While attending the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash in 2009, I noticed the headlining band was called Death. That doesn’t make any sense, I thought. The only band I know called Death is a death-metal band and that band is no more. What’s going on here? I soon found out when the proto-punk band Death performed for one of the first times since 1977. By the end of the first song, the crowd was cheering its approval. Later as the singer of opening band Rough Francis joined them for a song, it was revealed he was the son of Death’s singer/bass player, Bobby Hackney. So a whole familial rock 'n' roll story unfolded during the course of a concert set. One of those rare times, when an audience knew absolutely nothing about a band at the beginning of the night and were bonafide fans by the end of the set.
In the early 1970s, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, three African-American brothers from Detroit, wanted to replicate the hard-rock sound guitar sounds of Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. They formed a band and group leader David gave it the improbable name Death. With their Mom’s blessing, the teens practiced three hours a day in a bedroom converted into a studio and subsequently recorded and shopped a demo. By 1977, that dream was over - for a few decades anyway.
Filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino documented the journey of the Hackney brothers in A Band Called Death, which premiered last month at the L.A. Film Festival. The band’s original demos from 1974 were released as For the Whole World to See in 2009 on Chicago-based Drag City Records. The filmmakers use a combination of interviews, archival clips, and most notably, footage of Bobby and Dannis returning to their family house in Detroit, revisiting their old practice space, kept intact by their Mom all these decades later. We hear cassette tapes of David, the group’s prankster and visionary, pontificating and playing jokes on friends and family, and hear some of the band’s raw, pre-punk demos.
The music itself has that proto-punk, hard rock/punk rock sound of other Detroit bands of that era like the Stooges, MC5, and early Alice Cooper. Still, Death’s rediscovery has triggered praise from all types of musicians (Henry Rollins and Kid Rock are among the artists contributing commentary throughout the film.) Even in the early 1970s, the music execs who heard Death’s demo all agreed on the band’s talent, but their distaste for the name and the musical climate of the time quashed the band’s chances at success. Clive Davis wanted to sign the band, but after David refused to change the name, the deal fell through. The brothers pressed 500 copies of a 45 RPM record - “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knockin’” in 1976. The single gained little interest and the band called it quits in 1977.
Shortly thereafter, the brothers had relocated to Vermont and formed a gospel group. Dannis and Bobby still live in Vermont with their families. They’ve fronted a popular local reggae band, Lambsbread, since the early 1980s. David returned to Detroit with his wife in 1982, writing and recording until he died of lung cancer in 2000. Before he passed away, he told his brother Bobby to keep Death demos because "one day the world would come looking for it.”
And David was right. By the early 2000s, the Internet and record collectors were abuzz over sightings of the rare 45s and copies ultimately wound up in the hands of a prominent record collector in Chicago. The young record collectors treated the Death single as more or less the holy grail of obscure rock records. And, more amazingly, Bobby’s son, Bobby Jr. (Rough Francis singer), heard one of Death’s songs at a friend’s party and recognized his Dad’s voice. It was the first time he had heard his Dad’s (and uncles’) former band.
Around the same time, a record collector bought one of the old DIY singles for $800. As word of the Death single spread through the indie music grapevine, Drag City and Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone’s brother) and others contacted Bobby Sr. and after 35 years, Death got their record deal.
Writer/directors Howlett and Covino let the film unravel naturally, not forcing it into any particular direction or viewpoint. A Band Called Death is not merely a documentary about music industry travails. This film is more about family bonds, perseverance, and where life’s never-ending twists and turns can lead.