Michael Davis: Bassist with the influential and incendiary MC5


The bass guitarist Michael Davis was a member of the incendiary and influential Detroit band the MC5 between 1965 and 1972. Alongside their Detroit friends and contemporaries the Stooges and New York's Velvet Underground, the MC5 formed the holy trinity of late '60s groups who lit the long, slow, simmering fuse of punk rock and inspired the Ramones, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and the White Stripes. The MC5 didn't just make hard-edged, highly-charged music; they were managed by the activist John Sinclair, aligned themselves with the Black Panthers and attracted the attention of the FBI. Kick Out The Jams, their seminal debut recorded live at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit in October 1968, and the title track, briefly made the album and single charts in the US when issued on Jac Holzman's Elektra the following year.

Yet the group were never likely to emulate the success of label-mates The Doors. They took some of Sinclair's White Panther Party 10-point programme – notably the "Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock 'n' roll, dope and fucking in the streets" – too literally and, after their mentor was jailed for 10 years for the possession of two marijuana joints in 1969, became "completely uncontrollable," their guitarist Wayne Kramer told me when I interviewed him, Davis and the MC5's drummer Dennis Thompson in London in 2005. "We burned everybody down that we tried to do business with in America. We'd miss gigs, we'd be too high to play and we had a really bad reputation."

The MC5 released two more albums, Back In The USA and High Time, on Atlantic, before Davis was kicked out a few days after missing a gig at the LSE in 1972. "We were really excited about playing there, we'd heard about the Rolling Stones and the LSE, and it was only the third time we'd visited Britain," said the bassist, who was battling heroin addiction. "But I got busted at the airport with works in my bag. A week later, the other guys kicked me out."

The group limped on with Steve Moorhouse and then Derek Hughes on bass, and pirate radio pioneer Ronan O'Rahilly as manager, but broke up after a disastrous appearance at the Wembley Stadium Rock'n'Roll Show in London in August 1972, and a poorly-attended homecoming at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on New Year's Eve 1972.

The deaths in the 1990s of their charismatic lead singer Rob Tyner and maverick guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, seemed to prevent any possibility of an MC5 revival despite the group's standing in the rock pantheon. However, Davis, Kramer and Thompson reunited in 2003 as DKT/MC5 with a revolving cast of guitarists and vocalists – including The Damned's Dave Vanian, Lemmy of Motörhead and Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators.

Born in Detroit in 1943, Michael Davis was the son of Yugoslavian and Irish immigrants. In the 1950s his father forbade him to listen to rock'n'roll but the resourceful youngster tuned in to the radio when his parents were out. After graduating from high school in 1961, he studied fine arts at Michigan's Wayne State University. Inspired by Bob Dylan, he dropped out with the intention of becoming a folk musician, and began singing while accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. During a short-lived first marriage he lived in Florida and New York before returning to Detroit, where he met the other members of the embryonic MC5.

In the mid-'60s, their garage-band repertoire consisted of Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks and Them covers, but under Sinclair's guidance they began incorporating free jazz elements and moving into the realms of agitprop. Davis was less enamoured of the improvisational and confrontational approach than his band-mates but recognised the power of the Kick Out The Jams live recording. "I remember being aware, while it was happening, how much power I possessed in what I was doing," he explained. "I could literally project my feelings and reach everybody in the room, and how immensely powerful it felt. "

Davis contributed to the bulk of the writing for Kick Out The Jams and Back In The USA, the album produced by future Bruce Springsteen associate Jon Landau in 1970. By the following year's High Time, the MC5 had eschewed the collective songwriting method and, by his own admission, Davis had fallen into "a pattern of substance abuse" that would lead to his exit from the band and an eventual jail term in the 1970s.

He subsequently joined Destroy All Monsters, which also featured the Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, and issued three singles on the British independent label Cherry Red. In the 1990s he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he played with Blood Orange and Rich Hopkins & The Luminarios. Over the last four decades, he had returned to painting and produced abstract works inspired by his love of the desert. Following a motorbike crash in Los Angeles in May 2006 he set up The Music Is Revolution Foundation, a non-profit organisation aiming to raise funds and awareness and promote the cultural and therapeutic qualities of music in schools. He died of liver failure.

"The MC5 was a phenomenon, maybe a social phenomenon in a way," he said. "We were a product of the times. The whole explosion of British bands and different styles and the melding of rhythm and blues and rock'n'roll and pop art and mod ... It was like being sent into a laboratory of ideas, time to experiment. Everything you did was ground-breaking work, because rock'n'roll was so young back then."

Michael Davis, bassist, songwriter and artist: born Detroit 5 June 1943; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died Chico, California 17 February 2012.

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