Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early ’70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hoped of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death’s music – and band name – too intimidating, and the group were never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made it way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossible ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (hell…the first punk band!), and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers.(Imdb)
In the early 1970s, three teenage African American brothers–David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney–formed a band called Death and played “hard-drivin’ rock & roll”–really, a precursor to punk rock, pre-dating pioneering black punk band Bad Brains by about five years–across their hometown of Detroit. They didn’t get far–their only single rarely got airplay and the unreleased master tapes for their debut album sat unheard in a dusty attic in Detroit for nearly thirty-five years.
A BAND CALLED DEATH, directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, chronicles the Hackney brothers’ story, from their early years playing instruments purchased with a family insurance settlement in a cramped room in their parents’ house to the band’s rediscovery and eventual revival several decades after the band called it quits. It’s a story about family, faith, and a commitment to a singular divinely inspired artistic vision–one that took the world over thirty years to appreciate.
Now considered visionaries, Death never found any real success in their own time. They had a lot working against them: everyone hated the name (David’s refusal to change it cost the band a record deal); nobody understood their vision (a group of black kids playing punk was unheard of); radio DJs wouldn’t spin Death’s self-released 45 (they didn’t have a full-length record out and their music was overshadowed by the disco tsunami that swept the nation.) Eventually it became too much for the Hackneys to endure, and after several years of disappointment, Death broke up in 1977. “I honestly think that it was almost a wrong place at the wrong time scenario, unfortunately,” Covino said in an interview after the film’s premiere.
Years passed, and Death’s 1974 demos gathered dust in the Hackney’s attic. Bobby and Dannis moved onto other music projects while David struggled with alcoholism and eventually succumbed to lung cancer in 2000. But all of a sudden, word of the band’s only single–“Politicians in my Eye” b/w “Keep On Knocking”–spread over the Internet, and a couple persistent record collectors in complete awe of this history-changing discovery tracked down one of the very few original 45s and brought it to the attention of music historians, label owners, and punk fans all over the world. One night at an underground party, one of Bobby’s sons heard the record and immediately recognized his father’s voice. Then, as David had predicted so many years ago, the world did indeed come looking for those master tapes, and Death was resurrected over thirty years after their heyday. Indie label Drag City released their debut album …For the Whole World to See in 2008.
A Band Called Death is an incredibly thoughtful and compelling film, one of the best music documentaries to come out in years. Covino and Howlett tell Death’s story through archival footage, recent concert clips, and intimate interviews with the Hackneys and the megastar musicians in awe of them (Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, and Questlove sing Death’s praises). It gets tough to watch at times–you can feel the horrible pain Bobby still experiences when he recounts the Death episode and his brother’s death. But you can also feel his pride as he watches his sons play David’s old songs in front of an audience for the first time and see his happiness when he realizes how proud David would be that Death is finally getting their due. A Band Called Death is not to be missed–keep an eye out for another opportunity to catch this fantastic film.
Detroit — renowned home of Motown — isn’t the first touchstone associated with punk rock, despite its distinction for producing Death, regarded as the first African-American punk band. While countless docs attempt to make the case for near-forgotten musicians, Death’s unique place in musical history and the fascinating turns the band’s story takes as it winds its way out of obscurity present a promising opportunity for a proactive theatrical or home-entertainment distributor.
The Hackney brothers – David, Bobby and Dannis – started out playing rock and funk as teenagers, rehearsing at their Detroit home with the encouragement of their parents. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper and The Who, oldest brother David started leading the band in the direction of harder rock and their sound gradually became more hardcore, taking on the characteristics of prototypical punk rock as the band adopted their fateful name.
Incredibly they secured a recording contract with their first demo tapes, laying down the tracks for their debut full-length “…For the World To See” in a Motor City studio in 1975. Ironically, the music world never heard the album in that incarnation, after their representatives failed to sell the disc to a distribution company. Arista Records’ Clive Davis did offer to release the recording, but only if the band changed their name, which David flatly refused to do. “If we give them the name of our band, we might as well give then everything else,” he reportedly told his brothers.
With their contract cancelled, the Hackneys attempted to self-distribute singles on 45s, but radio stations passed them over and with the pressing and marketing costs, the brothers were soon broke and forced to sell off their instruments. Bobby and Dannis relocated to Vermont and formed the successful reggae band Lambsbread, while David remained in Detroit, plagued by his demons and advancing alcoholism, dying of cancer in 2000.
Conventionally the narrative would wrap up with Death being rediscovered and promoted online by an avid record collector, but instead the film takes a couple more unlikely turns. With the master tapes that David gave Bobby for safekeeping, Drag City finally released “…For the World To See” in 2009 and after nearly 30 years of obscurity, people started giving the group some long overdue attention.
Although filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino rely primarily on a series of generous and introspective interviews with Dannis, Bobby and other family members, along with archival photos and memorabilia, segments featuring Cooper, Henry Rollins and Kid Rock among others demonstrate Death’s visceral appeal. More than any other factor though, it’s the surviving Hackney brothers’ emotional and enthusiastic reminiscences that prove the most riveting material in the film, particularly their recollections of David and his central role in forming and guiding the band.
The film’s final twist, revealing how the band’s songs are being played live for the first time in decades, proves a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties and groundbreaking music.
A BAND CALLED DEATH tells at least three different stories, and all of them are earth-shakingly profound. The first is historical: The story of Death is a pivotal story in the history of punk music. Death, a rock band in Detroit in the early 1970s, was only recently rediscovered by musicians and journalists, but they are tremendously significant. Three of the four Hackney brothers, David (guitar), Dannis (drums), and Bobby (vocals & bass), were sons of a minister who originally played R&B music, but switched to rock n’ roll after witnessing the baroque showmanship of Alice Cooper and the go-for-broke musicianship of Pete Townshend.
Culturally speaking, some of the fascination surrounding Death concerns the not-insignificant fact that these were three young black men playing with energy and urgency in a typically white milieu. Their sound was faster and louder than most rock n’ roll of the era, having far more in common with groups like Iggy & The Stooges and The MC5 than with rock bands like The Beatles or The Who, let alone The Isley Brothers or any other band whom America might have expected them to sound like.
Death was unprecedented and therefore they were difficult to classify at the time. As Questlove from The Roots notes in the film, Death was doing The Ramones before The Ramones got around to it. As Vernon Reid from Living Colour notes, there was no doubt in Death’s sound. There was a confidence and a sureness to it. As Bobby and Dannis Hackney, the surviving members of the band, tell it, this sense of purpose came from their younger brother David, who named the band, designed their logo, and wrote all the songs. With humility that nonetheless sounds cogent and objective, Bobby and Dannis repeatedly credit David with the foresight, integrity, and creativity that powered the band. All you have to do is listen to the music to hear that it has a fiery timelessness. Bobby and Dannis suggest that the price tag on integrity can be expensive — David turned down a life-changing record deal because he wouldn’t buckle to pressure to reconsider the band’s name, which was off-putting to some but had tremendous significance to David. More on that in a moment.
Documentary directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino juggle multiple stories and themes with tremendous acuity — A BAND CALLED DEATH is engagingly designed on a visual level, and it has a momentum to match the music soundtracking it. Their film is relaying a footnote of major significance to American music history — Death’s music feels genuinely important in the grand scheme — and yet the film manages to track the human story with uncommon grace and power. David Hackney is a powerful presence in the documentary, despite only appearing in still photographs and in recordings of his voice and music. David was a troubled soul but by all accounts, a beautiful one. He believed in the music he and his brothers were creating and he has been proved right on all counts by retrospect. This is the second story the documentary tells, the emotional story. After passing up the record company deal, the brothers put out a limited independent release of their songs, but Death never quite caught on and at some point they chose to move on. Dannis and Bobby started a reggae band called Lambsbread, and David eventually succumbed to lung cancer.
Around five years ago, some crate-diggers (including Jello Biafra) started passing the scarce copies of Death records around. Some of the songs hit the music blogs, at which point the New York Times came calling. (This is where I, and many other music fiends, first heard the standout track “Politicians In My Eyes.”) More amazingly, Bobby Hackney’s sons, Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr., musicians in their own right, were so moved to hear their father and uncles on record playing some of the fiercest rock ever, and toured the country covering Death’s songs in a band called Rough Francis (a tribute to one of their uncle David’s nicknames). I know I’m doing an inordinate amount of recapping here, but the point I wanted to make by doing it is that these are clearly wonderful kids, this is clearly a wonderful family. I was so touched by this aspect of the movie — the emotion, the beauty of family. Family will save you. Family will redeem you. Julian and Bobby and Urian brought their uncle David to victory ten years after he died. What is more beautiful than that? As Brian Spears, a simpatico record executive, points out in the film (and trailer), there just aren’t any other stories like this one. It’s truly transcendent.
And that is the third of A BAND CALLED DEATH‘s stories — the spiritual side. David Hackney named the band Death not to intimidate or to shock, as many may have assumed. The band’s music was emphatic, but not aggressive. David named the band Death with a redemptive goal in mind, seeing as how the notion of death carries such negativity in so many minds. Essentially, he wanted the awesomeness of the band and the conspicuousness of its name to do nothing less than to frame the notion of death in positive terms. Like birth, it’s a thing that happens to all of us. Like birth, it’s an aspect of existence we have absolutely no control over. David Hackney seemed to be a tormented genius, but he had an uncanny perceptiveness. His brothers recount how he accurately predicted his own death, but also how he accurately predicted that one day the world would come looking for Death’s music. He was right, and he was right. At press time, Dannis and Bobby are back in the game and Death lives again. A BAND CALLED DEATH is a movie that communicates actual spiritual redemption. It challenges your very perception of a natural occurrence, the end of life, and as such it has the power to inspire. You don’t have to be religious to believe in that.
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.