PEN UP THE LIMITS - An Interview With Dennis Thompson
by Mike Johnston
Great thanks to Craig 'just one more fax' Regan who sent the article. One more time !
Mike Johnston, located in Mt. Pleasant, MI, is a writer for Canadian based Coda Jazz magazine, a member of the talented and long running Northwoods Improvisors, and a long-time fan of Michigan Rock.
Mike: How did the MC5 come together? Could you also touch on how you came up with the name for the band?
Dennis: First off, we went to high school together. When we were in junior high, four of us had a band called the Bounty Hunters. That was Rob, Fred, Wayne and myself. We broke up for a couple of years and got back together in high school. We re-formed as the MC5. Rob came up with the name whlch stood for Motor City Five.
Mike: Right away, it seems to me, that you had a unique sound. Was that primarily from cranking the amps?
Dennis: We had influences. The Yardbirds, of course, as well as The Who, Kinks, Byrds, Stones, and Chuck Berry. This was in the early years. Also some instrumental bands like Duane Eddy and The Ventures; our influences were pretty wide. Plus, we came up w ith our combined sound. A large part of our sound was from cranking our amps to ten and using feedback and distortion.
Mike: I heard that on the original "Looking at You" on the label A2, that you had a P.A. in the studio.
Dennis: Yes, we had it for "Looking at You". It wasn't a massive P.A. system. It was probably just a couple of vox columns and some horns, but that added clatter to the piece and gave it that metal edge which was ahead of its time.
Mike: The Yardbirds used loud leads, but "Looking at You" went beyond; it really stood out.
Dennis: Yeah, it did, especially the big dinosaur crash ending. We used to have a name for it. We called it "Avant-Rock," The Yardbirds called their thing "Rave Up."
Mike: To me there is a consciousness about the band that stands out to this day. Even calling it Avant-Rock, illustrated it. Most rock bands
wouldn't want to associate themselves with a label like that. There's a
political awareness, and an awareness of real jazz like Sun Ra, not shit, and you improvised a lot.
Dennis: Well, when it comes to that particular aspect of our influence, that came about because of John Sinclair. John was an avid jazz buff and he had a massive record collection.
While we lived together at Trans Love Energies House in Ann Arbor and also in Warren, we were exposed almost nightly to massive doses of Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra, a lot of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Archie Shepp.
When we went to New York, we made it out to a couple of clubs and we
caught Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp live . We missed Coltrane - he died on us, bless his heart. We were about the only rock and roll band that had that kind of an influence.
So we brought that kind of a consciousness to the music and that's what created the term "High Energy Rock" which sort of was the evolutionary term we coined to describe our music.
That happened as a result of having avant-garde jazz rave ups. We had some local jazz musicians like Charles Moore and different jazz musicians that we'd just ask to come up during our Jam Number Black to Comm. And we'd just go for it - try and create an energy buzz through music that was beyond.
Mike: It was your music that helped get me interested in jazz.
Dennis: Overall, jazz holds up as a solid music better than most rock. There's so much solid music there. It's an art form - not the hocus pocus crap that you hear nowadays.
Mike: Outside of maybe Hendrix, I think the MC5 is one of the best overall rock bands of musical content.
Dennis: Well, there's another influence too. One of the first gigs I
played when I rejoined the band, was Ford Auditorium opening for Hendrix.
He was a powerful influence on us. I guess you could say at that point in
time, with the whole Detroit rock scene, that we were the flagship band.
A lot of times we helped bands get rolling. We'd let them open gigs for us
and help give them exposure. We tried to help also by doing free shows and concerts and contribute to the collective consciousness with the scene .
We understood that the more that you had people- working together, the
better it would be for everybody in the long run, which is what Seattle is
duplicating now. They took a page right out of that book.
Mike: In my opinion, some of that music is interesting, but it's not
really at the same level of consciousness and musicianship. It goes beyond in production and press coverage.
Dennis: Right. I don't think they have what you would call proper
collections of musical experience to reach the levels that we did. To be
honest, I think you have to suffer quite a bit more than they've had to.
We struggled and we played a lot just to su rvive. We had several bumps
and bruises, and that is translated into our music.
That's why jazz music of the past is so solid, strong and potent. These people lived a hard life. None of them got rich and most of them died paupers, going through the junk t hing and alcohol.
Mike: To me it's impressive how much of a collective your band was. You and Fred wrote tunes, Rob Tyner was strictly a vocalist and you have a tune like "Shakin' Street" where Sonic sings and Rob just grooves to the music. You don't see that much in any o ther groups.
Dennis: Right. It's usually just one or two people featured.
Mike: Kind of a-jazz thing again, where a player stands aside and
"listens" to the band jam. In rock there are usually too many egos for
that to happen.
Dennis: You really can't achieve that kind of music without giving to the group. We used to, back when we were experimenting; maybe a little too much with psychedelics. We used to try and achieve this synergy of give and take.
We'd try and tune into where other musicians could go. It's hard to describe, but to create music that has a lot of dynamics and movement, you have to get tuned in on almost a cellular level. You've got to get right down in to it. The more you get to know each other, the more you pu sh each other. We had friction, too, of course.
Probably looking back at it, some of those hostilities made the music perhaps better than if we would have been more lenient with each other What I'd like to say about the consciousness part of the band is that we tried to form our own brand of spirituality.
The music was a healing source, and has a lot of power, instead of being hostile, and negative about death and Satan and stupid shit stuff. We looked at it as an uplifting thing. Some songs you hear can help make your day and help you get through, and we tried to bring that into the music. We went through a lot of phases and philosophies.
Mike: It shows. Take your tune "Gotta Keep Movin" - I think that is a classic rock tune. The lyrics are good too. Did you write them?
Dennis: I wrote the lyrics and I worked with Fred. We got together on that one. I put some ideas to him, and he'd listen and added some of his own.
So I went back and fit the lyrics to it. Fred came up with a lot of the
triplet music thing that we did on that, whlch made that song work. It was
real upbeat. Lots of times we'd play it live and it would kick the set in.
Mike: It's got a great feel. The version on the New Race stuff is great too. That was a great band.
Dennis: Yeah, that was a good band. We rehearsed for a little while and Asheton was close friends with Deniz Tek. His band, Radio Birdman, had a similar feel to the MC5. His band played in Australia for 5 or 6 years.
Mike: I think next to the Michigan rock scene of the 60's, that the
Australian scene might be the next most interesting on a lot of levels;
including musical honesty.
Dennis: You might be right. Most bands don't tour Australia, because it's out of the way and there's no money in it. With "New Race" we rehearsed for two weeks. Once we hit the road, it gelled quickly. I really enjoyed that band. We tried to do it again, but Deniz was moving up in his doctoral career and couldn't do it.
Mike: Tek and Asheton are an awesome double lead line-up. They both are good and uniquely different.
Dennis: Ron is ethereal and Deniz is very clean; really a lot like Fred and Wayne. Fred is more rhythmic and tended toward creating sounds, and Wayne was more of a point-to-point player. It's a nice blend; really almost a prototypical structure for guitar bands.
Mike: I really like a band that has two interesting lead players.
Dennis: Right, I agree. It has depth and character to it, because you can get them interweaving. It's nice to have two guitar players that are that proficient. Most bands don't have much call and response. One guy plays rhythm and the other guy plays his fancy lead that he's practiced in front of the mirror.
Mike: Can we talk a little bit about the two different versions of
"Looking at You"?
Dennis: The Atlantic one was layered. We didn't do that one like we'd normally do. We laid down the rhythm track and dubbed guitar and voice over it. That's the way we had to work with John Landeau because he wanted the music to be super tight so he could impress Ahmet Ertegun that he was a fucking producer; which he was not. So we lost some chemistry there. It damn near broke the band up.
Mike: The record still works on some level.
Dennis: Yes, it does. High Times is better though. I think it (Back in the U.S.A.) could have been better. We should have had a producer like Andrew Olson or someone that dealt with bands of our character. I don't give a shit; maybe Zeppelin's producer. Someone that had some legs for our kind of sound. We were Landeau's first band. J.Geil's was slated after us and after they heard how he recorded us, they dropped him fast. There's no love in my heart for John Landeau.
Mike: Looking back, do you have any tunes that stand out for you?
Dennis: There's quite a few, many, that never got recorded. We had a tune called "Ice Pick Slim", which had about six or seven movements. It had 3/4 section, a 6/8 and then rock and roll. Everybody had a solo, and you could take it in any direction you wanted, with an ensemble ending. Another tune "Tungi" which was a Pharaoh Sanders tune. We did an interesting interpretation of that. Black to Comm., of course, and "Skunk" the Thunder Express bootleg, has a nice version of the Stones "Empty Heart". There's more out there that are in the can. Kramer and John Sinclair are working on something.
Mike: Can you talk a little bit about Sinclair?
Dennis: His musical influence was greatly appreciated. In the beginning, his guidance helped also.
Mike: Can you speak a little on politics and its relation to the band?
Dennis: It really was a two-edged sword. In one way it gave us press and energy. On the other hand, it really killed us. We went against too much really. Almost everybody. Eventually a lot of our own fans didn't like us. The government certainly didn't care for us. Once we got tagged by the press, it was over. We got stereotyped.
Mike: I read a quote of yours in an interview. We used guitars as weapons, words as weapons and feelings as weapons."
Dennis: It's kind of self-explanatory, but everyone has their opinion of politics and of law and order and of right and wrong. Music is a great communicator and it can be used as a healing device, it can be an
emotional stimulant, and it can amplify your feelings. You can use the
instruments to convey feelings through the music. We often tagged on a
posture that was hostile and it was a weapon in that sense. A lot of the
jobs we played basically were a war. The cops would be there with batons and tear gas waiting for the band. Poetry is powerful too. Take Beatnik poetry. The word is a vehicle to make powerful statements. Look at Dave Koresh in what used to be Waco, Texas. His word had people ready to die for it.- It's really the same sort of thing.
Mike: Who were your drumming influences? You're polyrhythmic player, which isn't a rock and roll style, so I was wondering who you listened to for that.
Dennis: I was influenced mainly by Elvin Jones. Ever since Sinclair turned me on to him, I've listened to him. I like some earlier Billy Cobham, too.
Even Charlie Watts for that matter. Also, Joe Butler from the Loving Spoonful. I remember watching him in '66 at the State Fairgrounds. He played hard and smashed the drums and used a mash grip as opposed to marching style, and that influenced me. So my influences range, but my style is polyrhythmic in a modal sense and that comes from Elvin. To me that's wh at rhythm is all about. Mixing it up. The more things you learn, the more you can mix them in to a 4/4. You can play in and have them mix and repeat and that generates more of a wall of sound, which I like, instead of a linear thing. But, the linear style sells records.
Mike: What about the Grande Ballroom? It's hailed now as the mecca for all of this stuff.
Dennis: Right. The old shrine. It's not really exaggerated too much. It was the focal point in Michigan for rock and roll on an international
level because bands came from Europe and-all over America. You could see Hendrix, Joplin, all for three or four dollars a night. That was five hours of music. Based upon that, it was a powerful place, but maybe calling it a mecca is a little extreme. People like to romanticize too, you know.
Mike: I'm fascinated by the real late tune "Gold" and tunes right from the very end. They seemed real exploratory to me. It's too bad that phase didn't get captured better on recordings.
Dennis: Our manager then, Ronan O'Riley, had an underground radio operation that broadcast alternative music three miles off the coast of England from a ship. He backed this movie called "Gold."
He was into the same sort of consciousness thing, too. The movie (1971) was about people escaping the Fascist environment that existed at the time. He played scenes from the movie for us. We watched and came up with train music which corresponded with a sense of a mass exodus by train. The players on that are; Fred on guitar, Wayne on bass, and I'm on drums. The last of the MC5. The piano was dubbed in on the tune "Gold" by Wayne.
Mike: It sort of has a Cecil Taylor feel.
Dennis: A little Cecil, a little Sun Ra, and Coltrane's meditations. You might say that was the zenith of our explorations in music. A spiritual energy exchange. We were staying in a hotel in England, and when we hit the studio, we were ready and just exp loded. I'm into that music and unfortunately, there are not many people that have had a chance to hear that music. The only way is on some bootlegs, and those are scarce too.
Mike: What about the New Order Band? I have the "Red and Black" album and a live CD.
Dennis: Most of the tracks on the "Red and Black" album were recorded on a low budget with Neil Meriweather as producer. They were recorded for demo tapes. What happened was that we made about 12 songs; not all are on that album. We had a date set at the Starwood with a couple of companies, EMI and Epic, coming to see us. We were together for two years and all we did was rehearse.
We were probably the most well-rehearsed band in this galaxy. We didn't make much money because there weren't many places to play. Our prime objective was to get a recording contract and go on the road. We were tight and all we had to do was pull off that show and we would have been signed, but the lead singer, Dave Gilbert, decided to showup under the weather. He was so bad that he couldn't even sing. He just stood on stage and vibrated.
He sang 90% of our songs. So, here we are with ou r debut. Neil Meriweather was sitting out with the producers and we couldn't pull off our show. So, that was the last night of the band. Needless to say, Dave got worked over a little in the dressing room and I quit. Two years of hard work came to that ap ex, and it went down in flames.
Mike: The tune "Rock and Roll Soldiers" has become an underground classic, and was big in the Australian band scene. It was recorded by the Hitmen. Who wrote that?
Dennis: I did. One night I was feeling particularly bad about being a rock and roll player; broke, living in L.A. next to a sports car lot, with ten
million dollars worth of sports cars next to us. I'd walk by it to go buy
milk or a bottle of booze, and go back to poverty. One night I was
feeling bad and it just spurred that song out. Another one of those that
gets written when the times are tough. You know the right things just come
out. Yeah, I feel good about that one. I think it will stand the test of
time. We played a couple of Michigan gigs with that band, too in Ann
Arbor at the Roadhouse.
Mike: How did you and Ron Asheton end up going to Australia to be in The New Race Project?
Dennis: In 1980, a few years after New Order broke up, I got a call from Ron. Deniz Tek had given him a call out of the clear blue. He had an idea to put together a tour, so he had this idea for The New Race Tour called the First and Last.
He asked Ron and Scott Asheton to go, and Scott turned it down. Ron then gave me a call and asked if I wanted to go pull off a tour and I said "Hell, yes. Let's go." We booked a flight and popped in to Australia. We were really well received. The people in Australia were looking forward to this tour and it was promoted great. There were posters, radio spots - everything. Every place we played was packed and people really liked it.
At that point in time, the Detroit audience gave us a stiff reception. Detroit had flip-flopped and what was once a hard core music fanatic town, had turned into a place that preferred posers and stylists. In Australia, because it was a combination of The Five, Stooges and Birdman, it hit. People were ready and we pumped it out. Every tune was all out at high intensity. It made me feel great. I didn't want to leave. I cried when it was over. I had some offers, but it wouldn't have matched up.
Mike: Yes, that band is at another level.
Dennis: Like night and day.
Mike: What kind of feelings are you left with after all of this?
Dennis: I'm sad that Rob is no longer with us. He was an important ingredient in The Five. He was the poet and father figure of the group. At times he was an outcast, but deep down everyone really loved him. As far as the music is concerned, I think The Five were one of the hottest rock and roll bands, and it's sad that at this point in time, there isn't anything around that comes close to that. We tried to open up the limits.
To me, most music is constrictive nowadays. It's formats and rock equations pla yed over and over again. There's not much there for people to grab onto as a contemporary art form. There's not much that you can take away with you; no real content that people can dream on and base their lives around. A lot of music is negative and a lo t is pop and fluff. One thing I can say about The Five is that we stood for a lot of
quality things. We stood for brotherhood, for experimentation, and for the
art form. I have to give The Five all of the credit I can for that.
(C) 1995 Mike Johnston