By David Evans, Regal Radio
During its much-welcomed run recently at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I got the chance to see A Band Called Death, a documentary that tells the story of proto-punk band Death, a group that pioneered but was long overdue credit-wise.
Made up of brothers David, Dannis and Bobby (Sr.) Hackney, three African Americans from Detroit who in the mid-1970s produced what is considered by many today to be among the first punk albums ever made.
Death’s music, with its fast moving guitar strokes and hard drums, is just as moving as the story behind the band. When hearing Death’s music it makes me want to turn it up full blast while drive my car hard, putting the pedal to the floor until I hit redline.
From the EP that gave Death its long-awaited breakthrough (more on that later), For the Whole World to See…: “Keep on Knocking” is a track replete with fast guitar strumming and drums, causing me to involuntarily bob my head for the entire duration of the song. “You’re a Prisoner” stands out with its echoing effects and “Politicians in my Eyes” with its fast guitar licks and Bobby Hackney’s sped up singing makes one think of punk rock stalwarts the Ramones.
It’s hard to be objective about a story so viscerally moving as that told in A Band Called Death, which can be downloaded currently on the movie’s website, which also offers a guide to where it can be seen onDemand, which is the case on several cable providers.
This is a story about music, about family, about faith (strangely so at the beginning, but not by the end) and coincidence — in particular how music that could not find any place in the music industry in the 1970’s came to be seen as a work of genius in the rock world thirty five years later.
It seems that everything Death-related is being received well, including the film, which currently sits with a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 78 score from movie review aggregator Metacritic. Beyond its wealth of footage old and new with the Hackneys and their family, the film includes testimonies from Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, Mickey Leigh, brother of Joey Ramone, and Elijah Wood, who apparently is CEO of a label called Simian Records.
Following the band from its genesis as teenagers playing R&B in their parents’ garage in 1973, the movie explains how after seeing an Alice Cooper concert, David, the band’s spiritual guide and family’s second oldest (an older brother never took part in the band), became inspired to play hard rock.
The untimely death of the Hackney’s father in a car accident not long after changed the young men significantly, not least David, who upon seeing a triangle image in the sky behind the Hackney home took it to represent the three stages of existence (birth, life and death) and led him to come up with the name Death.
With their mother’s unceasing support, Death began practicing in their house, transforming a room into a rock haven where they could be as loud as they wanted to be but only from 3 to 6 p.m.
Death made its rounds through Detroit but were met with reactions ranging from confusion to ridicule in the town so identified at the time by soul music.
“We were ridiculed because at the time everybody in our community was listening to the Philadelphia sound, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers,” Bobby told the New York Times in 2009. “People thought we were doing some weird stuff. We were pretty aggressive about playing rock ’n’ roll because there were so many voices around us trying to get us to abandon it.”
When the band was ready to record, David chose a studio by pinning the Yellow Pages to the wall and throwing a dart at it, the dart landed on Groovesville Records, a company owned by Don Davis. Groovesville signed the band in 1974 and it began work at United Sound Recording Studios in Detroit, occupying the same space that Funkadelic, the Dramatics and Gladys Knight once did.
The name Death scared away many prospective record companies.
“Nobody could get past the name,” said Brian Spears, the director of publishing at Groovesville, also to the New York Times. “It seemed to be a real detriment. When you said the name of the group to anybody, it was like, ‘Man, why you calling the group Death?’ ”
The Hackney brothers did get a major offer from Arista records executive producer Clive Davis, but the deal came with the caveat that Death had to change its name. David, the visionary, refused and the other members, always willing to back up their brother, agreed to move on.
Nevertheless, Death was never able to secure a major distribution deal and as a result Death and Groovesville split in 1976. Groovesville was cool enough to let the Hackneys keep their masters and they went ahead and independently pressed 500 copies of a single featuring “Politicians in My Eyes” and “Keep On Knocking” on their own Tryangle label. More struggle came in trying to get radio play in Detroit as disco had begun to take over the airwaves.
In the late 1970s, feeling like they had enough of Detroit, the band moved to Burlington, Vermont at the urging of a cousin. There, the Hackneys attempted to re-brand themselves as the 4th Movement, a Christian rock group, but were met with lukewarm response by local music critics.
Disenchanted still, David moved back to Detroit with his wife in the early 1980s. Dannis and Bobby Sr. stayed in Burlington, Vt. and found some success performing as a reggae band throughout the 1980s and 1990s. David continued to write and produce music under the name Rough Francis until his death of lung cancer in 2000.
Death”s music was rediscovered only a few years ago in an odd series of events: by 2008 music collectors and bloggers in a few of areas of the country came across the music Death produced when it was still intact. Word spread across areas of the internet and posts featuring “Politicians in my Eyes” acted as a revelatory entrance point into this unique story of rock history.
In San Francisco, one of the newfound Death enthusiasts informed a friend named Bobby of the music, this Bobby would soon find out that his dad, Bobby Sr., was a member of Death.
Discovering his father and uncles’ music for the first time, Bobby, along with brothers Julian and Urian started to perform Death’s music under the name Rough Francis, in honor of their late uncle David, and at one of those performances a writer named Mike Rubin documented the emotional concurrence of old and new in one unique creative family. Rubin’s story ran in the New York Times in March of 2009 and it was the tipping point for Death, making the band into a minor phenomenon known to more than hard-core vinyl collectors.
While the original Death music spread around the net, independent record label Drag City became interested in Death’s remaining master material, stored at the time in the attic of Bobby Sr.’s Burlington home, and they would release For the Whole World to See… around the time of the Times article.
From there on, this band called Death was reborn. Now made up of Dannis, Bobby Sr. and guitarist Bobbie Duncan, in place of David, Death has toured frequently since ’09 and are even said to be attempting to make new music.
The film chronicled Death’s earliest return shows, including one at North Side Chicago bar, the Empty Bottle. At times in these performances it was too much for Dannis and Bobby Sr. to hear the music that so defined their youth with brother David, but as success finally seemed to open up to Death, the group and their descendents were able to take pride in the final vision offered by David, who in a poignant note left to brother Bobby Sr. just prior to his death, kept along with the original masters, said “the world is going to come looking for these.”
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