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Before There Was Punk, There Was Death
For most punk rock fans, the early days of the genre may be represented by the likes of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The Ramones, and the Sex Pistols in the mid-to-late 1970’s. However, three African-American brothers from Detroit, Michigan began playing loud & fast music in their bedroom in the early 1970’s and would form a band called “Death.” After recording a handful of songs in 1975, the band couldn’t get much funding or any exposure due to not only having a negative and un-marketable name, but the fact that three young African-Americans were playing loud, fast music in a city dominated by Motown. The band didn’t last long and went their separate ways musically, but now a new audience is being introduced to their music due in part to the documentary “A Band Called Death.”
Directed by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, “A Band Called Death” chronicles the brothers’ introduction to rock music, their desire to form a band and write songs, their short-lived career, and how a resurgence of their music began popping up over the internet. Brothers David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney grew up in a working-class family and were introduced to The Beatles by their father at a young age. As they grew up, they started listening to rock music but it wasn’t until David witnessed The Who and Alice Cooper in concert that he knew what kind of music he wanted to dedicate himself to. Starting out playing songs by Queen, the brothers would eventually begin to write their own music. Songs based in spirituality but with a fast up-tempo beat and bassist Bobby Hackney screaming at the top of his lungs into the microphone. They first started calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express, but David wanted to change the name of the band to Death. In a 2010 interview with NPR, Bobby stated that “[David’s] concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell."
In the summer of 1975, the band was able to get funding to record their first album from Columbia Records president Clive Davis. However, Davis tried to convince the band to change their name but they wouldn’t allow it. After cutting only seven songs in the studio, Davis ceased funding and the album was never released. The following year, the band obtained the master recordings of the seven songs and self-released a 45 RPM single on their own Tryangle Records with two of the songs, producing only 500 copies.
By 1977, the band decided to call it quits and the brothers moved to Burlington, Vermont to pursue other musical endeavors. They released two albums of gospel rock as The 4th Movement in the early 1980s. When David moved back to Detroit, Dannis and Bobby formed the reggae group Lambsbread.
In the early 1990’s, the film’s director Jeff Howlett played in a band and first met Dannis and Bobby Hackney at a music festival, who were there playing as Lambsbread. However, in the time that Howlett got to know the brothers, he wasn’t aware of the Hackney’s old band Death. In an interview with TwitchFilm.com, Holwett explained how he was introduced to the music of Death.
“One day Bobby Jr., who through his father was a successful musician in his own right, formed a band with his brothers to honor his father's band Death. Bobby Jr. told me to come check out his band, Rough Francis, who were playing a gig in town. He told me about how his father was in this amazing punk rock band back in the 1970s, and I said, "What? Your father never told me about this." When I went to the show, I was absolutely mesmerized by the music, especially knowing the family for twenty years. I did not know about this hidden historical gem. One of our friends said it best: "We need to rewrite the history of punk rock." A few months later, I called Bobby Jr. and Sr. and we started production on what would become A Band Called Death.”
Howlett met co-director Mark Christopher Covino during a video production and later approached him about a documentary on Death. In that same interview, Covino stated, “I was trying to wrap up my own feature documentary at the time, so needless to say, I was a little reluctant at first. That was until Jeff sent me an email with the NY Times piece and a link to the two tracks from the 7". Once I heard "Politicians in my Eyes" I immediately called him back to start production and the rest is history.”
The documentary covers extensive interviews with the two surviving members Dannis and Bobby along with their family members who looked fondly on the days of the boys playing loud music in a small room in their house. The film also discusses brother David’s history of alcoholism and his eventual death from lung cancer in 2000. In 2008, Bobby Hackney’s sons Bobby Jr., Julian, and Urian, along with friends Paul Comegno, Steve Williams, and Dylan Giambalista formed the band Rough Francis and began playing in concert the songs originally performed by Death.
Around the time of the formation of Rough Francis, record collectors around the country began building buzz around the Death 45RPM single. Musician and writer Ben Blackwell was able to obtain a copy and ripped the two songs “Politicians in my Eyes” and “Keep on Knocking” and shared the songs on the internet. Soon enough, punk rock fans were amazed at what they were hearing and were speculating if any other songs existed. Eventually, the songs got the attention of Rian Murphy of Drag City Records in Chicago. The label would release the seven songs recorded over 30 years ago on the album “...For the Whole World to See” in 2009. The film also includes interviews with famous musicians like Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, and Questlove of The Roots, who have since become fans of Death and astonished that these three young black kids were pulling off punk music before the emergence of punk rock.
As a fan of punk rock, I was surprised that such a group existed years before what many consider the early days of punk. These were just three brothers bounded by their love of fast, hard rock music and dedicated themselves to writing songs. It’s somewhat amazing to hear this type of music existed so early on and that they have gone primarily unnoticed for thirty years. Bands such as Minor Threat and Operation Ivy were short-lived but went on to influence generations of punk fans and their few releases remain a benchmark in punk history. Meanwhile, Death was a band that was able to record the few songs they’ve written but kept their integrity by not changing their name. While they played many shows, whether it was in a club or in a garage, they wouldn’t be able to get a chance from any other record label after their falling out with Clive Davis. However, thanks to record collectors and technology, their songs made their way to the internet and word of mouth began to build around “the world’s first black punk band.” This is a terrific documentary for not only punk fans but music lovers in general. It is a story that showcases how the love of music and bonds of family is universal.