Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett's documentary, out on Friday, is simply titled A Band Called Death. It provides a thorough biography of an under-appreciated protopunk garage band that existed on the cusp of punk. They were called Death, obviously. The Detroit band, founded in 1971 by three brothers—David Hackney (guitar), Dannis Hackney (drums) and Bobby Hackney (bass, vocals)—was disbanded in 1977, but managed to record an album's worth of songs in demo sessions. When the band was rediscovered by record collectors, punk obsessives, and underground DJs in the 2000s, the Hackneys were hailed as visionaries.
Hearing Death for the first time, it's easy to see what had everyone thrilled and excited. It's genuine, 1970s punk without sounding tired, over-played, or over-imitated. The tempo is aggressive, the sound pleasantly jarring, the lyrics repetitive, catchy, and uncomplicated. When punk experts and critics started to learn about the existence of Death, they wondered if that Death might not only be the first black punk band, but perhaps the first punk band ever. "The Ramones got all the glory for what this is right here," Questlove says in the documentary, "this is the Ramones two years earlier."
But this music, appealing and even conventional now, flopped in early 1970s Detroit. Studio executives who met with Death in the 1970s and considered signing them said that the world wasn't prepared for their sound. If you were a black musician in Detroit at the time, you were expected to be motown or R&B. Not rock, and certainly not a pioneering iteration of rock.
The documentary does a decent job of communicating why Death failed at first; it does an even better job showing the thrill of discovering the band. When people— everyone from record collectors, punk geeks, musicians, studio executives, and even Bobby Hackney's sons— recount their discovery of Death, they grow wide-eyed with revelation, disbelief, excitement, and admiration.
The brother's first band was called Rock Fire Funk Express, because one of the brothers said they weren't "sure if they wanted to be rock or funk, but we wanted to keep going." They aimed to sound like a combination of the Who and Jimi Hendrix. The Hackneys report that their neighbors were less enamored with sound. Constant complaints from neighbors and the police prompted their brilliant single "Keep on Knocking." This resistance from their community and record studios fueled their creativity, said Bobby, "that is pure anger, we are fighting… to maintain our identity."
The Hackneys changed their name from Rock Fire Funk Express to Death just after their father was killed by a drunk driver. Dannis said that their conceptual leader, David, "wanted to put a positive spin on death, that it's like birth." While the name Death now seems mundane even, in the early 1970s, this name cost them a record deal. Groovesville's Don Davis wanted to sign the band as long as they gave up the name. David refused. Dannis said he would have changed the name in a second, but he respected David's vision. "He inspired us because we had the chance to change the name. I think David was the prime example of what the Lord said: 'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul,'" says Bobby tearfully, "and David's music was his soul and he never wavered on it."
Death self-released 500 copies of a single on their label Tryangle, including the songs "Politicians in My Eyes" and "Keep on Knocking." But after failing to reach an audience, the band disbanded in the 1980s. The brothers moved to Vermont, where Dannis and Bobby married and had families. David moved back to Detroit in 1982 and died of lung cancer in 2000. Just a few years later, Death was rediscovered.
By 2008, the 45 was selling for $1000 on eBay. Then Bobby's son heard about a protopunk band from a friend going to underground DJ sessions in California and listened to them. When he heard his father's voice, he was shocked. "I can't believe I'm listening to the best rock and roll I've ever heard," said Bobby Hackney Jr. "and I'm the only one that knows about it."
Bobby's sons formed a Death cover band called Rough Francis, named in honor of their uncle David's last musical effort. In March 12, 2009, the New York Times featured a huge spread devoted to Death and the label Drag City that released all seven Death songs from the 1974 sessions for the first time. In September of 2009 Death reformed with Bobbie Duncan as the guitarist, though Dannis and Bobby considered refusing to regroup without David. After playing a small tour (including Joey Ramone's birthday party), Dannis and Bobby are still mourning David, but they indicate the playing and perpetuating David's musical vision is the best tribute to him.
As a documentary, A Band Called Death could use a little of Death's energy and urgency. It relies very much on people recounting—which is most likely due to a dearth of archival footage. Despite a labored start, A Band Called Death picks up with the excitement of the discovery in recent years (a structure following the subject's model, without the raw inspiration).
The lasting image of A Band Called Death, beautifully marks Death's influence. It occurs when Bobby Hackey's two sons play Death songs in their new band in a small concert venue. The image of Bobby Hackney laughing and crying as he watches his songs play this vicious, fuck-it punk is an astoundingly sweet and complicated and a perfect symbol of a new life for the band.
A Band Called Death will hit theaters in limited release June 28 and is available for streaming and digital download at the Drafthouse Films website. It's screening at midnight on July 5th at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.
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