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Death: unlikely hard rock heroes

Death come back to life in an archive feature to talk about the genesis of punk and the unanticipated success of the band

Taken from the January 2010 issue of Dazed: 

Could the little-known hard rock band Death, a trio of three African-American brothers who tore up the dive bars of Detroit in the early 70s, provide the missing link between rock’n’roll and punk rock? Formed a decade before black hardcore-punks Bad Brains, the brothers’ demo tapes were recently discovered by one of their sons after gathering dust in an attic for 33 years. Now, with their debut album being hailed by a new generation of hardcore kids as punk rock’s keystone, Death’s formidable musical legacy is undergoing a major resurrection. 

“When you say punk, you think of Johnny Rotten and The Clash,” recalls vocalist and bassist Bobby Hackney. “People are tellin’ us that we pre-dated punk, but we didn’t even know that’s what you called it. I mean, back then, if you called a musician a punk in the east side of Detroit then that was a fighting word!” 

In 1973, guitarist and eldest brother David was introduced to the sounds of Alice Cooper at the local stadium, and rushed home to persuade teenagers Bobby and Dannis that this was the way forward. When their peers were grooving to disco, Death decided to push hard rock in an even more urgent direction. 

“We started getting exposed to a lot of rock’n’roll shows ‘cause our mother’s boyfriend was a security guard who had free access to all the arenas where the rock stars played,” says Bobby. “David came home from the Alice Cooper show really excited. He was like, ‘Wow, the sound of this music, the way people were reacting to it! This is the music we’ve gotta play.’ Me and Dannis were like, ‘Well, huh. Er, okay…’ because we were still experimental with funk.” Dressed in their mod clothes, the three soon became known as the weird guys on the block. “Why are you guys playing this hippy music?” people asked. “Why don’t you play some Earth, Wind and Fire?” 

Their mother was supportive, allowing the boys to play in the house and swap their bedroom chests of drawers for amps, so long as they would keep up practice for three hours per day. Mr Hackney was a Baptist minister, though a forward-thinking, blues-loving one, and encouraged his boys to listen to all kinds of music. It was David who decided on the name Death, and sold it to the others by explaining, “We have to spin death from the negative to the positive! It’s actually the most positive thing that could ever happen to us, it’s just cloaked in a mask and we can’t see it.” 

“Being around people who were into the black music sound of the day, we were met with some resistance,” says Death’s drummer Dannis, now aged 56. “The more they said we should sound like Motown or The Isley Brothers, the madder we got – and it started to reflect in the music, which got harder and faster. We came up with a bastard sound that was different from the conventional rock of the day. People weren’t used to it.”

“We have to spin death from the negative to the positive! It's actually the most positive thing that could ever happen to us, it's just cloaked in a mask and we can't see it” - David 

While the music wasn’t quite punk, the attitude most definitely was. Bobby, the youngest by two years, and a keen poet from an early age, wrote “Politicians In My Eyes” – a furious Vietnam protest song – in his school library. “We never started a rock’n’roll band to say, ‘We’re a black rock band! Black Rock Power!’ Back in that time, the enemy really was the system – the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, if you lived in America. They were what we were fighting up against with our music and with the whole movement.” Death’s obvious influences were fellow Detroit bands like MC5 and The Stooges, but there was also the occasional proggy, more psychedelic spin-out. Mostly, though, anger and dislocation were their primary motives, and Bobby’s deep 17-year-old voice could pack as strong a punch as any man’s who’d been on Marlboro Reds for a decade. More than just black kids playing classic rock, Death combined rock elements with a pace that rivalled the rhythms of the soon-to-be-formed Ramones, especially on songs like “Freakin’ Out” and “Where Do We Go From Here”. 

David’s semantic lesson on the name Death didn’t weaken the disapproval it sparked, and the band wound up playing mostly garage parties and midweek slots, where it was almost like they were teaching their Motown audiences what rock’n’roll was. “Some would walk away, but some were really grooving and diggin’ on it,” says Bobby. When they finally got to record, Death even managed to offend the Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight, with their name. “Don Davis had bought up Detroit’s legendary United Sounds Recording Studio and invited Death to come and do some sessions there,” Bobby remembers. “At the same time, he had flown in Gladys Knight to record, and when she discovered the name of the other band present, she locked the door on David, who wanted to get in to see.”

Death managed to lay down seven songs there with Jim Vitti, who had done engineering work for Parliament/Funkadelic, but there was more trouble ahead. Don Davis was working on projects with a number of different labels, including the mighty Columbia Records, and news travelled back to the band that Columbia’s president Clive Davis would consider giving them a record deal if they changed their name to something less provocative. “At that point, David told Brian to tell Clive Davis to go to Hell!” laughs Bobby at double volume. 

“It was an interesting conversation at home that night to say the least. I’m giving all the rebel credits to David. I remember we were like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Back then in the 70s, even if a band got a meagre contract with a major label, the lowest advance was like $50,000. But David was very reassuring, he was like ‘Guys, I’m tellin’ you, it’s gonna be bigger than that. Don’t worry man, the world is gonna hear this music one day!’”

As it turned out, David didn’t live to see his confident predictions come true. He died from lung cancer in 2000, at which point the only release Death had to their name was a 1976 seven-inch of “Politicians In My Eyes” / “Keep On Knocking”, with just one pressing of 500 on their own label Tryangle. After their refusal to change for commercial success – the definition of punk if there ever was one – Don Davis soured on them. Following their short period of good fortune, there was a final stand-off with the label, and the band were allowed to keep the master tapes. Disillusioned with both the music industry and the high unemployment level in Detroit, and wary of the new political apathy that came with the disco trend, the Hackneys moved to Burlington, Vermont, where they tried for a while to keep Death alive. There, people still “really freaked out” about the name, so, reluctantly, they became The Fourth Movement, and slowly the music headed in a gospel rock direction, but the spiritual concept wasn’t understood either and a second bout of rejection followed.

David became homesick after a few years, and with him gone, Bobby and Dannis put those master tapes in the attic for good and moved on to reggae, the style they found to be the most conducive to sounding good without a guitar player, and a genre that they enjoyed playing just as much as rock’n’roll. Calling themselves Lambsbread, they became one of the most popular reggae bands in New England, while David continued to make music on his own until his death in Detroit. 

In 2008, Bobby’s son Julian had taken a year off college to travel America, and when he was in San Francisco, called up his dad excitedly to ask him: “Do you realise they’re playing your music down here at underground parties and going crazy over it?” Bobby misunderstood, and asked whether Julian was referring to Lambswool. “No, Dad, you were in a band in the 70s called Death, down in Detroit…” The line went quiet as Bobby absorbed what he’d just heard – neither he nor Dannis had listened to Death’s music in around 30 years, and the pair had only mentioned the band to their children in passing. 

When the story was relayed to Bobby’s oldest son Bobby Jr, he immediately did an internet search and found MP3s of “Politicians in My Eyes” and “Keep On Knockin” from that solitary seven-inch, which had, unbeknown to Death, become a cult collectors’ item that sells on eBay for around $800. “I immediately called my dad and asked him if there were any more Death recordings,” Bobby Jr says. “He then told me that there was a full album’s worth of material and tons of demo tracks in the attic. A week later, he gave me a CD of all seven Death songs. I knew I was listening to something very significant... something revolutionary. This Death album would really shake up the music world and possibly re-write music history, but people would have to hear it to believe it.”

“ I knew I was listening to something revolutionary – This album would possibly re-write music history” - Bobby Jr. 

Bobby Jr passed the tapes to some of his friends, who got them over to Chicago record label Drag City. Death were signed for the first time, and in February 2009, their first seven-song album …For The Whole World To See was unleashed. Not long afterwards, Bobby’s sons Bobby Jr, Julian and Urian, along with two friends, set up their own Death tribute band Rough Francis (Uncle Dave’s pseudonym), and local filmmaker Jeff Howlett began to gather material to make a documentary on the group. Just when they thought they had reached maximum velocity, Drag City sent Death a link to a Filter magazine interview with Mos Def, in which he was quoted as saying: “These dudes were pre-Sex Pistols, pre-Bad Brains, pre-all that shit, and nobody knows them. I don’t understand how the whole world could forget them.” 

“The whole article seemed to be more about his newfound obsession with Death than about his new album,” says Bobby Jr. When Jeff read the piece, and remembered that Mos Def was scheduled to perform in Burlington the next month, he sent an interview request – and the next day got a direct reply from Mos requesting that Rough Francis play as support when he came to their city. 

Bobby and Dannis, who still live in the same house together with their two families, went along to watch the kids play, unaware of what was about to happen. “When he was getting ready to come out on stage, I heard the music of Death,” Dannis remembers. “The first song he played was ‘Politicians In My Eyes’. He did his show, then we went backstage and hung out, then the next thing you know he was round at our house. I’m glad it was late at night because he came in this long, white limousine, and I’m like, man, if the neighbours see this I’m gonna have the tax people here tomorrow! He started hearing the story and wanted to do some work on it...” The discussion culminated in Mos Def and Damon Dash offering to produce a documentary about the band, which is to be released in 2010.

l-r: Bobby, Dannis and David, 1980 Photography by Carolyn Bates

Not having played since their final show at a private party in the 70s, Death got their first proper tour in September 2009, with more planned for next year. “But you wanna hear something incredible?” asks Bobby. “When we did our show in Detroit last month, one of the guys who opened up for us at that party came. Not only did he come, but David had commissioned him to do some artwork for the album and he brought it with him, a kind of charcoal painting ‘45, still in tact! We might use it on the next Death album, which is gonna be the demo material that we recorded.” 

They now play live with their friend Bobby Duncan on guitar, and two giant pictures of their brother David either side of the stage, standing in a white robe holding his Gibson. Dannis says he’s glad that he sweats so much when he’s pounding skins because if he lets off a tear, no one can tell. He puts Death’s recent success down to one key ingredient – that harder, faster element that defines punk music today. 

“It was surprising for this generation to see that something of equal value could come out of the older generation. I guess that’s why some people call us the missing link. We got put on the back burner of time, which brings me to another place I want to play and that’s Israel… Those people know what it is to wait 40 years for something. And now I do!”