I got the DVD “A Band Called Death” as a gift. My friend knows I’m a punk-hungry girl, always ready to learn more, so he thought this was right up my alley.
I fully admit, when I heard the title of the DVD, my mind sort of was a mix of going blank, then thinking, “oh shit, what did he buy?” followed by, “Who the hell is Death?”
But I was the clueless one. My friend had done his research and told me a little about the band’s history; then I was intrigued.
The band was originally called Rock Fire Funk Express–Dannis Hackney on drums, David Hackney on guitar and Bobby Hackney on bass. The three African-American brothers from Detroit first started making funk music. Then they saw the Beatles and the Who, changed their tune pretty quick and became a protopunk band.
David Hackney was adamant about calling their new reincarnated band Death, “spinning death from the negative to the positive,” according to Bobby. When they went to record several songs in 1975, they had support from Clive Davis, president of Columbia, but when they wouldn’t budge on the name, support fell through.
While the Hackney brothers still had the masters, those original recordings sat in Bobby’s hot, dusty attic, a place where albums should have no earthly business.
By 1977 Death sputtered out, and the members moved to Burlington Vt., about the farthest you can get from any bustling music scene. They switched to gospel rock this time and released two albums. David Hackney died of cancer in 2000. The surviving members are still in the reggae band Lambsbread.
But like any enduring story, it hardly ended there.
According to the movie, Ben Blackwell, writing for the blog Chunklet, wrote about one of Death’s songs, “Politicians In My Eyes,” of which just 500 recordings were made.
Listening to “Politicians In My Eyes,” it’s eye-popping how forward-thinking the song is, with its progressive, almost psychedelic middle section, with its hard-punk vitriol and revolution-blaring lyrics, and the song sat, for decades.
Once the single started to leak, the fire spread and talk about Death rumbled quietly underfoot — after the Clash came and went, after the Sex Pistols burned out, after Bad Brains exploded onto the scene, after countless other punk bands credit those early influences and said they did right by the genre.
Three sons of Bobby Hackney formed the band Rough Francis in 2008, bringing the seven original songs into the bright light of the 21st century. Then Death began to reawaken. In 2009, the songs were released on Drag City Records and titled “For the Whole World to See.” That’s when punk enthusiasts started to open their eyes to this gem of a band.
It seems like it was meant to be that Death should remain quietly asleep for so long. It took decades for the rest of the world to wake up to this definitive protopunk band. If they had found a record label in 1980 that would take its name, it could have died on the table and it wouldn’t have been afforded this neo-revival.
The advent of MTV in the early 1980s and its polished visual element was further proof history was not ready for a band called Death.
Death would probably have been buried under the messy pile of sweaty punk-rockers, and their name was all that did them in. While the Pistols, Ramones, Clash and other punk giants will always claim their spot, the story of Death should remind everyone that punk-music history never really has an end.
It took the work of Rough Francis, record collectors and musicians to stoke the fire and give members of Death the recognition they always deserved. Above it all, David seemed to have the prescience to see far ahead in the future and know it would all work out.
Keeping an open mind to new music should always be a constant to fans, bloggers, recording companies and bands, because the most influential stuff could be where we least expect it.
There must still be more punk fans out there who haven’t heard of Death. Alert to those guys: More head-banging has arrived.