The surviving band members of the MC5 are flattered that their hometown will celebrate the high-energy group’s legacy in July, a story that began 50 years ago.
“I’m honored that the city is taking time to recognize the band,” says drummer and Lincoln Park High alumnus Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson. “The power of the music is what’s going to last.”
That said, there is a certain irony here. This is the MC5 after all, whose anthem — “Kick Out the Jams” — is but half a phrase, punctuated with a pronoun that you still can’t say on radio.
The older generation at the time (aka “the establishment”) wasn’t always grooving to the MC5.
“They wanted to run us out of town, and now they’re giving me the key to the city,” Thompson says with a laugh. “The passage of time shows we made progress.”
Detroit-born guitarist Wayne Kramer spent his teen years in Lincoln Park, forming a band with buddies who made the rounds of sock hops and local bars before basking in the national spotlight.
“To say that one day this town would acknowledge the band would have been a stretch,” Kramer says. “I’m proud of the [MC5’s] work. … The recognition says a lot about our maturing as a culture.”
‘Vanguards of the Revolution’
After early cast changes that most bands go through, by 1965 the now-classic lineup of Thompson on drums, guitarists Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, vocalist Rob Tyner, and bassist Michael Davis had formed, a quintet named for the Motor City that influenced their sound and attitude.
“The Detroit energy was just stronger than anywhere else,” Thompson says. “We pounded out the cars, Motown knocked out hit after hit, and the radio was always playing cool music.”
The MC5’s early gigs included the city’s iconic band shell in Memorial Park. By 1967 they had been installed as house band at the legendary Grande Ballroom and had caught the attention of poet/activist John Sinclair.
It was a time of significant social changes and cultural shifts that happened seemingly overnight, as seen by the MC5 from the Grande stage. One week, Thompson says, he saw kids sporting Princeton haircuts, and the next, there were “3,000 with long hair.”
Under Sinclair’s management the band’s counterculture reputation grew. They were invited to perform at a music festival during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, a show that didn’t turn out too well — for anyone. Caught in the riots, the group beat a hasty retreat “like Yosemite Sam on a stagecoach,” Thompson says.
In 1969 they made the cover of Rolling Stone in advance of their debut album, Kick Out the Jams, and the band was dubbed by the media as the “vanguard of the revolution.”
In some ways, the image overtook the music.
According to Thompson, “Once you get a name like that … The FBI had a foot-and-a-half stack of paperwork on us.”
The band’s run was relatively short. Two more albums were released, Back in the USA and High Time, before a final Grande show on New Year’s Eve 1972.
The group went their separate ways: Tyner released a solo record and earned a reputation as a photographer before his death in 1991; Smith formed Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and married rocker Patti Smith before he passed in 1994; Davis died in 2012 after a career that included time with alt-rockers Destroy All Monsters. Kramer continues as a guitarist, composer, and activist and now heads recording label Industrial Amusement.
“At its best the MC5 represented a sense of unlimited possibilities,” Kramer says. “Not in the sense of celebrity but in larger, real-life possibilities, that there could be a new kind of music, a new kind of politics, and a new kind of culture.”
The reputation and influence of the MC5 grew stronger with each passing decade, and they became part of rock ’n’ roll and political history.
“We stood on stage and raised the unity fist, and the audience shot that symbol back,” Kramer says.
‘The Heart and Soul of the Band’
Just like five teenagers getting together to see what kind of sounds they could make, the caretakers of Lincoln Park history began with modest ambitions that took on a life of their own.
“My original plan was to do an exhibit,” says Jeff Day, curator of the Lincoln Park Historical Museum. “It kind of grew into something a little bigger.”
The exhibit — rare photos, memorabilia, and posters from renowned artist Gary Grimshaw — will run until Labor Day. Events include a reception on July 11, followed by a Sunday concert at the Kennedy Memorial Park Band Shell.
The iconic outdoor stage got a makeover this year courtesy of a crowdsourcing project launched by Giles Tucker, an intern working for the emergency manager’s office. Along with matching funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. the stage is being treated to new wiring, lights, masonry work, and a fresh coat of paint.
Kramer will not be able to attend the reception and concert, but he is honored that the band’s efforts will be remembered.
Thompson has been invited to sit in for a few songs at the concert.
“Those days formed the heart and soul of the band,” he says. ”People in Lincoln Park didn’t know about being lazy; they were salt-of-the-earth people who knew they had to work for a living.
“It’s going to be cool,” Thompson says.
It always is when you’re kickin’ out the jams.