MC5- Dennis Thompson interview
by Jason Gross
PSF: Even before the MC5, how were you involved in music?
My mother used to sing on the radio until she got bronchitis. My father back in the '30's played the upright bass in a Slovak band when he was courting my mother- these young drunken Bohemian Slovaks playing traditional music. It was like rock and roll for my dad. It was pretty safe in Detroit back then though.
I started playing drums when I was four. When I was 8 or 9, my family would get together- my brother would play guitar and my sister would play piano so we'd play together. My brother also had a rock and roll band, playing all those instrumental songs. You'd have four guitar players and no bass. They'd rehearse in the basement and leave the drums downstairs. So I'd go down there and play until Mom would say 'get off those drums Denny, those ain't yours!' Little did she know... To raise a son who plays the drums, you have to be a beautiful and insane parent. I was playing in bars when I was 13 with my brother, playing weddings when I was 10 just to make a buck and be playing.
PSF: What was the local music scene like around the mid-60's in that area, just before you joined the MC5?
There were garage bands vis-a-vis the Motor City Five, The Amboy Dukes, Bob Seeger & the Last Heard, Mitch Ryder etc.. Sock hops, high school parties and dances. Really tame compared to the football games- that's where everyone got their ya-ya's out. The big names then were Duane Eddy, the Ventures, early Beach Boys, Motown, Stax, Otis Redding. The Beatle and the Stones were just starting to hit. The first English wave...
PSF: So how did you meet up with Wayne, Rob and Fred?
We met up in the ninth grade (1963) at Lincoln Park high school- a greaseball and jock school. Back in those days, you were one or the other. We were the black jackets and pointed shoes crowd. The MC5 actually played at my graduation in '66 at an all-night party. We did "Black To Comm", sorta way, way ahead of the time...
We were the weird guys, the outcasts. All different in our own ways. A couple of us were kicked out of school. Fred was expelled for just having long hair. We ran the gamut. That just solidified us and made us stronger. Our favorite bands were the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Kinks, Paul Butterfield.
PSF: How did the band change after meeting up with John Sinclair?
Before we met him, we were pretty much into playing rough and tough rock and roll. We didn't care about jazz, just about being the best rock and roll band we could be. We used to rehearse and practice a lot. We had an ethic and we wore our hair long and started to smoke a little pot. We were just trying to be really good players.
Right about the time we graduated from high school ('66/'67), we met Sinclair, the resident beatnik poet/philosopher at Wayne State University in Detroit. They used to have an Artists' Workshop with poetry and jazz. That's how we met John. Rob met him and struck up a conversation- they were both deep into jazz. It was a natural relationship that followed. So Rob brought us down to the Artists' Workshop where you had all these jazz bands doing stuff like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp & Pharoah Sanders. We came in there with "Black To Comm" at full volume. (laughs) It took a while but John Sinclair fell in love with us. All of a sudden, we went from high school heros who used to win all the Battles of the Bands to the audio vanguard of the artistic community at Wayne State University.
At the time, you had all sorts of other things happening. You had the riots in the streets here in Detroit. You had the womens' right movement and the minority movement. We're hooking up with this beatnik philosopher poetician, being followed by the police already. The next thing that happens is that we meet Russ Gibb. He was a free thinking person and saw what was happening in San Francisco and New York. He took a chance and leased the Grande Ballroom. Sinclair brought Gibb down and asked us to be the house band of his new venue, this ballroom. We said yes and became the houseband at the Grande for the next eight months and we played for free, & rehearsed there in the dead of winter wearing 5 layers of warm clothes. No heat yet... No money yet.
PSF: How did "Kick Out the Jams" come together?
We started playing the Ballroom and built a good crowd but there weren't any national bands there yet. The local bands were really good . Nugent, Mitch Ryder, Stooges, Bob Seeger, the Rationals. We would sit back and watch these other bands and yell 'Kick out the jams or get off the fucking stage! C'mon, we gotta rehearse- get the fuck outta here!' As the Grande drew some national notoriety, Procol Harum and Janis Joplin would come and play and we'd still be yelling 'Kick out the jams!' Finally Rob penned the words for the song but he didn't write out the whole thing with 'get off the stage.' It became 'Kick out the jams, motherfucker!'
PSF: Did you think the band was part of a music scene in Detroit?
We were the vanguard. If it wasn't for the MC5, all of these bands would have been nothing. Someone had to do it for free and get the scene established. That's what we did. We established a venue for all these other groups to launch themselves to national attention. Every weekend we would play with anybody and everybody via that constant exposure and our desire to be a great rock and roll band and develop a very strong following. Based on our following, we were matching up all the groups in Detroit and these bands would bring their camps into the Grande. Pretty soon, it was all filled up (it holds 3500 people). There wasn't anything else going on in the city at the time, zero. At that point in time, you had the Filmore and the Avalon so the ballroom phenomenon was catching on. That brought attention from the record companies to this town because we started to fill the place up before we started to bring in national acts. Once the national bands started coming through, then it was a done deal.
PSF: Was the first album a pretty accurate reflection of the band at the time?
Yeah, it was fairly accurate. I wish we could have done it a little better. We were promised that we could do it again if we didn't like it and to a man, we didn't like it. The actual sound recording could have been better. We didn't like the mix. Back in those days, no record company had gone to a ballroom and recorded a crazy band like us live, especially for a first record by a band. It was (either) very ballsy or very stupid. (laughs) Jac Holzman (president of Elektra) and John Sinclair told us that we could redo it if we didn't like it.
PSF: Did the hoopla actually back-fire on the band?
The idea that we actually went ahead with the live recording wasn't a bad idea. It was actually pretty slick for those days. The bad idea was to go with 'motherfucker,' to go with the obscenity. We alienated a lot of major chains that carried the largest amount of records at that time. Here's how the band felt- we shouldn't release it with 'motherfucker.' We thought it would be in our best interest to delete 'motherfucker' and just let it be blank. That would have avoided a lot of rack jobbers actually being arrested for obscenity. One thing led to another and before you knew it, you had all the major chains not stocking the record because it should have gone to number one on the charts if it hadn't been for the flack that we incurred on the way up. A lot of radio stations that supported creativity would play the original version or they'd beep out 'motherfucker.'
So we had a meeting with Jac Holzman and he said that he wanted to delete 'motherfucker' from the record. In retrospect, in deference to his artistic bent, we caved in and let it be done. You know what happened? Rack jobbers got busted, radio stations were told not to play the record, the shit hit the fan. Here's a band that could have been number one in the nation with an anthem had all we did was delete the one word that kept it from becoming an anthem. Catch 22. Oxymoronica.
That's pretty much a convolution in philosophy. It's like a two-edged sword. You need the record company to produce and distribute the record but in the same behest you can't alienate a corporation by saying a dirty word back in those days. These days, it's a non sequitur, it doesn't even follow anymore. But back then, it was The Lenny Bruce syndrome. You come out and say 'hey, we're the brand new band on the block and by the way, fuck you!' Although that was the tone and timbre of the group, it was not a very intelligent business plan. It was naive. But it did get the media all heated up. They loved it. If we had expurgated the 'motherfucker' from the beginning, they might not have jumped on it the way they did. Who knows? All I know is that it was a great band at that point in time. Everybody was really ready for it, they were ready for the philosophy. The politics of questions!
After we had released it as 'motherfucker' initially, we changed it to 'brothers and sisters.' It was back-pedalling. So that was really a faux pas, a very very unwise maneuver on our part. Ultimately, we were responsible but we were only 18 and pretty fresh back then, without any knowledge about obscenity over the airwaves. We actually broke the code- we were the test balloon to make a trial of the First Ammendment concerning recorded free speech. Don't forget that Vietnam was going on at the same time and they were gunning down JFK and Martin Luther King & we got stuck in the mix. Which is OK. That's the way that it's gonna go down in history and that's fine with me. I'll stand behind what it originally intended to mean- 'kick out the jams or get off the fucking stage.' Period!
PSF: Why did the band break off their association with Sinclair?
Politics. He had two agendas. One agenda was to manage the MC5. The other agenda was to become the new left leader of the new Pepsi generation, which was going to drink Pepsi & take LSD & smoke pot. John had gotten off his second bust for possession and received a ten year sentence and went to jail. So we really didn't fire John, John fired himself.
We felt 'you can do whatever you wanna do in the confines of your own life.' We just weren't into promoting it. We were not gonna wear a banner that says 'everyone should be allowed to smoke pot and take LSD.' That wasn't our platform. All of the bands at the time like the Rolling Stones were doing it but they didn't run around saying 'we're trying to pass a law to get this legalized.' That wasn't the MC5 either. Trust that. That was John Sinclair's situation. That was his second agenda, his hidden agenda. So he went to jail and for that John Lennon wrote a song about him, there was a concert thrown for him with 125,000 people. It got as far as five dollars for smoking pot in Ann Arbor. Here in Michigan they have a Hash Bash at the University of Michigan that's been going on for years. They broke it up in 1998 and arrested 200 people. So I guess there's a right wing swing back in favor of 'curtailing drug abuse.' Now, the ghettos are flooded with crack, cocaine and heroin. What's new pussycat?
PSF: What changed for the band when you worked on the second record for Atlantic?
We met up with Jon Landau and he was good for us in a couple of ways. He was trying to stress discipline, trying to get us back to where we were about a year and a half before when we made our first record- just being a solid, tight, agressive rock and roll band. He tried to clean us up but he went overboard with it. He wasn't the right producer to be doing the MC5's second record. We could have used a thousand different producers (instead).
The way it worked was that we signed with Atlantic and Jon Landau had become the favorite son of Jerry Wexler. He was assigned us as his second project. His third project was J. Geils. So Landau produced our second album and we became friends with him. But when they heard our record, they fired Landau straight away! (laughs) Jon had no experience as a producer. His intentions were good but he had no experience so he overcompensated. We went from one extreme to another- we went from being a little bit too sloppy and wild and crazy to becoming a little too anal-retentive. I really can't blame that on Landau- Jon just didn't have the experience at the time. But his intentions were good. The timing was bad. The timing of what happened to us was always a click behind because the band was always a click ahead. Whatever happened to us was like after the fact. So the second record comes out and it's really tight and it's really snappy and clean. It's so precise that it's almost sterile. Though at that point in time, we were in a situation that alienated the first round of fans from the first record and not gathering too many fans for the second record.
You have to remember the politic of the day. What people more or less expected from us on our second record is what we did on the first record but maybe a bit more concise. But not THAT concise. We went from one extreme to the other in terms of the music. In those days, that was a very complicated, pragmatic mistake. Had we maintained that same sort of looseness from the first record, we would have still been in the top 40. But that second record was a little TOO tight and the revolution wasn't quite busted up then. (laughs) The revolution was still sorta happening. A lot of our die-hards fans were like 'what is this?' A lot of the new people that we thought we'd get, there weren't that many of them. At that point in time, Grand Funk Railroad came in there and stole some of our thunder. A few other groups came in and copped to the MC5 equation.
PSF: What do you think of High Time?
It's the best record. That was the only record that we co-produced. We did that with the enginner, Geoffry Haslam, who was what's called a 'stable producer' from Atlantic Records. Geoff was very cool- he allowed us to produce the record more or less ourselves. We would cross talk a lot. Had we been able to do that on the second record, it would have been much different and much better. But it took that much time for us to get to that situation.
It's just good. It's loose and it's strong and it's powerful. It sounds good for those days. There's a quality to it, a timelessness to it, a classic feel to it that you don't have on the second record. To me, it's not just the material, "Skunk" and "Sister Anne" and "Over and Over," the production's correct and the attitude's correct. We didn't have a producer telling us what to do. First record's live- oops, that's us. Second record has a Nazi producer- seig heil! The third record is us producing ourselves after we sort of gained some experience. So that's the best record. Flat out.
PSF: So what happened with the band after that came out?
They broke up.
PSF: Was the group working on new material after High Time?
Not really. We went and toured. The last tour was Europe. We came back to the States in '72 and did a New Years' Show at the Grande and we officially broke up then. Wayne and Fred tried to take the MC5 to Europe after that with three substitute players. That lasted for about a week and that was it.
PSF: Why do you think the band has maybe more influence today than it did when it was around?
There was so much going on then. There were so many great bands playing at the same time. The Who, Hendrix, Joplin, King Crimson, Yardbirds, Kinks. You get caught up in the mix. But today, Generation X & & look to their forefather's roots & sweetheart, that's all about the MC5.
PSF: What do you think people picked up from the MC5?
High energy. A freewheeling American twist to rock and roll, R&B. We spun some avant-garde jazz thoughts and feelings into it. We explored sound patterns and energy patterns and music simply for the sake of exploring them. We had a 'no guts, no glory' stand. A 'balls to the wall' stand about who you are and what you believe in. What the kids today are probably latching onto more than the music is the ethic and the philosophy. We really cared. We cared about our community, about the movement of our people and we took a stand and got gunned down for it. As far as the media is concerned, they won the battle but as far as history is concerned and as far as the kids are concerned, they'll listen and say 'here's a band that didn't give a fuckin' shit. They really did care. They knew what they wanted to play and they knew what they stood for.' What we stood for was freedom. And we to a man, have the scars to prove it...
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