MC5 and the Multi-Ethnic Roots of Punk Music

MC5 [1967]

MC5 [1967] left to right: Fred Smith, Michael Davis, Dennis Thompson, Wayne Kramer, Rob Tyner

Some people think the English invented punk rock in the mid-1970s with bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.  Good bands.  Bad history.

Others think that punk was born somewhat earlier in CBGB’s nightclub in New York, with groups like The Ramones.  Maybe?

Still others find the roots of punk in American garage bands of the late 1960s, especially bands coming out of places like Detroit.

Iggy and the StoogesMC5 (Motor City 5).

It would be easy to assume that a band like MC5 from Detroit were a city thing, just a bunch of rowdy “white” kids.

But their singer Rob Tyner (who took his stage name from Black jazz great McCoy Tyner) was of mixed indigenous ancestry.

Drummer Dennis Thompson – the only surviving member of MC5 – always cited jazz legend Elvin Jones as one of his main inspirations.

Co-founder Wayne Kramer (who sadly passed away just last month) was the son of first generation immigrants from Greece and Poland on his father’s side, while his mother was the daughter of French or French Métis immigrants from Canada.

Guitarist and co-founder Fred “Sonic” Smith came straight out of the hills of West Virginia, and married a woman sharing the same birth name.  Patti Smith – poet, singer, songwriter, and author.  No relation, by the way.  Fred died relatively young of a heart attack, aged only 46.

The ripples on the water include the band Sonic Youth, who took their name from Frederick Dewey Smith‘s nickname.  Fred and Patti Smith’s son Jackson Smith would marry Meg White of The White Stripes.

The reason for this post?

Over the course of six decades, I’ve become convinced that most major new social or musical movements came when people of different backgrounds and ethnicities chose to find their common ground.

Very few Americans (including historians of music) would realise that Southern Appalachian people like Fred Smith came from extremely complex ethnic communities which included European, African, indigenous, and likely Romani and Jewish ancestors.

Mainstream music history will record him as a “white” kid who formed a band in Detroit, Michigan, and died young.

He and his bandmates were a lot more than that.

#MC5 #punk #musichistory

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *