The story of Death almost plays out like a music fairy tale, one not lacking in tragic currents. That tale is explored in a new documentary A Band Called Death, which traces the band’s inception in Detroit “Drag City” in the early 1970’s to the band’s recent reincarnation.
Although grown up by the sounds of Motor City like Motown and R&B, brothers Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney became drawn to rock when they watched the 1964 debut of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Also inspired by others ’60s act like the Doors, The Who, they chose to speed up the tempo and intensity, and sounded more like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols — bands that would ignite the early punk scene years later.
Even though the band pressed 500 copies of their singles “Keep On Knockin” and “Politicians in my Eyes,” the executives at radio stations and record companies couldn’t get past the band’s name which eventually led to a downward spiral not only for the band but for David Hackney, who passed away in 2000. Until he died, he delivered all of the Death master tapes to Bobby, saying “the world will come looking for this music.” Fast forward nearly four decades, and his statement became a prophecy.
“We wish our brother (David) could see this,” said singer and bassist Bobby Hackney with a smile to the crowd at the Paper Tiger. “But he’s still in our hearts and he’s on this stage in spirit everyday.”
Hardly the heartwarming scene you’d expect from a band now being recognized as possibly one of the earliest punk outfits and the first black punk band. Death’s new lineup includes Bobby and Dannis Hackney and longtime friend Bobbie Duncan on lead guitar. Now all in their mid to late 50s, you can tell age has graced them but donned in leather vests and black leopard printed pants they still fit the punk bill as they would have 40 years ago. And behind them, the wall is adorned with two carpets all showcasing pictures of Death’s earlier years.
Although the crowd was small, they all joined in an incantatory sing-along in “Let the World Turn” as Bobby’s lyrics unfolded like a fortune-teller: “If your dream is shattered, pick up the glass.” With the song’s reverbed chords, it meandered into a nearly hallucinogenic dream, only to be barreled in the face with sporadic tom hits and guitar solos that hit harder than the expected. Others started chugging beers in inebriated confidence, rushing to the frenzied moshpit as Bobby yelled “Freakin out, Freakin out, I’m freakin out!”
“This was the song that everyone took notice,” Bobby said before going in to the politically charged “Politicians in My Eyes.” “Thanks to guys like you and listening to it, you put us back on the map with this song.” While most punk bands revel in the disgust and treachery of politicians’ actions, Death takes punk’s blistering anger disguised with genuine hope: “Politicians, tell me why can’t you hear the people cry?”
Bobby was all smiles saying, “You guys are off the hook, and see everyone who loves to have a good time, all have one thing in common,” Bobby said as he was met with a loud applause. “They all have lost someone they love and someone they trust,” he said as he treated the crowd to “Look At Your Life,” a new song never played before a live audience. With intermittent pauses coupled with immediate and distorted guitar rhythms and a chant worthy statement of “Look at your life!” the song could easily have been a B-side from their early ’70s recordings. But as the song was met with moshers, crowd surfers, and chaos, Death proved that they are as vibrant and alive today as they were forty years ago.