'70s Punk Band Death Rocks Out for a New Activist Generation
If Death can survive, so can we.
Photo by Samdarko Elotsam
Rock 'n' roll narratives are played out. The stories that permeate the rock canon have been regurgitated time and again, from the forward-thinking but troubled young artist who can't outrun his own demons, to the established musician who mounts an unlikely comeback, and everything in between. There's nothing new under the sun.
And then there's Death.
As chronicled in the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death, the narrative of the Detroit-born proto-punk band transcends the earthbound conventions of improbability and bounds into outright impossibility. The arc of Death and its members — brothers Bobby, David, and Dannis Hackney, along with eventual guitarist Bobbie Duncan — defies not only what's expected of a rock narrative but also what we expect to happen in the course of, well, our own lives.
Inspired by the likes of the Who and the multitude of rough-around-the-edges '60s rock groups from Detroit — think Alice Cooper, MC5, and Iggy & the Stooges — Death was formed in 1971 by the Hackney brothers, with David on guitar, Dannis on drums, and Bobby on bass and vocals. The band flouted what was expected of black musicians in Detroit by crafting music outside the parameters set by their geography (where Motown reigned supreme) and by the limiting consensus of what black artists "ought" to be playing. "Everybody wanted us to play James Brown and Isley Brothers music and Earth, Wind & Fire and all that kinda stuff," says Bobby Hackney, speaking from his Jericho, Vermont, home.
Although Death had a select number of cheerleaders, it would be generous to say the band found "limited" success. It found next to none. Whether it was by mere virtue of being ahead of their time by sounding like punk before the genre's formal coming-out party in 1977, skepticism behind their marketability, or David Hackney's steadfast refusal to change the group's off-putting name, the universe seemed united in denying Death anything resembling a victory.
"The more they ridiculed us, the angrier we got and I think the faster our music got, and that could be a big contributor to why the music was so fast like punk music is today," Bobby surmises.
Decades onward from the group's mid-'70s split, David, Death's de facto figurehead, remained insistent that the world would come looking for their music. As Bobby and Dannis tell it, David also foretold that he would not be around when the music of Death took off.
"The last thing [David] did when he was alive was film my wedding," Dannis shares. Footage of the nuptials can be glimpsed in A Band Called Death. "Even then he was tellin' me that 'Hey, man, you know, this thing is gonna go on and I might not be with you guys when you come into your own.' And I'm like, 'Dave, come on, man, I'm trying to get married here! [laughs] You're philosophizing on me!' But in the back of my mind, I was listening to it, and to see it all come to pass is mind-blowing."
With only one seven-inch released to market — the furious one-two of "Politicians in My Eyes" and "Keep on Knocking" — Death was relegated to a curio, a subject of fascination for crate diggers, Discogs users, and underground-punk enthusiasts. Since the release of the band's catalog — aided in no small part by the efforts of the Hackneys' sons, intrepid internet users, and the indie label Drag City — Death has rightly enjoyed its newfound cult status. Bobby and Dannis, now accompanied by guitarist Duncan, will bring Death's brand of "hard-drivin' rock 'n' roll" to Gramps this Thursday with new material. Talking about their new work, the forthcoming Cease Fire, Death is quick to draw parallels between the tumultuous climate in which the band was birthed and the uncertainty that pervades today.
"Our music was developing right in the heart of the civil rights movement, the hippie movement, Nixon, Vietnam, so we had a lot of things to talk about," Bobby says. "We have a funny feelin' your generation is going to be in the same way..."
The band breaks out into laughter, and it's not difficult to understand why; after all, the degree to which the United States is screwed is undoubtedly uproarious in its stupidity, if tragic in its nigh-inevitability. Even so, after all they've been through, it only makes sense Death's members would meet their country's existential adversity with a good-natured chuckle.
"Nixon is the inspiration for 'Politicians in My Eyes,' all right? So we lived through all of that, OK? One thing I can tell you is that... there was some great music coming out at that time," Bobby says. "The political world might be crazy, but when the political world is crazy, for some reason there's always great music comin' out."
There's hope to be found in the group's tenacity and perseverance. If Death could handle decades of rejection and still emerge vindicated, perhaps we as a nation might yet survive the next four years with our limbs and constitution intact. In the meantime, keep on knockin'.
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