaner planet and for the freeing of all political prisoners.”

“The live show was the central experience of the MC5”

Fortunately, Elektra Records weren’t put off by MC5’s revolutionary spirit. After John Sinclair told the label’s director of publicity (and future Ramones co-manager) Danny Fields about the band on a US radio show, an intrigued Fields went to see MC5 play in Detroit and was impressed enough to sign the band to Elektra in the late summer of 1968. With thoughts turning to the group’s debut album, the two parties bucked industry trends by deciding that their first record, Kick Out The Jams, should be a recording of one of their concerts.

“The live show was the central experience [of the MC5],” Kramer explained in The Big Bang sleevenotes. “That was who we were. We wanted to present that on record.”

Featuring several of the best MC5 songs, including Come Together, the Kramer-sung Ramblin’ Rose and the ferocious title track, the charged, raucous and aggressive Kick Out The Jams was taped at one of the band’s many rapturously received gigs at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, on 31 October 1968. Now widely regarded as a landmark proto-punk record, the album captured MC5’s garage-rock blitz in all its glory, and it even cracked the Top 30 of the US Billboard 200, staying on the chart for an impressive 23-week run.

However, because of the title song’s infamously controversial opening exclamation – “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” – influential Detroit chain store JL Hudson’s banned the record and went on to remove all Elektra product from its shelves. In a series of events that seemed to presage the scenario which unfolded when EMI sacked Sex Pistols following their notorious Bill Grundy incident just seven years later, Elektra then decided to drop the MC5 – only for the band to immediately find a new home with Atlantic Records.

Though still featuring songs with socio-political content such as The American Ruse and the anti-war Human Being Lawnmower, MC5’s Atlantic debut, 1970’s Back In The USA, largely dialled back the polemics and concentrated on sharp, smart garage-pop anthems such as Tonight, Teenage Lust and High School. Overseen by producer and future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau, the record had the mainstream in its sights, yet it only hit the outer reaches of the Billboard 200.

“We could combine our raw energy with studio chops”

Disappointed by this result, MC5 self-produced their third and final studio album, 1971’s High Time, with help from engineer Geoffrey Haslam. At least in the creative sense, the band were still hitting new peaks, as Kramer asserted in The Hard Stuff.

“We had enough excellent new material, and good ideas for how to go about recording it,” he wrote. “We finally had enough experience to know how to be creative in the recording studio. We could now combine the raw energy of Kick Out The Jams with the studio chops of Back In The USA, and have it sound like the MC5 on record.”

High Time undoubtedly contained some of MC5’s most imperious music. Sister Anne, Over And Over and Kramer’s Miss X all rank among the band’s finest work, while the brilliant, brass-enhanced Skunk (Sonicly Speaking) adroitly married high-octane proto-punk with the free jazz music both Kramer and Fred Smith admired so much.

“We loved Sun Ra and Archie Shepp,” Kramer noted in The Big Bang’s booklet. “We didn’t see any other rock bands trying to work them in. Skunk pointed to the future of what the MC5 would look like. The problem was the MC5 was a band that didn’t have a future.”

Despite High Time’s quality and a burgeoning European following which took the band across the Atlantic for half a dozen tours, MC5 were consumed by a combination of personal issues and drug-related problems. They split after an ignominious final performance at their old stomping ground, Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, at the end of 1972, but by then Kramer – who was now gripped by a sizeable heroin habit – had other priorities.

The next few years were the worst of the guitarist’s life. Though he somehow kept performing with different musicians on Detroit’s club circuit, most of Kramer’s energies went into feeding his habit, which he maintained through drug-dealing and petty larceny until – after one deal too many – he ended up in prison in Lexington, Kentucky, where he did a three-year stretch starting in 1975.

The return of Citizen Wayne

Kramer had hit rock bottom, but he survived prison, remaining clean most of the time and reconnecting with his love of the guitar through playing music with another famous musical inmate, the jazz trumpeter and Charlie Parker acolyte Red Rodney. Upon his release from jail, Kramer moved to New York City and restarted his career, touring with post-punk pop act Was (Not Was) and playing on the group’s first two albums, and forming the ill-fated Gang War with fellow heroin user Johnny Thunders. Keen to quit drugs for good, Kramer temporarily eschewed music, working as a carpenter in Manhattan before moving to the Florida Keys in the late 80s, where he continued woodworking and also built custom homes.

During the guitarist’s wilderness years, however, MC5’s music was repeatedly cited as an influence by younger generations of musicians. The process had started with the UK punk firebrands (“In England, they really liked Back In The USA – you can hear what The Clash, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe got out of it,” Kramer noted in The Big Bang booklet) and it eventually led to Kramer’s stock rising in the US – so much so that Epitaph Records (home to Bad Religion, Rancid and The Offspring) offered him a solo deal. Relocating to Los Angeles, Kramer released three well-received albums for Epitaph, The Hard Stuff, Dangerous Madness and Citizen Wayne, and toured extensively during the mid-to-late 90s.

Though Kramer successfully quit heroin years earlier, he still drank heavily and took prescription drugs during the 90s, but he decisively turned a corner when he embraced sobriety for good in 1999. Describing his entry into rehab as “the first day of the rest of my life”, Kramer also understood that he had the challenge of “duel goals: attaining sobriety and maintaining freedom from my addictions”.

Succeeding in this quest for the remaining quarter century of his life, Kramer went on to enjoy distinctions in a variety of fields. He embarked upon a highly successful career scoring music for TV and film, with commissions ranging from HBO’s comedy series Eastbound & Down to Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby. For the ITVS/PBS documentary The Narcotics Farm, Kramer provided narration in addition to a separate soundtrack album, Lexington.

Elsewhere, Kramer’s philanthropic work has also been widely celebrated – not least his co-founding of the non-profit organisation Jail Guitar Doors with his wife, Margaret Saadi Kramer, and singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Since it was first founded in 2009, Jail Guitar Doors – named after The Clash’s song about Kramer’s travails in prison – has provided guitars and music lessons for inmates at more than 50 penal institutions throughout the United States.

“It’s still my goal to overload the guitar”

Ultimately, though, it’s MC5’s incendiary proto-punk music that ensures Wayne Kramer’s legacy will live on. Indeed, thanks to the guitarist’s active participation in keeping the band’s name alive over the past 25 years, the revolutionary Detroit act’s profile has never been higher.

MC5 initially returned to the public eye for a one-off show filmed for Channel 4 at London’s 100 Club, after which Kramer arranged for himself and the original band’s then surviving members, Michael Davis and Dennis Thompson, to undertake a world tour as DKT/MC5. During this widely acclaimed 2005 trek, the group played songs from MC5’s catalogue with help from guest vocalists and musicians such as Seattle grunge stars Mark Arm (Mudhoney), Evan Dando (The Lemonheads) and Lisa Kekaula (The BellRays). A deserved victory lap, the tour underscored how MC5’s music had all but invented punk music before going on to inspire successive generations of garage-pop and alternative-rock acts.

Following this triumph, Kramer kept both MC5 and his hometown on the map, playing on and co-writing songs for Alice Cooper’s well-received Detroit Stories, in 2021. Tragically, however, he won’t be around to see the release of Heavy Lifting – an all-new MC5 album, produced by Bob Ezrin, which was being readied for release at the time of Kramer’s death. Yet, as he confirmed in advance PR for the album – which includes contributions from the likes of Slash, Tom Morello and Alice In Chains’ William Duvall – it was the visceral spirit of the electric guitar which got Wayne Kramer’s juices flowing right to the end.

“I wanted to kind of pick up where we left off with High Time,” Kramer told Mojo in December 2023. “I put everybody to work. The record is a guitar extravaganza – everyone, and yours truly, all bashin’ away on electric guitars. That’s still my goal – to overload the guitar.”

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