Music News

Death, Detroit's Forgotten Protopunks, Are Back from the Grave

The world never cared about Death. Until now.

In the early 1970s, before even the long-revered "godfathers and godmothers of punk" were trailblazing the genre, the Detroit trio was doing it first (and quite well, for that matter).

But nobody outside of sibling band members David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, their family, a few neighbors, a couple of recording engineers, and one skeptical record company executive even knew the band existed. For a long time.

Ponder that for a moment.

Here is a band that made an incredible seven-song EP that went virtually unheard for decades. It's disheartening, really, to think of how close Death came to a deal.

When the Hackney brothers refused to change their band name, Columbia Records president Clive Davis, one of the most powerful figures in music in the early 1970s, declined to sign the Motor City proto-punks.

One of the more astute businessmen in music, Davis probably was not wrong to consider "Death" a hurdle to going gold, but there remains the inevitable "What if?"

Realistically, the question begs to be asked: Was the world ready for three black brothers from Detroit playing aggressive, Who-inspired riffs at speeds that were relatively unknown in the mainstream? There's no way of knowing whether, or how, Death might have changed the course of punk rock, but it's fun to ponder what might have been.

Wouldn't it have been great, for example, if Death could have been tourmates on the Sex Pistols' ill-fated American tour in 1978? Even a moderate amount of success and notoriety for Death could have changed a lot within the musical and cultural landscape of our country.

As the story goes (detailed in the 2012 rock doc A Band Called Death), eldest brother David Hackney, a skilled guitar player, wrote the lion's share of the music and was the visionary force among the siblings. It was David — a spiritual individual who not only wanted to give his band, at that point known as the Rock Fire Funk Express, a more aggressive direction but wanted to put a positive spin on the idea of death — who renamed the band.

In 1974, the newly rechristened trio recorded seven songs that went unreleased until 2009, when it was picked up by indie label Drag City. By 1977, Death was done as a band, with just one single released and only a handful of live performances.

In 2000, with David's brothers playing reggae in the long-running Vermont act Lambsbread, the creative force behind Death died of lung cancer in his hometown of Detroit, his musical career abandoned decades earlier.

As unusual as the genesis of Death was, the band's rebirth, as depicted in A Band Called Death, seems just as implausible.

When bassist Bobby Hackney's son, Bobby Jr., called him one night and told him that his friends were listening to his band, the elder Hackney thought they were talking about Lambsbread, for whom Dannis played drums.

Bobby Jr. told his dad that he was talking about Death, and the course of musical history for the Hackney family soon would be altered forever. Bobby's sons soon formed a band with friends, calling it Rough Francis, a tribute to their late uncle David.

The younger generation of Hackneys toured the country playing the unheard songs pounded out by father and uncles in their Detroit home 30-plus years earlier.

The story took off from there, with Bobby and Dannis taking in Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan to re-form Death and write a new chapter in one of rock's more unusual stories.

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Tom Reardon has written for Phoenix New Times since 2013. He's been in several notable bands over the last 25 years including Hillbilly Devilspeak, North Side Kings, and the Father Figures.
Contact: Tom Reardon