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Before There Was Punk: Death – Black History Month

Jul 6, 2020: 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.

Death is an Americanrock band formed in DetroitMichigan, United States, in 1971 by brothers Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis (drums) Hackney. The trio started out as a funk band but switched to rock after seeing a concert by The Who.[1] Seeing Alice Cooper play was also an inspiration.[2] Music critic Peter Margasak retrospectively wrote that David “pushed the group in a hard-rock direction that presaged punk, and while this certainly didn’t help them find a following in the mid-70s, today it makes them look like visionaries.”[2] They are seen by many people as one of the first punk bands in the world.[3] The band broke up in 1977 but reformed in 2009 when the Drag City label released their ’70s demos for the first time.[4]

In 1964, the three young Hackney brothers (David, Bobby and Dannis) were sat down by their father to witness The Beatles‘ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The following day, David found a discarded guitar in an alley and set about learning to play. Brothers Bobby and Dannis soon followed suit and they began playing music together. Later, the young trio purchased the best instruments money could buy with money their mother won in a settlement.[5]

The brothers practiced and recorded early demos in a room in the family home and performed their earliest gigs from their garage.[6] Originally calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express, guitarist David convinced his brothers to change the name of the band to Death after their father died in an accident. David wanted to change the meaning of the word: “His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell,” Bobby Hackney recalled in 2010.[7]

In 1975, Death recorded seven songs written by David and Bobby at Detroit’s United Sound Studios with engineer Jim Vitt. According to the Hackney family, Columbia Records president Clive Davis funded the recording sessions but implored the band to change its name to something more commercially palatable. When the Hackneys refused, Davis ceased his support.[8] The band only recorded seven songs instead of the planned dozen. The following year they self-released a single taken from these sessions on their label Tryangle Records. The single, “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking,” saw a run of only 500 copies.

The Hackney brothers ended the band in 1977. The brothers then moved to Burlington, Vermont and released two albums of gospel rock as The 4th Movement in the early 1980s. David moved back to Detroit in 1982, and died of lung cancer in 2000. Bobby and Dannis still reside in Vermont and lead the reggae band Lambsbread. Dannis is currently the drummer for the Vermont-based Rock/Funk band The Aerolites.[9]

Copies of the “Politicians in My Eyes” 12″, and the story of Death continued to circulate in collector’s circles, with some copies going up to the cost of $800 due to their extreme rarity;[10] one source of them was Don Schwenk, a friend of the Hackneys who was originally commissioned to create the album art for the upcoming LP, and was given a box of the singles in exchange.[10] MP3s of the two songs from the single eventually found their way to Chunklet in 2008; around this time Bobby Hackney’s son Julian moved to California and heard the Death songs after a recommendation of a roommate and immediately recognized his father’s voice.[10] Once the news of the discovery and the story of Death began to spread, it eventually reached Drag City Records, who contacted the Hackney’s about the possible release of the album, who provided the label with the original master tape: In 2009, Drag City released all seven Death songs from their 1975 United Sound sessions on CD and LP under the title …For the Whole World to See.[10]

In the meantime, the sons of Bobby Hackney (Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr.), wanting to get the word out more, started a band called Rough Francis (named after David’s one time recording), covering the songs of Death after discovering the old recordings online. A March 2009 article in The New York Times by Mike Rubin,[11] covering one of Rough Francis’ live shows and the history of Death introduced the band to an even wider audience.[10] The popularity eventually reached Mickey Leigh, who invited both bands to play Joey Ramone‘s birthday party.[10] In September 2009, a reformed Death played three shows with original members Bobby and Dannis Hackney, with Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan taking the place of the late David Hackney.[12] During a 2010 performance at the Boomslang Festival in Lexington, Kentucky the band announced that Drag City would release a new album with demos and rough cuts that predate the 1975 sessions. The album Spiritual • Mental • Physical was released in January 2011.[13] In 2014, Death released their third studio album III, and in 2015 their most recent record, entitled N.E.W. was released.[14][15]


Published by amongthefray

News with a historical perspective. Fighting against misinformation, hate, and revisionist history.

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