City Slang: Dennis Thompson on “Kick out the Jams”

In October 2007, I interviewed MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson for a Rhythm Magazine Classic Track feature about the band’s signature tune, “Kick out the Jams”. Rhythm is a UK drummer’s publication, and Dennis was an ideal interviewee. I just found it, and thought you guys might like it.

Classic Track

“Kick Out The Jams” 1968


The Drummer: Dennis Thompson

Where did you record the track? Set the scene for us

The song was recorded live at the Grande Ballroom. We used a 24 or maybe 16 track sound studio on wheels. It was the decision of Jac Holtzman from Elektra to try and capture the band live (for the debut Kick Out The Jams album). I think it was just cheap, personally. We should have gone to the studio. But that’s ok, we did it that way. We’d open up the set with Ramblin’ Rose, then Tyner would run on stage and go ahead and Kick Out The Jams. It was placed at number 2 because it wasn’t the hit that you saved for the end of the set. It was where we wanted it.

How did you approach the track?

From a drumming point of view, back then I was mainly influenced by Elvin Jones, Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell, and Motown too. So Kick Out The Jams is actually a rock ‘n’ roll soul tune, because the beat is a walking 4 – the snare drum is hit on all the quarter notes. That came from Stax, Motown and rhythm n’ blues. On Kick Out The Jams, we just accelerated it. My job was to play on top of the tempo, keep it driving along, and then fill a hole here and there. Other bands really weren’t playing like this. I was up against Marshall stacks, with no mics. During the recording of Kick Out The Jams, I think I broke two or three sticks. Back then, I was breaking 15-20 sticks per show. And I was using big sticks. I had to play so hard to get heard. There wasn’t the technology, plus financially we couldn’t afford to mic the drums. Most of the gigs we played back then had a really puny ass PA system in the first place.

What were your impressions on hearing the track for the first time?

I remember being in Rob (Tyner, MC5’s late frontman)’s room in Detroit, when he was writing the lyrics. Rob was talking about how we would always heckle visiting bands by saying ‘kick out the jams or get off the stage’. We thought it sounded powerful, so Rob wrote the words to the song. The more we played the song, the more insane and violent it got.

What set-up were you using?

I had a custom set of Ludwigs, with no lugs and no head. That was a custom prototype kit that Ludwig had built for me. After Kick Out The Jams got that notoriety from the press, I got fired from Ludwig as an endorsee.

Do you ever get sick of playing it?

No. How could you get tired of playing Kick Out The Jams? When you write something like that, you don’t know what it’s gonna be. It’s more the people that chose that song as the tune that represents how they felt. ‘Kick out the jams or get off the stage, asshole. It’s time to get going’ It’s time to stand up for what we believe in.’ The audience loves the song so much, you can’t help but get into it.

Do you think Mark Arm (Mudhoney frontman who sings with the reunited MC5) sings it well?

I think Mark does a fine job. He’s got the voice for it. He was singing great on this last tour. I love Mark.