The story of the Detroit band Death is so outlandish, a movie could be made out of it. In fact, a great film about them was released in 2012, and it showed at SIFF this year. Titled A Band Called Death and directed by Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino, the documentary poignantly recounts the unlikely saga of three African American brothers—guitarist David, drummer Dannis, and bassist Bobby Hackney—who forged a particularly speedy and strident strain of hard rock in the mid '70s that has been dubbed "proto-punk" (more about that later), but which went largely unheard for more than 30 years.
During their first run, Death only released one 45—"Keep on Knocking"/"Politicians in My Eyes"—on their own Tryangle Records. One of the 500 copies of that single ended up in the hands of a collector named Robert Cole Manis, who'd heard "Keep on Knocking" on a 2001 bootleg comp of rare punk singles. He scored a copy on eBay for $400. Eventually, Manis got in touch with the Hackneys, who'd relocated to Vermont in the early '80s, and he connected them to Drag City Records. That Chicago indie label wisely decided to release ...For the Whole World to See in 2009—a cache of seven songs from a master tape that Bobby Hackney had been storing since the group split in 1977. David—who died in 2000 from the effects of excessive smoking and alcohol intake—had told his siblings that the world would come looking for this music after he'd departed this plane, and he was correct.
David's spectral aura haunts A Band Called Death. He's the Hackney brother who named the trio Death, a handle inspired by their Baptist minister father's tragic passing in a vehicular crash in 1968 while driving an injured coworker to the hospital. They had been called Rock Fire Funk Express and played funk and fusion in the early '70s, but witnessing concerts by Alice Cooper and the Who in 1972 persuaded the Hackneys to thrust all their creative energies into rock and roll.
Dannis remembers catching Alice Cooper by chance at the Cobo Hall basketball arena on the way to a Motown party with his mother. "Those guys, more than working, looked like they were having a good time," he says. "It dawned on me that this is what I want to be doing. I play drums, and I was looking at the drummer [Neil Smith], and this guy's got all the reckless abandon in the world and he doesn't care. He's just up there having a good time. They didn't look like they were sticking to the script. If he wanted to kick a drum off the stage, he did it. Alice Cooper was up there with his boa constrictor... Looking at that changed me."
Growing up in a black neighborhood on Detroit's east side, the Hackneys provoked confusion—and cries of "white-boy music!"—from their neighbors when they'd practice their ear-blistering songs in an upstairs bedroom, where they rehearsed from 3 to 6 every afternoon, with their mother's blessings. "They looked at us as being kind of weird," Bobby says, laughing. "We were playing weird rock and roll music. It wasn't accepted. We wouldn't be the band to be called if there was a dance happening." While their peers were expecting them to play in the style of James Brown and the Isley Brothers, the Hackneys instead channeled the Stooges and MC5. "So, yeah, we got a lot of rejection," Bobby says.
Death didn't play out much in the '70s, focusing instead on recording. They ended up getting involved with Groovesville Productions after David threw a dart at a Yellow Pages book opened to recording engineers. Groovesville boss Don Davis steered Death to United Sound Studios, where they worked with renowned engineer Jim Vitti and commingled with luminaries like Funkadelic, the Dramatics, Johnnie Taylor, and several Motown artists.
The seven songs dusted off and issued on ...For the Whole World to See have prompted some pundits and Jack White to hail Death as "punk before punk existed," or something to that effect. This is debatable, as many critics trace punk's origins back to '60s rockers like the Stooges and MC5; plus, a song like Love's 1966 single "7 and 7 Is" is more "punk" than anything the Sex Pistols or Ramones did.
Semantics aside, Bobby is grateful that some writers have called them honorary "proto-punks," but they knew nothing of punk in the mid '70s. "It was just good, hard-driving Detroit rock and roll," he says. "Back in '74, '75, if you called somebody 'punk,' those were fightin' words. We just wanted to be hard and loud like the MC5, Iggy, Grand Funk Railroad, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels."
There's no denying the immediate, furious impact of Death songs like "Freakin Out," "Rock-N-Roll Victim," "You're a Prisoner," and "Politicians in My Eyes." They all deliver surplus adrenaline injections, like the best punk does, from the Saints to Wire to Electric Eels. Substantial angst-venting happens and clangorous rave-ups occur. If there were any other black rock groups sounding this noisy and righteously truculent during Gerald Ford's reign, they've not yet surfaced.
But unlike many punks, proto- or otherwise, Death could sing and play like motherfuckers. Their peak tune, "Let the World Turn," is more psychedelia than punk. Beginning in dewy contemplativeness, the song explodes into a roller-coaster ride of freak-rock flamboyance and dazzling dynamics in the vein of "Your Mind and We Belong Together" by Love (them again).
Death's music sounds vital today, but apparently the world wasn't ready for three black dudes with a morbid name rocking this viciously. The Hackneys were this close to getting a $20,000 recording contract with Arista's Clive Davis, but David refused to change the band name, and that stubbornness cost Death a deal. "He told Brian Spears [Groovesville's director of publishing] to tell Clive Davis to go to hell. That put us on the path to this long journey that we're on now," Dannis says, still sounding a bit regretful about it.
The Hackneys moved to Vermont and formed the more overtly spiritual rock band the 4th Movement in 1981. "It's funny: People say 'gospel rock,' but we still called ourselves a rock and roll band," Dannis says. "We just put the message of god in it. After all the rejection from being Death, we went with a softer name. It was still David's concept. The 4th Movement is a metamorphosis of what Death was. David had a symbol he created called the mental/spiritual/physical triangle."
David eventually became homesick and moved back to Detroit, while Dannis and Bobby remained in Vermont and formed Lambsbread, a reggae group that includes guitarist Bobbie Duncan, now also a full-fledged member of Death. They have a new single, "Relief" (which lacks the throttling recklessness of their peak years), and an album in the can featuring six archival Death cuts and four new ones. And Drag City is slated to release another archival treasure trove in 2014 on the order of 2011's Spiritual Mental Physical.
So, does death scare Death? "The act of dying? No, man," says Dannis. "The whole concept of death is... it's a door, as David explained it," Bobby says. "All of us have that mysterious door we all have to go through. You don't pay attention to that door when you're young. It keeps you up at night when you're old. It makes you examine yourself. When David first explained the meaning behind the name Death and the door, he said, 'We can't call ourselves the Doors, because that name's already taken.' He was certain that Jim Morrison had the same concept, when talking about breaking on through to the other side. That's what it's all about, man."