ON an evening in late February at a club here called the Monkey House, there was a family reunion of sorts. As the band Rough Francis roared through a set of anthemic punk rock, Bobby Hackney leaned against the bar and beamed. Three of his sons Bobby Jr., Julian and Urian are in Rough Francis, but his smile wasn’t just about parental pride. It was about authorship too. Most of the songs Rough Francis played were written by Bobby Sr. and his brothers David and Dannis during their days in the mid-1970s as a Detroit power trio called Death.
The group’s music has been almost completely unheard since the band stopped performing more than three decades ago. But after all the years of silence, Death’s moment has finally arrived. It comes, however, nearly a decade too late for its founder and leader, David Hackney, who died of lung cancer in 2000. “David was convinced more than any of us that we were doing something totally revolutionary,” said Bobby Sr., 52.
Forgotten except by the most fervent punk rock record collectors the band’s self-released 1976 single recently traded hands for the equivalent of $800 Death would likely have remained lost in obscurity if not for the discovery last year of a 1974 demo tape in Bobby Sr.’s attic. Released last month by Drag City Records as “… For the Whole World to See,” Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between the high-energy hard rock of Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk from its breakthrough years of 1976 and ’77. Death’s songs “Politicians in My Eyes,” “Keep On Knocking” and “Freakin Out” are scorching blasts of feral ur-punk, making the brothers unwitting artistic kin to their punk-pioneer contemporaries the Ramones, in New York; Rocket From the Tombs, in Cleveland; and the Saints, in Brisbane, Australia. They also preceded Bad Brains, the most celebrated African-American punk band, by almost five years.
Jack White of the White Stripes, who was raised in Detroit, said in an e-mail message: “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.”
The teenage Hackney brothers started playing R&B in their parents’ garage in the early ’70s but switched to hard rock in 1973, after seeing an Alice Cooper show. Dannis played drums, Bobby played bass and sang, and David wrote the songs and contributed propulsive guitar work, derived from studying Pete Townshend’s power-chord wrist technique. Their musicianship tightened when their mother allowed them to replace their bedroom furniture with mikes and amps as long as they practiced for three hours every afternoon. “From 3 to 6,” said Dannis, 54, “we just blew up the neighborhood.”
Death began playing at cabarets and garage parties on Detroit’s predominantly African-American east side, but were met with reactions ranging from confusion to derision. “We were ridiculed because at the time everybody in our community was listening to the Philadelphia sound, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers,” Bobby said. “People thought we were doing some weird stuff. We were pretty aggressive about playing rock ’n’ roll because there were so many voices around us trying to get us to abandon it.”
When the band was ready to record, David chose a studio by pinning the Yellow Pages listings to the wall and throwing a dart; it landed on Groovesville Productions, a company owned by Don Davis, a successful producer for Stax Records. Groovesville signed the band, and in 1974 it began work at United Sound Recording Studios in Detroit, where it shared space with Funkadelic, the Dramatics and Gladys Knight. At the time David was 21, Dannis was 19 and Bobby, still a student at Southeastern High School, was 17.
“They were just so impressive, and the sound was just so big for three guys,” said Brian Spears, who was director of publishing at Groovesville and oversaw their sessions. “I knew those kids were great, but trying to break a black group into rock ’n’ roll was just tough during that time.”
The apparent nihilism of the name Death was also out of step with the times. “Nobody could get past the name,” Mr. Spears said. “It seemed to be a real detriment. When you said the name of the group to anybody, it was like, ‘Man, why you calling the group Death?’ ”
The Hackneys said Mr. Davis brought a tape of Death to a meeting in New York with the record executive Clive Davis. Afterward Don Davis told the brothers that Clive Davis had liked the recordings but not the band’s name; there could be no deal unless they changed it. “That’s when my brother David got a little angry,” Dannis said. “He told Don Davis to tell Clive Davis, ‘Hell no!’ ”
Part of the reason David refused was because he was writing a rock opera about death that portrayed it in a positive light, Bobby Sr. said. “He strongly believed that we could get a contract with another record label,” he added. “We were young and cocky, but David was the cockiest of us all.”
That defiance has become central to Death’s underground legend: what could be more punk rock than telling the suits to take a hike in the name of artistic integrity, even if punk didn’t quite exist yet? But separating fact from lore is tricky after three decades. The Hackneys remember Clive Davis’s label affiliation as Columbia Records, but Don Davis who initially didn’t recall working with a band called Death said in a phone interview that Clive Davis was with Arista Records, although he couldn’t remember the specifics of the meeting and if the group’s name was an issue. A spokeswoman for Clive Davis said he had no recollection of the group or of any meeting concerning it.
Death and Groovesville parted ways in 1976. Don Davis produced two No. 1 hits that year, one of which was Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady.” The Hackneys, meanwhile, pressed 500 copies of “Politicians in My Eyes,” backed with “Keep On Knocking,” on their own Tryangle label but found it nearly impossible to get radio play in Detroit. Disco had begun to dominate the marketplace thanks in part to “Disco Lady” and control of radio playlists was shifting from local disc jockeys to corporate consultants. Bobby said 1976 “was really a tough year for us,” citing “the disco ebb tide” with particular chagrin. “We just figured nobody wanted to hear rock ’n’ roll anymore.”
As their disenchantment grew, the brothers were invited by a distant relative to visit Vermont. “So we came up here to clear our heads for a couple of weeks,” Bobby said with a laugh. “That was like 30-something years ago.”
“We’re still clearing our heads,” Dannis said.
Settling in Burlington, the brothers released two albums of gospel rock as the 4th Movement in the early 1980s. David became increasingly homesick and moved back to Detroit in 1982, continuing to make music until his death. In 1983 Bobby and Dannis formed a reggae band, Lambsbread, which became a familiar presence during Vermont’s late-1980s jam-band boom; eight albums later Lambsbread is still active on the New England college circuit. The two brothers bought a house together east of Burlington in Jericho, built their own recording studio there and raised families. Bobby Sr. and Dannis each have five children.
Bobby’s children were crucial to Death’s resurrection. The Hackneys had never shared the details of their Death experience with their kids. “We had moved on in our lives and thought that chapter was over because we went through so much rejection with that music,” Bobby said. “We just didn’t want to relive it, and I especially didn’t want to relive it again with my children.”
But last year Julian heard the Tryangle single at a party in San Francisco and recognized his father’s voice. Soon after, Bobby Jr. did a Google search that revealed the Holy Grail status of the band’s only release. This news astounded Bobby Sr., who dug the master tapes out of storage last May for the first time in three decades and sat down with Dannis for a listen. The music “literally took our breath away,” Bobby Sr. said.
“We looked at each other, and we said: ‘This is truly some of the best rock ’n’ roll we ever heard. Wow, David was right.’ David knew it, and always believed it, much more than we did.”
Bobby Sr.’s sons were equally impressed. Bobby Jr., a veteran of several Burlington hardcore bands, formed Rough Francis with two brothers and two friends to play Death’s music as a tribute to his family. (The band’s moniker comes from his Uncle David’s nickname.)
“We were just trying to find ways to inform people” about Death’s music, Bobby Jr. said. “When I first heard it, I thought: ‘This can’t be real. People have to know about this. This is crazy!’ I felt like I had found Jimmy Hoffa or something.”
The young Hackneys weren’t the only Death enthusiasts. In August 2007 a record collector named Robert Cole Manis, having heard “Keep On Knocking” on a 2001 bootleg compilation of obscure punk singles, found a copy of the Tryangle single on eBay and acquired it for $400 and $400 worth of rare records.
“It was true love when I first heard it,” Mr. Manis said. “I think the record is just phenomenal. It’s timeless. It’s an amazing document.”
While surfing the Internet last summer, Mr. Manis saw a posting from a friend of Bobby Jr.’s on a punk message board announcing the rediscovery of the Death tapes. Mr. Manis excitedly tracked down the Hackneys in Vermont and helped put them in touch with the Chicago indie label Drag City, which he had worked with on a previous reissue project.
The music is an “undeniable combination of classic and punk rock elements,” said Rian Murphy, a spokesman for Drag City. “You can put the needle down on that record in any given place and just be completely transported.”
The Hackneys and Drag City are discussing reissuing the 4th Movement records too, and Bobby Sr. and Dannis are considering playing some live shows as Death, with the Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan taking over on guitar.
Death’s newfound acclaim has surprised the Hackneys but, Bobby Sr. said, David had predicted that Death would find fame one day. “David came to me right before he died, and he had some master tapes of ours,” he said. “I jokingly said to him, ‘David, I have enough of our stuff, man, I’m running out of room.’ And he said, ‘Bob, you’ve got to keep all this stuff, the world’s going to come looking for it one day, and when the world comes looking for it, I’ll know that you’ll have it.
“You can only imagine the emotions that I go through in my quiet moments when I reflect on that.”
Death is a band formed in Detroit, Michigan, 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. Seeing Alice Cooperplay was also an inspiration. 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.” They are seen by many people as one of the first punk bands in the world. The band broke up in 1977 but reformed in 2009 when the Drag City label released their ’70s demos for the first time.
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.
The brothers practiced and recorded early demos in a room in the family home and performed their earliest gigs from their garage. 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.
Album recording and dissolution
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. 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.
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; 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. 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. 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.
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, covering one of Rough Francis’ live shows and the history of Death introduced the band to an even wider audience. The popularity eventually reached Mickey Leigh, who invited both bands to play Joey Ramone’s birthday party. 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. 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. In 2014, Death released their third studio album III, and in 2015 their most recent record, entitled N.E.W. was released.
- Bobby Hackney, Sr. – vocals, bass (1964-1977, 2009–present)
- Bobbie Duncan – guitars (2009-)
- Dannis Hackney – drums (1964-1977, 2009–present)
- David Hackney – guitars (1964-1977, died 2000)
As RockFire Funk Express
- “People Save the World”/”RockFire Funk Express” 7″ single (Recorded 1973, released 2011 by Third Man Records)
- “Politicians In My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking” 7″ (Recorded 1975, released 1976 by Tryangle Records, reissued 2013 by Drafthouse Films)
- …For the Whole World to See (Recorded 1975, released 2009 by Drag City)
- Spiritual • Mental • Physical (Recorded 1974–76, released 2011 by Drag City)
- III (Recorded 1975–1992, released 2014 by Drag City)
- “Relief” online single (2012, CD Baby)
- Raw demo recording of “Politicians In My Eyes” (Recorded 1974, released online by Drafthouse Films, 2013)
- N.E.W. (Release Date: April 21, 2015 by TryAngle Records)
As The 4th Movement
- The 4th Movement LP (1980)
- Totally LP (1982)
- A Band Called Death DVD/Blu-ray (2013, Drafthouse Films)
In 2010, their song “Freakin’ Out” was used in an episode of the television program How I Met Your Mother entitled “False Positive” (Season 6, Episode 12), as well as the Ash Vs. Evil Deadepisode “The Killer of Killers” (Season 1, Episode 6).
In 2011, their song “You’re A Prisoner” was used in the film Kill the Irishman.
An independent documentary film about the band titled A Band Called Death, directed by Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino, was released in 2012.
In 2014, the band’s song “Politicians In My Eyes”, was featured in the surf documentary Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La.
A version of “Where Do We Go From Here” with the vocals edited out is often used as bumper music during Wayne Resnick’s Sunday night show on KFI AM 640. In 2015, the band’s song Keep On Knocking was featured as part of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 soundtrack.
In 2018, the band’s song “Politicians In My Eyes”, was featured as the theme song for season two of Gimlet Media’s podcast Crimetown.
The song “Politicians In My Eyes” was featured in the movie Native Son. The rare record single was also a plot point during the film.
The songs “Politicians In My Eyes” and “Keep On Knocking” were both featured in Season 4, Episode 13 of Children’s Hospital in 2012.
- ^ Jump up to: a b Fennessy, Kathy (16 May 2012). “LineOut: A Band Called Death: The Documentary”. The Stranger. Index Newspapers, LLC. Archived from the original on 22 July 2015. Retrieved 5 July 2013.
- ^ Jump up to: a b Margasak, Peter. “Short Takes on Recent Reissues”. Chicago REader. Sun-Times Media, LLC. Retrieved 5 July2013.
- ^ Lange, Maggie. “Detroit, Punk, and A Band Called Death”. Gawker.com. Archived from the original on 12 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
- ^ Bolles, Dan (6 October 2010). “The Breakout: Reunited and revitalized, Death keep on knocking”. Seven Days. Da Capo Publishing, Inc. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
- ^ Rao, Mallika (28 June 2013). “The Incredible Story Of The First Punk Band”. HuffPost. Retrieved 4 December 2020.
- ^ …For the Whole World to See liner notes.
- ^ Thompson, Stephen (17 March 2010). “Death: A ’70s Rock Trailblazer, Reborn”. NPR. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
- ^ Bliss, Abi (9 February 2009). “The Detroit band that never sold out”. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 5 July 2013.
- ^ Powers, Nicole (6 May 2009). “The Hackney Brothers: Death”. SuicideGirls. Retrieved 6 May 2009.
- ^ Jump up to: a b c d e f A Band Called Death. 2015.
- ^ Rubin, Mike (12 March 2009m). “This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk”. The New York Times.
- ^ Holdship, Bill (23 September 2009). “Death becomes them”. Detroit Metro Times. Archived from the original on 27 May 2012. Retrieved 2009-10-15.
- ^ Jurek, Thom (25 January 2011). “Spiritual Mental Physical – Death : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards”. AllMusic. Retrieved 5 July 2013.
- ^ Lacy, Eric (22 April 2014). “Spiritual Mental Physical – Death : Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards”. MLive.com. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
- ^ Lacy, Eric (6 February 2015). “Detroit rock pioneers Death to release N.E.W. on own label; hear ‘Look At Your Life’ song”. MLive.com. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
- ^ Nagy, Evie (24 February 2012). “Exclusive: Stream ‘Relief,’ Death’s First New Single Since 1976”. Rolling Stone. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
- ^ “”How I Met Your Mother” False Positive (2010)”. IMDb.com.
- ^ [dead link]
- ^ “”Kill the Irishman” Soundtracks”. IMDb.com. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
- ^ Strange Rumblings in Shangri-LA (TV Movie 2014) – IMDb, retrieved 4 December 2020
- ^ Makuch, Eddie (15 August 2015). “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5’s Full Soundtrack Revealed”. Gamespot.com. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
- ^ “Crimetown Season 2 Trailer by Gimlet Media”. Crimetownshow.com. Retrieved 27 November 2018.
History part from Wikipedia