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HomeEntertainmentDennis Thompson, MC5's Founding Drummer, Dead at 75

Dennis Thompson, MC5’s Founding Drummer, Dead at 75

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Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson, the founding MC5 drummer and the last surviving original member of the pioneering proto-punk group, died Wednesday, The Detroit Free Press reported. He was 75.

An exact cause of death was not given, though Thompson had reportedly suffered a series of medical issues in recent months, including a heart attack in April. 

Thompson’s death comes just a few months after the February death of his MC5 bandmate, guitarist Wayne Kramer, and the April death of John Sinclair, the group’s manager. A few months after Sinclair’s death, it was announced that the MC5 would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Musical Excellence Award, and Thompson was determined to make the induction ceremony, even after his heart attack. 

Becky Tyner, widow of MC5 singer Rob Tyner (who died in 1991), recalled Thompson’s reaction to the Rock Hall News — “It’s about fucking time!” — adding, “Dennis was thrilled with it, so excited and happy. He just wanted to get home to his cat, Annie, and was optimistic about recovering.”

Thompson was born into a musical family, his mother a singer and his father an upright bass player. As he recalled in a 1998 interview, he started playing drums when he was four, and by the time he was nine, he was playing alongside his brother on guitar and sister on piano. Thompson met his future MC5 bandmates in high school in the early Sixties, and the group came of age and cut their teeth in the thick of Detroit’s garage rock heyday. 

The MC5 rose to prominence playing left-wing rallies in Detroit and cut their classic debut, the live album Kick Out the Jams, in October 1968. After that, the band released just two studio albums, 1970’s Back in the USA and 1971’s High Times, before breaking up in 1972. The group’s acrimonious split was fueled in part by differing political visions, money, and clashes with Sinclair, but Thompson also acknowledged that his struggles with heroin addiction were a factor as well. 

Despite their short run, the MC5 were wildly influential. Thompson’s drumming was particularly singular, his powerful, spitfire thwacks earning him the nickname “Machine Gun,” even as he anchored his playing in classic rock and roll tenets. “You had to have the groove,” he told Modern Drummer (in an interview archived on his website). “You had to roll with the rock. You had to have propulsion and a smattering of explosive trick licks. You had to lead the beat ever so slightly creating what many used to call ‘drive.’”

Kramer, in an 2017 interview posthumously published this year in Spin, called Thompson “one of the most formidable percussionists,” adding: “He was the guy who was able to put a lot of thinking together on the drums that no one else had put together, you know? He listened to Sun Ra and Elvin Jones. He listened to Charlie Watts, Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell. He was able to put these things together in a way that no one else had done before, and to take it further than certainly rock drummers had ever taken it. He had the ability to play outside of time, which was just genius in my opinion.”

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In the decades after the MC5 split, Thompson played with a variety of other bands, including two with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton, the New Order, and New Race. In 1992, the MC5 reunited for the first time since their split. In the early 2000s, Thompson, Kramer, and bassist Michael Davis embarked on a world tour under the moniker DKT/MC5. This group continued to play regularly up through Davis’ death in 2012. 

While Kramer was the main anchor for future MC5 tours, Thompson was frequently game to sit in on select dates. He also played drums on Heavy Lifting, a new MC5 album that Kramer revealed in 2023, but still hasn’t received an official release date. The LP was produced by Bob Ezrin ad also featured contributions from Tom Morello, Don Was, Vernon Reid and Slash.

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