Along with their Detroit-area contemporaries the Stooges, the MC5 helped to lay the musical and attitudinal foundations for punk rock. Both bands shared a loud, confrontational approach. But where the Stooges' wildness was an end in itself, the MC5 adopted an impassioned political stance, embracing radical rhetoric in a raw, uncompromising manner. The band's passionate advocacy of sex, drugs and revolution led them to regularly run afoul of legal authorities as well as their own record company.
Singer Rob Tyner and guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith founded the Motor City Five as a fairly conventional high-school combo in Lincoln Park, Mich., in late 1964. Before long, though, Kramer and Smith had discovered distortion and feedback and moved the band toward a more extreme sound. Bassist Michael Davis and drummer Dennis Thompson joined in 1966, and the renamed MC5 began making regular appearances at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, where their intense, uninhibited performances won them a rabidly loyal local following. They were soon taken under the wing of White Panther Party founder and cultural provocateur John Sinclair, who became their manager and political guru, seeing the band as a vehicle for his ideal of "total assault on the culture by any means necessary."
Elektra Records talent scout Danny Fields signed the MC5 after seeing them perform at a protest at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The band's debut album, Kick Out the Jams, was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in October 1968. Thanks to Tyner’s use of profanity, radio airplay was sparse and some retail chains refused to carry the album.
Although Kick Out the Jams sold well enough to make the Billboard Top 30, Elektra dropped the band, and Sinclair was jailed for marijuana possession soon after.
The band then signed with Atlantic, where they were teamed with producer Jon Landau for 1970's Back in the U.S.A., whose lack of overt political content reflected Sinclair's absence. Also gone was much of the first album's distorted, overdriven sound, replaced by a sleek, spare approach that alienated some fans. Back in the U.S.A. and its followup, High Time, failed to sell, and Atlantic dropped the band. By then, the MC5 had been seriously destabilized by various members' drug problems, and played its farewell gig at the Grande Ballroom on New Year's Eve 1972. Although their passing was little noted beyond the band's small fan base, the MC5's influence and notoriety increased as subsequent generations looked to the group as an inspiration.