Pick of the week: The mind-blowing black punk band from 1974

The unbelievable but true story of "A Band Called Death" -- and its amazing rebirth

Topics: Movies, Documentaries, Music, Rock and Roll, Punk, punk rock, A Band Called Death, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies,

Pick of the week: The mind-blowing black punk band from 1974

We already know about the economic and political history of Detroit as the home of the most iconic American industry, the site of the most extreme urban decay in the country and ground zero for 21st-century DIY urban homesteading. We also know about the Motor City’s unique importance in American pop-culture history as the birthplace of Motown, a breeding ground for house and techno music, and the town that produced Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, Eminem and Kid Rock. (OK, never mind about Kid Rock.) Last year’s Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” told the strange but true story of Rodriguez, the Detroit-born Latino singer-songwriter who became a huge star in South Africa without even knowing it. Given all that discord, ferment, chrome and vitality, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that three African-American brothers in Detroit created punk rock before it actually existed. Next you’re gonna tell me that sex, marijuana and the movies were invented in Detroit too.

OK, it might be exaggerated musical shorthand to describe Death, the band founded by Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney in 1974, as “punk rock.” You could more accurately classify their seven-song demo tape – released 35 years later by Drag City Records as the album “For the Whole World to See” – as garage rock or proto-punk, clearly influenced by the environment of early-1970s arena rock but looking forward to the “faster, louder, shorter” aesthetic of punk that didn’t quite exist yet. (Still, the 2009 New York Times article by Mike Rubin – an expert in all things Detroit – that put Death back on the map was titled “This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk.”) Whatever term you want to use, there’s a peculiar time-machine quality to Death’s music, along with a confidence and belligerence that definitely suggests the sounds that would emerge from New York, London and L.A. a few years later.

As Bobby and Dannis – now genial, dreadlocked men in late middle age — tell filmmakers Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett in the moving, fascinating and far too weird to be fictional documentary “A Band Called Death,” the anger in their music was at least partly directed at neighbors and family members who wanted them to stop making such an unholy racket and abandon their mystifying passion for “white boy music.” Indeed, other than saying that there’s no accounting for taste and that the varieties of human experience are endless, there’s no particular explanation for why David Hackney, the bandleader and guitarist, jumped into rock with such eagerness. The Hackneys were preacher’s kids, devout Christians raised in a classic working-class black neighborhood. They didn’t have white friends or go to a white school or anything; they must have stuck out at concerts by Alice Cooper and the Who.

That too makes it seem as if David Hackney was a time traveler from the future, sent to drag America toward a new reality. Today, where I live in New York City and lots of other places too, it’s entirely normal for African-American kids to be into such previously white-coded realms as skateboarding, metal or hardcore along with (or instead of) R&B and hip-hop. As I understand it, the annual AfroPunk Fest in Brooklyn is currently considering spinning off an Afro-Metal festival (and if you’ve been yearning to see a documentary about the death metal scene in Angola, here it is.) But in 1974, forming a hard rock band in a neighborhood where almost nobody wanted to hear them play was definitely a form of rebellion. The first Hackney brothers band had been called Rock Fire Funk Express, more or less in an Earth Wind & Fire vein. But David Hackney’s passion was to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, and he told his brothers (somewhat to their discomfort) that their new band was going to rock hard and be called Death.

Seeming anomalous both within their own community and in the largely white rock world wasn’t what killed Death. That might have been an opportunity, as it was for Hendrix and, a few years later, for Washington hardcore pioneers the Bad Brains. The problem was the name. Legendary Detroit producer Don Davis immediately saw the band’s talent and potential, even though he had little experience with rock, and Clive Davis, then the president of Columbia Records, helped fund the demo recording. But he wanted the group to choose a less challenging monicker, and that was where David Hackney drew the line. Bobby (who played bass and sang lead) and Dannis (the drummer) ruefully admit today that they’d happily have changed the name in a heartbeat for the prospect of an actual recording contract. But for David the name was integral; it was linked to a spiritual and philosophical concept that underlay the whole band, and was a tribute to their late father.

That name seems completely innocuous by today’s standards, and even in 1974, the real issue may have been that Clive Davis wasn’t the right guy to see what was coming. Death were never going to be a platinum-selling arena act, but they could have had a long career and a solid following, like the Bad Brains or the Ramones. By the early 1980s, there were American punk bands called Fear and the Germs and the Dead Kennedys, not to mention MDC (which stands for Millions of Dead Cops). In 1987, the unrelated metal band called Death released its first album, “Scream Bloody Gore.” (They went on to sell something like 2 million albums worldwide.) If the Hackney brothers had stuck it out just a few more years, or had moved to the East Village or Hollywood or Austin, Texas, their target demographic would have thought the music, the concept and the name were awesome.

But let’s remember that the Hackneys were religious kids from a black neighborhood in Detroit; they’d listened to a lot of rock records, but it’s not clear from “A Band Called Death” that they even knew about the punk scenes in New York or L.A., or not until it was too late to make any difference. So almost nobody heard their music and they moved to Burlington, Vt. – I know! This was like the fourth time in this movie when I said aloud, “You have got to be kidding me!” – where local folks didn’t like the name too much either. They remade themselves into a Christian rock band called the 4th Movement (anticipating another trend, arguably) and released two albums before David gave up and went back to Detroit. Bobby and Dannis stayed in Vermont and became the leaders of a reggae band called Lambsbread, a longtime staple of the East Coast summer festival circuit. David started drinking heavily and suffered from poor health, dying of lung cancer in 2000. End of story.

Except not quite, or actually not at all. Unbeknownst to the Hackneys, the single they’d self-released in 1975 in Detroit, and barely been able to give away, became a valuable collector’s item over the years, selling on eBay in the 21st century for as much as $800. The songs on it (“Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking”) spread widely among music buffs in the Internet era, appeared on punk anthologies and started showing up on hipster nightclub playlists, which is basically how Bobby Hackney’s son Bobby Jr., a musician in San Francisco, first heard it, recognizing the lead singer’s voice as oddly familiar. He got to make a phone call that went something like this: “Dad? Were you in some crazy band back in the ‘70s?”

Before his death, David Hackney had stashed the Death master tapes in Bobby Sr.’s Vermont attic, insisting that someone would come looking for them one day. I suppose, since he actually was a time traveler from the future, that he knew what was going to happen: The album was released more than three decades after it was recorded, the surviving brothers would play a Death reunion tour (with guitarist Bobbie Duncan in David’s stead) and Bobby’s three sons would form a Death-inspired band of their own. And then would come this generous, spirited documentary, to capture one of the strangest and most inspiring of all family stories of tragedy and triumph that this crazy country has produced.

“A Band Called Death” is now playing in Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, San Antonio, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas. It opens July 5 in Dallas, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco; July 12 in Boston, Burlington, Vt., Iowa City, Spokane, Wash., and Columbus, Ohio; July 19 in Greensboro, N.C.; and July 26 in Duluth, Minn., New Orleans and Providence, R.I., with more cities to follow. It’s also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...