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Dennis Thompson, Drummer and Last Remaining Member of MC5, Dies at 75


Dennis Thompson, the drummer whose thunderous, hard-hitting style powered the proto-punk sound of the loud, outspoken and highly influential Detroit rock band MC5, died on Thursday in Taylor, Mich. He was 75.

He died in a rehabilitation facility while recovering from a recent heart attack, his son, Chris McNulty, said.

Mr. Thompson was the last surviving member of MC5, a band that was politically outspoken and aligned with the countercultural left, supporting the anti-Vietnam War movement and protests against racism. The band will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in October.

Musically, MC5 was known as one of the forefathers of punk rock, starting with the breakout 1969 live album, “Kick Out the Jams.” The group’s song of the same name was its best-known, covered by Henry Rollins and Bad Brains, The Presidents of the United States of America and Rage Against the Machine.

When Mr. Thompson joined MC5, short for Motor City Five, in 1966 at 17 years old, his intense playing style earned him his nickname “Machine Gun” from his bandmates for how ferociously he played the drums. He played that way because the group could not afford to connect a microphone to his drums in its early days.

“The amps were turned up to 10, so he basically just had to hit the drums as hard as he possibly could to be heard,” Mr. McNulty said.

Born Dennis Tomich in Detroit on Sept. 7, 1948, Mr. Thompson grew up in a musical family. His parents, John Tomich and Leona Hicov, were musicians, as was his older brother, who sang and played the guitar, Mr. McNulty said. He started playing drums at age 4, joining his brother’s band and performing in local bars as a teenager.

When he joined MC5, Mr. Thompson replaced the original drummer of the band, which had been formed in 1965 in Lincoln Park, a Detroit suburb. He graduated from Lincoln Park High School in 1966 and began attending Wayne State University to study mechanical engineering, but never completed his degree, Mr. McNulty said.

While he liked engineering, which he viewed as stable, he loved music, even though it was “chancy,” Mr. Thompson said in a 2020 interview. “I chose fun.”

“I loved the band, I loved the music,” he said. “I wasn’t doing math at 4 years old, right? I was playing drums.”

In 1969, Mr. Thompson fathered Mr. McNulty with Kathleen Casey, to whom he was married for about five years.

He joined the band along with two guitarists, Wayne Kramer and Fred (Sonic) Smith, the singer Rob Tyner and the bassist Michael Davis. John Sinclair, an activist who founded an organization allied with the Black Panthers called the White Panther Party, managed the band.

The band started playing in V.F.W. halls, sock hops and graduation parties, then signed with Elektra Records in 1968. After “Kick Out the Jams,” recorded live at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in 1968, MC5 released two subsequent albums: “Back in the U.S.A.” and “High Time.”

MC5’s use of profanity in lyrics caused problems throughout its tenure. The band’s conflict with a major department store that refused to stock its first album led Elektra to drop the group in 1969.

As Mr. Thompson rode through the life of MC5, he was uneasy with the incendiary image that the band took on, he told the Detroit Free Press in 2003.

“I can see it was beneficial because of the notoriety. It was powerful stuff, and that media notoriety helped make us a household word,” he said. “But at same time it was ending our career. It was killing us.”

Though not a major commercial success before breaking up in 1972, the group left a legacy that grew over time, and it was revered by later bands. Dave Grohl, the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman, once joined Pearl Jam onstage just to play tambourine to “Kick Out the Jams.”

“Dennis would tell you that they weren’t the most commercially successful band, but they’re one of the most influential bands,” Mr. McNulty said. “All of them, especially Dennis, were very proud of that.”

Mr. Thompson went on to play with short-lived bands like The New Order and Motor City Bad Boys in the 1970s before leaving the music industry to work as a tool-and-die maker until his retirement, Mr. McNulty said. But he rejoined surviving MC5 members for reunion tours and performances in the 2000s under the name DKT/MC5.

His death followed that of the guitarist Wayne Kramer, in February. Mr. Thompson had been recovering from a heart attack in April when plans for the band’s Hall of Fame induction were announced. Mr. McNulty said that getting his father well enough after his heart attack to attend the induction had been his ultimate goal.

In his final years, Mr. Thompson formed an unexpected father-son relationship with Mr. McNulty, 55, who said he used ancestral research to track down his biological parents after being adopted at birth. Mr. McNulty met Mr. Thompson, his biological father, in late 2022.

In addition to his son, Mr. Thompson is survived by his sister, Donna, Mr. McNulty said.



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