By John Adamian
3:10 PM EDT, August 27, 2013
In an age when bands with names like the Butthole Surfers, Fucked Up, and even (sorry) Anal Cunt have, to varying degrees, achieved a measure of success, media attention and even radio play, it's hard to imagine that a talented and energetic band could be deprived a music career simply because their name was Death. As a concept, death seems to have been replaced by more troubling and offensive fixations in pop culture. In terms of shock-value, death has lost a little of its sting. But what's in a name is central to the surprising documentary A Band Called Death.
Death, as unlikely as it sounds, was a proto-punk garage rock band with glam and arena touches. The group was made up of three African-American brothers from Detroit who basically practiced and took shape — to their neighbors' annoyance — in their bedroom in 1973. Like the subjects of many captivating music documentaries, Death was a band that should have been better known, a band that almost disappeared without ever being heard. Their story has elements of biblical parables, religious zeal and multi-generational rebirth. (The film gets its CT premiere in New London on Aug. 29, as part of the I Am Festival, at which the surviving members of a recently reformed Death will also perform on Sept. 7. ) It's a sweeping family saga.
Death drew heavily on the sounds of rock and proto metal. Guitarist, songwriter and bandleader David Hackney, the eldest of the three brothers in the band, wanted to emulate the blaring, rambunctious music of the Who. They were steeped in everything from Alice Cooper, Hendrix, Bob Seger, Motown, and the Beatles. This was before Bad Brains. Before Living Color. Before Fishbone. But it was also before the Ramones, and before the global domination of Kiss, both of whom Death sounded a little like.
The boys stood out in their neighborhood because of their taste for loud rock, remembers their older brother Earl, who didn't play in the band. Detroit was the home of Motown, after all. "It wasn't a rock-and-roll culture," says Earl. "White-boy music!," he says, laughing wildly, and mimicking the neighbors' response to the sound, holding hands to their ears and running.
It's true, this music was rowdy, made with screaming Marshall stacks, crunchy distortion, galloping drum beats, steady barrages of sixteenth notes interrupted by jarring and jagged accents. And then there's that name, and the band's almost religious concept about the reality of death.
The Hackney boys were the sons of a Baptist minister. They were raised with religion. Their parents also instilled in them a wide-open sense of interest in the world of music, listening to eclectic local radio and watching the acts on the Ed Sullivan Show. The boys purchased new musical equipment with money their mother received in an insurance settlement. David's seemingly morbid fixation took shape after their father was killed in a car wreck.
Most religions focus a good deal on death and what it will mean. For the Hackney brothers, Death, as a band name, was a way of addressing some greater spiritual reality.
David called it "a death that's related closer to god." And Dannis, the drummer and youngest of the brothers, remembers that in their thinking death was a reality and also a transition point.
"It's kind of like birth; it's not a good or a bad thing, it's just a thing," says Dannis.
Record executives didn't quite think of it that way though. In one of the many great moments of fate and faith in the band's story, the brothers found a record label by putting a phone book with the music-related section of the yellow pages open on the wall. David threw a dart at the pages and they called the company whose name was stuck by its point. That's how Death connected with Groovesville Productions.
Amazingly, the execs at soul-based Groovesville could hear plenty of potential in Death's music. The band recorded an album in early 1975, and Groovesville almost secured a deal with record mogul Clive Davis, whose Arista label was taking shape at that time. But Davis wanted a name change. But the boys, let by brother David, wouldn't change the band name. In private this caused tension between the brothers.
"I would have changed it in a split second, but my spirit was telling me 'Go with your brother,'" remembers Dannis.
Somehow David was able to get possession and ownership of the master tapes from Groovesville. With no contract, the band pressed 500 copies of a single and did their best to distribute them and foist them on local radio. What happens to those tapes, following the death of David Hackney, makes up the last section of the film, and it's filled with unexpected discoveries. Brother Dannis and Bob eventually moved to Vermont and started a successful reggae band, mostly forgetting about their early work as Death. Record collectors, online music forums and the musically inclined children of Bob Hackney all play a part. The film includes musicians like Questlove, Vernon Reid and others discussing the rightful place of Death in the annals of rock.
Detroit booster Kid Rock says this about hearing Death: "I was like, man, this is bad ass." Many have had a similar response.
Most haunting is the conviction that brother David Hackney had about the music's significance, even though he died unknown. Dannis shakes his head in wonder at the turn of events and how David's faith in the music played out.
"He said it. He said 'The world's gonna come looking for this music one day,' says Dannis of his brother. "He said it."
A Band Called Death
Thurs., Aug. 29, 8pm, Hygienic Art, 79 Bank St., New London, (860) 443-8001, hygienic.ning.com
With a special introduction and post-screening Q&A with director Mark Covino
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