MC5 had a promising beginning which earned them a cover appearance on Rolling Stone magazine in 1968 even before their debut album was recorded. They developed a reputation for energetic live performances, one of which was recorded as the critically acclaimed Kick Out The Jams. Their career was ultimately short-lived, though within just a few years of their dissolution, the MC5 were often cited as one of the most important American hard rock groups of their era: their three albums are regarded as classics. Their song "Kick Out the Jams" is widely covered.
Kramer felt they needed a manager, which led him to Rob Derminer, a few years older than the others, and deeply involved in Detroit's hipster and left-wing political scenes. Derminer originally auditioned as a bass guitarist, though they quickly realized that his talents could be better used as a lead singer: though not conventionally attractive and rather paunchy by traditional frontman standards, he nonetheless had a commanding stage presence, and a booming baritone voice that evidenced his abiding love of American soul and gospel music. Derminer renamed himself Rob Tyner (after Coltrane's pianist McCoy Tyner). Tyner also invented their new name, The MC5: it reflected their Detroit roots (it was short for "Motor City Five'), was vaguely reminiscent of a sports car name (like the GTO), and echoed the Dave Clark Five, at the peak of their popularity in 1964-1965.
The music also reflected Smith and Kramer's increasing interest in free jazz -- the guitarists were inspired by the likes of Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra and late period John Coltrane, and tried to imitate the ecstatic sounds of the squealing, high-pitched saxophonists they adored. The MC5 even opened for a few U.S. midwest shows for Sun Ra. Kramer and Smith were also deeply inspired by Sonny Sharrock, one of the few electric guitarists working in free jazz, and they eventually developed a unique interlocking style that was like little heard before: Kramer's solos often used a heavy, irregular vibrato, while Smith's rhythms contained an uncommon explosive energy.
Under the "guidance" of John Sinclair (who dubbed his enterprise "Trans-Love Energies" and refused to be categorized as a traditional manager), the MC5 were soon involved in left-wing politics: Sinclair was active with the White Panther Party and Fifth Estate. In their early career, the MC5 had a politically provocative stage show: they would appear onstage toting unloaded rifles, and at the climax of the performance, an unseen "sniper" would shoot down Tyner. The band members were also all using the drugs LSD and marijuana.
Their debut single was released by Trans-Love Energies in early 1968, comprised of two original songs: "Borderline" and "Looking at You." The first pressing sold out in a few weeks, and by the year's end, had gone through more pressings totaling several thousand copies.
That summer, MC5 toured the U.S. east coast, which generated an enormous response, with the group often overshadowing the more famous acts they opened up for: McLeese writes notes that when opening for Big Brother and the Holding Company audiences regularly demanded multiple encores of the MC5, and at a memorable series of concerts, Cream — one of the leading hard rock groups of the era — "left the stage vanquished" by the Detroit upstarts. (McLeese, 65) This same east coast tour led to the rapturous aforementioned Rolling Stone cover story that praised the MC5 with nearly evangelistic zeal, and also to an association with the radical group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.
The MC5 became the leading band in a burgeoning hard rock scene, serving as mentors to fellow South-Eastern Michigan bands The Stooges and Up, and major record labels expressed an interest in the group. As related in the notes for reissued editions of the Stooges' debut album, Danny Fields of Elektra Records came to Detroit to see the MC5. At Kramer's recommendation, he went to see the Stooges. Fields was so impressed that he ended up offering contracts to both bands in September 1968. They were the first hard rock groups signed to the fledgling Elektra.
The album caused some controversy due to the title track's rallying cry of "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" (according to Kramer, the band recorded this as "Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters!" for the single released for radio play) and Sinclair's inflammatory liner notes. 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.
The band also generated political controversy by performing before the outbreak of violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The group's appearance at the convention is also notable for their lengthy performance: in an interview featured in the documentary Get Up, Stand Up, Kramer reported that while many musicians were scheduled to perform at a day-long concert, only the MC5 initially appeared. The MC5 played for over eight hours straight; of the other scheduled performers, Kramer stated in Get Up, Stand Up that only Neil Young actually arrived, though due to the chaos at the convention, Young didn't perform.
When Hudson's, a Detroit-based department store, refused to stock Kick Out The Jams due to the obscenity, the MC5 responded with a full page advertisement in the Fifth Estate saying "Fuck Hudson's!" and prominently including the logo of MC5's label, Elektra Records, in the ad.
Hudson's pulled all Elektra records from their stores, and in the ensuing controversy, Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra, dropped the band from their contract. Uncommonly, Elektra's classical division (Nonesuch) was operated on a nearly pro bono basis due to profits generated by popular music releases, and the removal of Nonesuch records from Hudson's represented a significant loss for the corporation.
Reviews were again mixed, sales were mediocre (It peaked at 137 in March 1970) and the 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 their absence at the December, 1971 "Free John Sinclair" rally to protest his incarceration on marijuana possession.
On February 13, 1972, Michael Davis left the band (he was using heroin and was all but forced out by the others). The remaining members recorded three new songs — "Gold," "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 local pick-up groups, playing R&B covers as much as their original material.
The MC5 reunited for a farewell show on New Years' 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 broke up shortly afterwards.
Wayne Kramer made scattered appearances on other people's records before being incarcerated for drug offenses (in prison in Kentucky, Kramer was unexpectedly reunited with MC5 bassist Michael Davis, also behind bars on a drug charge). After his parole, Kramer worked straight jobs for several years and focused on kicking drugs; in the early 1990s, he returned to the music industry, and has released several well-received albums.
Tyner became a successful producer, manager and promoter in Detroit; he released the warmly-reviewed Blood Brothers in 1990, and died in 1991.
In 2004, the band set out on an extensive world tour using the name DKT/MC5. As with the 100 Club concert, a host of special guests joined them on tour such as Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Nicke Royale of The Hellacopters, Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, Marshall Crenshaw, Lisa Kekuala of the Bellrays, and others. Since February 2005, Handsome Dick Manitoba has been singing lead for the band.
In May 2006, bass player for DKT/MC5 Michael Davis injured his back in a motorcycle accident.
August 2007 bass player for DKT/MC5 Michael Davis joins band The Lords Of Altamont on bass.
Michael Davis also founded and leads the Michael H. Davis MUSIC IS REVOLUTION™ FOUNDATION, dedicated to supporting music education programs in public schools. www.musicisrevolution.org
The band The Didjits recorded "Call Me Animal" on their 1990 lp "Hornet Pinata".
The band Corrosion of Conformity released a version of "Future/Now" as a b-side to their "Vote With A Bullet" single.
The Norwegian Band Motorpsycho covered "Black To Comm" on their live album "Roadwork Vol.1" released in 1999.
The band Young Heart Attack covered "Over and Over" as a 2003 single and on their 2004 album Mouthful of Love.
In December 2003, Michael Davis entered a studio in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, to produce Swedish rock band Dollhouse's debut-album "The Rock and Soul Circus" (Released 2004 on Dim Mak Records). Michael Davis himself appears on backing vocals on the MC5 cover song "The Human Being Lawnmower".
"Kick Out The Jams" is expected to be included in the 2008 video game Guitar Hero World Tour. The guitar tracks were rerecorded but the original vocal track from Rob Tyner remains.
The Melvins did cover "Rocket Reducer #62" which was released on the 1994 promo single of "Lizzy". The song can also be found on the bootleg compilation "Leech" from 1996.