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Wayne Kramer’s 10 Best Songs

A look back at the guitarist's most notable work, from MC5 to Was (Not Was) to his '90s solo LPs
MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer (photo: Steve Appleford)

When MC5 burst out of Detroit and onto the national scene in 1969, they did it as only they could: with Kick Out the Jams, one of the most electrifying and dynamic rock albums of all time, recorded live at hometown venue the Grande Ballroom. A huge part of that sound was guitarist Wayne Kramer, who died yesterday (Feb. 2) at 75 after battling pancreatic cancer.

Although MC5’s lifespan was short-lived (they completed two more albums before breaking up in 1972) and Kramer spent four years in prison later in the decade, the band became a touchstone for the first generation of punk bands and beyond. Indeed, after the deaths of MC5 singer Rob Tyner in 1991 and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1994, Kramer continued carrying the torch for MC5’s loud, outrageous sound and revolutionary leftist politics with solo albums and frequent supergroups and all-star collaborations.

In 2018, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of Kick Out the Jams by touring with a band featuring members of Fugazi and Soundgarden, and in 2022 he announced he was recording a new MC5 album produced by Bob Ezrin, which has yet to see release. Here’s a look back at the best of Kramer’s deeply varied career, from the MC5 and beyond.

10. MC5 – “Ramblin’ Rose (live)” (1969)

“Ramblin’ Rose” (not to be confused with the Nat King Cole song of the same title) was first recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1962, after his hot streak on the charts had ended. Seven years later, MC5 opened their debut album with a cover of it, setting the tone for the band’s frequent nods to early rock’n’roll innovators (they’d also record versions of Little Richard and Chuck Berry tunes). “Ramblin’ Rose” was Kramer’s only lead vocal on Kick Out the Jams, and he’d continue singing the song in later projects. 

9. Was (Not Was) – “Wheel Me Out” 

After a 1975 drug bust, Kramer spent four years in federal prison. For much of the ‘80s, he worked as a carpenter and roofer, but continued touring and recording, including with the experimental Detroit funk group Was (Not Was). Kramer played on their 1980 debut single “Wheel Me Out,” which featured vocals by David Was’s mother Elizabeth Elkin Weiss. The track reached No. 34 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart, the band’s first taste of success years before the 1987 crossover hit “Walk the Dinosaur.” Kramer guested on Was (Not Was)’s 2008 reunion album Boo! and Don Was joined Kramer’s Kick Out the Jams anniversary tour in 2018. 

8. Alice Cooper – “$1000 High Heel Shoes” 

Detroit in the late ‘60s was an incredibly fertile breeding ground for hard rock of all varieties, launching the careers not only of MC5 but also Alice Cooper, the Stooges, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Suzi Quatro and Mitch Ryder. Half a century later, Cooper celebrated his hometown with the album Detroit Stories, covering, collaborating with and writing about Michigan’s rock greats. Kramer played guitar on most of the album, including a cover of MC5’s “Sister Anne,” co-wrote three tracks and played funky rhythm guitar on the Motown homage “$1000 High Heel Shoes.” 

7. MC5 – “The American Ruse” 

Five years before rock critic Jon Landau co-produced Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, he landed his first major production credit on MC5’s 1970 album Back in the USA. MC5’s two studio LPs were initially compared unfavorably to Kick Out the Jams for lacking the raw power of the band’s live recordings, but Back in the USA’s reputation improved over the years, landing on Rolling Stone and NME lists of the greatest albums of all time. “The American Ruse” is one of the band’s most focused political statements, which is perhaps why Kramer re-recorded it with Delicate Steve in 2018 and Brad Brooks in 2020. 

6. Rollins Band – “Hotter and Hotter” 

Kramer played guitar on two tracks on Rollins Band’s 2000 album Get Some Go Again and co-wrote “Hotter and Hotter.” His solo on the track perfectly encapsulates his unique approach to the guitar, as he transitions from discordant peals of noise to a more conventional Chuck Berry sound. 

5. MC5 – “Miss X” 

MC5’s third and final album, 1971’s High Time, contained a couple songs written solely by Kramer, including “Miss X.” This midtempo vamp is the closest MC5 ever came to sounding like a conventional R&B band, with rousing harmonies, Kramer on piano and Skip “Van Winkle” Knape on organ. 

4. Gang War – “Crime of the Century”

Like MC5, the New York Dolls heavily influenced the oncoming wave of punk rock, but disbanded before most of their disciples started their own bands. Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders moved to Detroit in 1979 and joined forces with Kramer, who’d recently gotten out of prison, in a band called Gang War. They didn’t last long, but Gang War’s demos and live recordings eventually saw release in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with “Crime of the Century” being the most significant song Thunders and Kramer wrote together. 

3. MC5 – “Starship” 

Kick Out the Jams closes with the eight-minute epic “Starship,” which was so heavily inspired by sci-fi jazz visionary Herman “Sun Ra” Blount that the band gave him a songwriting credit. The track helped influence the nascent genre of space rock, and was covered by Spacemen 3 in 1987. 

2. Wayne Kramer – “Crack in the Universe”

In 1995, Kramer signed with Epitaph Records, the California independent label which helped turn punk rock into a multiplatinum cottage industry. His second solo album The Hard Stuff marked the beginning of Kramer’s ascent to a punk elder statesman who frequently collaborated with younger artists, and members of the Melvins, Bad Religion, Circle Jerks and the Muffs guested on the project. Lead single “Crack in the Universe” is a narrative-heavy track about normal American lives torn apart by indiscriminate violence. 

1. MC5 – “Kick Out the Jams” 

Rob Tyner declared “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” at the beginning of MC5’s signature song, with the same phrase printed on the inside cover of the band’s debut album. That presented some issues for Elektra Records, who attempted to censor the song’s intro for radio play. After the Hudson’s retail chain refused to carry the album, the band took out print ads declaring “Fuck Hudson’s,” and MC5 was dropped from the label, although they were soon signed to Atlantic Records. Over the years, “Kick Out the Jams” hasn’t lost any of its explosive power, and has been covered by everyone Rage Against the Machine and Blue Oyster Cult to Afrika Bambaataa, Jeff Buckley and Bad Brains.