THE IDEA of an all-black proto-punk band called Death—in the year 1973—sounds light years ahead of its time. Well, Death was light years ahead of its time. Only now, four decades later, are audiences ready for the idea.
The three Hackney brothers—Bobby, David, and Dannis—were raised in Detroit, playing funk music under the name the Rock Fire Funk Express. It was the height of Motown. And what they were playing was pretty typical for the early '70s. But after seeing Alice Cooper in 1972—their mother's boyfriend worked security at the local venue—the three brothers dropped what they were doing. The experience made quite an impression on the young drummer Dannis, who couldn't keep his eyes off Alice Cooper sticksman Neal Smith. "I was awed by it. It changed my perspective," he says. "They were creating this stage presence where it looked like they were having fun."
Thus, Death was born. Led by the brothers' spiritual leader David (who died of lung cancer in 2000), the band played mostly in the Detroit area and recorded and released the single "Politicians in My Eyes" in 1976 on the small Tryangle imprint—a copy of one now fetches a pretty penny. Death was very much a product of Detroit, channeling the Stooges and MC5. But the band's refusal to change their ominous moniker would keep them from getting signed to a major label (they were infamously turned away by Columbia Records' Clive Davis).
Death went quietly in 1977 after Dannis and Bobby moved to Vermont. To this day, it's amazing that Iggy Pop or Rob Tyner never stumbled upon these kids. As Bobby puts it, "They didn't know who we were; we just knew who they were."
Death would have to wait until 2009 when Drag City reissued an album's worth of material titled ...For the Whole World to See. That, and the release of another collection, Spiritual, Mental, Physical, two years later, were enough to get crate diggers captivated about Death's recordings, which had been sitting in Bobby's attic for decades. Now the documentary A Band Called Death—directed by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett—vividly fleshes out the band's narrative.
The film's title is preceded with the tagline "Before there was punk, there was...." This was all going down years before the Ramones and Sex Pistols frightened Middle America and thrilled youths. "If you call someone a punk back then, those were fightin' words—you'd end up with a bloody nose or a fat lip," says Bobby.
Death was, of course, just playing rock 'n' roll. It just happened to be some fantastically raucous and nervy shit. If the concept of Death sounds farfetched, just listen to "Rock-N-Roll Victim" and "Where Do We Go From Here???" After years of dormancy—the remaining brothers and current Death guitarist Bobbie Duncan have played in the reggae band Lambsbread for years—Death has been resurrected. They're hardly a secret anymore. And no one's more surprised about it than the brothers themselves.
Years after Death called it quits, and as Bobby and Dannis went on to play gospel in Vermont, the tapes continued to collect dust in an attic. Bobby would occasionally think about the band called Death. "I always thought, 'This would be a great rock and roll story... that only we know about.'"