13 Black Artists Who Inspired Rock: Death
Death is a story of what was and what should have been. The Detroit based proto-punk band came before the founding fathers of punk music. They were ahead of such legends as the Ramones, Sex Pistols, and the Clash. They began five years before the most famous African-American Punk band, Bad Brains (to be covered later in our series). However, it would be thirty years before their first demo album is released. Until then they were known only to the most ardent of punk rock fans.
The Beginning of Death
Their story begins with three teenage brothers. The Hackneys (David, Dannis, and Bobby) would record demo tapes and put on shows from their garage. Initially, the trio was an R&B band called the Rock Fire Funk Express. However, that all changes after seeing an Alice Cooper show. The show inspires them to look for something newer, harder. Music critic Peter Margasak retrospectively wrote of their musical direction, “The youngest of the brothers, guitarist 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.”
The trio stripped away all remains of their R&B influence (unlike Funkadelic). Their new sound is a more in-your-face rock with politically influenced lyrics. David pushes for the name Death. It is a tribute to their father who passed in a car accident. The name is not intended to be dark and doom, but as a chance to twist it into a positive (a tough task). With this, they morph into the proto-punk band Death, a group light years ahead of its time. They are the bridge from such great Detroit acts like the Stooges and the MC5 to the punk movement.
It’s really sickening to see
The way they lie on TV
The truth is that he can be
A better man than you see
But when decision time comes
That’s when they have all the fun
–Lyrics from Politicians in my Eyes
Request to Change from Death
In 1974, with the help of soul producer Don Davis, the brothers began recording a demo album at the United Sound studio in Detriot. Their first few recordings drew the interests of Columbia Records producer Clive Davis (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Clive was interested in Death as long as they change their name to something more commercial. David Hackney refused to cave in (a punk stance if there was ever one) and would not change the name.
The refusal stopped any deal with Clive and ultimately tarnished their relationship with producer Don Davis. With seven of the twelve planned songs complete, the recording ended. Two years later, a small record label pressed 500 copies of the single Politicians in my Eyes with Keep on Knocking on b-side. In time, the session tapes were stored away, and the band soon broke up in 1977. The Hackney brothers went on to record a couple of gospel albums as the Fourth Movement. Dannis and David later fronted the reggae band Lambsbread, with whom they still record.
The legacy of Death might have ended there. The trio never really discussed Death with their children. Bobby Sr. said. “We just didn’t want to relive it, and I especially didn’t want to relive it again with my children.” [2a] However, at a party in 2008, Bobby Jr. heard Death’s single being played and recognized his father’s voice. Suddenly, with the help of a Google search, he discovered the Holy Grail-like tale of their only recording. This reverence for the band’s music leads Bobby Sr. to find the original session tapes in his attic. In 2009, the Drag City label released the seven completed songs from 1974 under the title “For the Whole World to See.”
Jack White (of the White Stripes and Raconteurs) in a New York Times article shares his reaction to first hearing Death, “The first time the stereo played ‘Politicians in My Eyes,’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I was told the history of the band and what year they recorded this music, it just didn’t make sense. Ahead of punk, and ahead of their time.” [2b]
Many artists in this thirteen piece series found fame, but Death began and ended with a small, unknown and cultlike following of devoted fans. I feel had they released the album in the mid-seventies, things may have been different. Since the release of the original seven songs, their music is now reaching a new generation of musicians. I genuinely believe their influence on Rock is just gaining strength. The trio is the topic of a 2012 documentary titled A Band Called Death.