MC5 was an American rock band from Lincoln Park, Michigan, formed in 1964. The original band line-up consisted of vocalist Rob Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Dennis Thompson. “Crystallizing the counterculture movement at its most volatile and threatening”, according to AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the MC5’s far left political ties and anti-establishment lyrics and music positioned them as emerging innovators of the punk movement in the United States. Their loud, energetic style of back-to-basics rock and roll included elements of garage rock, hard rock, blues rock, and psychedelic rock.
MC5 had a promising beginning which earned them a January 1969 cover appearance in Rolling Stone and a story written by Eric Ehrmann before their debut album was released. They developed a reputation for energetic and polemical live performances, one of which was recorded as their 1969 debut album Kick Out the Jams. Their initial run was short-lived, though. In 1972, just three years after their debut record, the band came to an end. MC5 was often cited as one of the most important American hard rock groups of their era. Their three albums are regarded by many as classics, and their song “Kick Out the Jams” is widely covered.
Tyner died of a heart attack in late 1991 at the age of 46. Smith also died of a heart attack, in 1994 at the age of 45. The remaining three members of the band reformed in 2003 with The Dictators’ singer Handsome Dick Manitoba as its new vocalist, and this reformed line-up occasionally performed live over the next nine years until Davis died of liver failure in February 2012 at the age of 68.
MC5 earned national attention with their first album, Kick Out the Jams, recorded live on October 30 and 31, 1968, at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. Elektra executives Jac Holzman and Bruce Botnick recognized that MC5 were at their best when playing for a receptive audience. The first song, a version of the obscure Ted Taylor R&B song “Ramblin’ Rose,” featured a ragged falsetto lead vocal from Kramer before Tyner joined the group onstage. Containing such songs as the proto-punk classics “Kick Out the Jams” and “Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa”, the spaced-out “Starship” (co-credited to Sun Ra because the lyrics were partly cribbed from one of Ra’s poems), and an extended cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Motor City is Burning” wherein Tyner praises the role of Black Panther snipers during the Detroit Insurrection of 1967. The album has been rated the ninth best live rock and roll record ever: Critic Mark Deming writes that Kick out the Jams “is one of the most powerfully energetic live albums ever made … this is an album that refuses to be played quietly.”
The album caused some controversy due to Sinclair’s inflammatory liner notes and the title track’s rallying cry of “Kick out the jams, mother******!” According to Kramer, the band recorded this as “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!” for the single released for radio play; Tyner claimed this was done without group consensus (Thompson, 2000). The edited version also appeared in some LP copies, which also withdrew Sinclair’s excitable comments. The album was released in January 1969; reviews were mixed, but the album was successful, quickly selling over 100,000 copies, and appearing for several weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
Their second album, Back in the USA, produced by future Bruce Springsteen mentor Jon Landau, virtually provided a prototype for punk rock with its short, fast, hard-edged angry guitar rock. This record was released on Atlantic label, also explaining a vastly different production and marketing effort. The band sounded radically different from Kick, and McLeese writes that except for Tyner’s vocals, they were “barely recognizable as the same band.” (McLeese, 96) The second album also featured very different production from the first — MC5 now sounded compressed and somewhat limited in their sonic palette compared to their earlier era — band members later said that Landau was overbearing and heavy-handed in production, trying to shape the group to his own liking.
Reviews were again mixed, sales were mediocre (it peaked at 137 in the American charts in March 1970) and MC5’s tours were not as well-received as before. Exhaustion was partly to blame, from the band’s heavy touring schedule and increasingly heavy drug use.
They had fallen out with Sinclair, as well, and were conspicuous by not being allowed to play at the December, 1971, John Sinclair Freedom Rally to protest his incarceration on marijuana possession, even though they were at the gig.
Their third album, High Time, produced by Geoffrey Haslam and recorded by Artie Fields, would also prove influential on 1970s hard rock bands. The album was poorly promoted, and sales were worse than ever, but High Time was the best-reviewed of the band’s original records upon its initial release. The group had much more creative control, and were very satisfied with the results. This release saw the band stretch out with longer, more experimental pieces like “Future/Now” and the Sun Ra-influenced “Skunk (Sonically Speaking)”.
Both Back in the USA and High Time lost money for Atlantic Records, which dropped the band.
On February 13, 1972, Michael Davis left the band (he was using heroin and was all but forced out by the others), and was replaced by a series of bassists (Steve Moorhouse, Derek Hughes, and Ray Craig). The remaining members recorded two new songs — “Gold Rush” (also known as “Gold” and “Train Music”) and “Inside Out” — in London shortly afterwards for the soundtrack of a film called Gold. This would be the band’s final recording session.
The group limped along a while longer, eventually reduced to Kramer and Smith touring and playing with Ritchie Dharma on drums and Derek Hughes on bass, playing R&B covers as much as their original material.
MC5 reunited for a farewell show on New Year’s Eve, 1972–73 at the Grande Ballroom. The venue that had only a few years before hosted over a thousand eager fans now had a few dozen people, and, distraught, Kramer left the stage after a few songs. The band dissolved not long after the event.