Death, the punk rock missing link?

DC387 COVERI haven’t been terribly excited to hear anything new music-wise for a long, long time. An article in today’s New York Times, however, has me really intrigued. It seems as though Drag City Records just released a 1974 demo tape by three African-American brothers in Detroit – David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney – who, inspired by Alice Cooper, created a band called Death. Here’s a clip from the article:

…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….

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.”

I’m listening to their song “Politicians in My Eyes” right now, and it’s pretty cool. (Clementine is dancing around to it.) The record, entitled “For the Whole World to See,” is available from Drag City Records.

If it weren’t in the New York Times, I’d suspect a put-on… I remember the first time I heard Marvin
Pontiac. I was with my friend Dave, who is a professional bass player. He listened for a few minutes and said, “This is a put-on. Those beats didn’t exist when they say this was recorded.” I kind of get the same sense from this. It doesn’t sound like it was recorded in ’74… But I suspect it’s real. And, regardless, it’s pretty cool.

According to the story, a record label wanted to sign them, contingent on their changing the name of the band to something other than “Death.” David refused to do it, though, because he didn’t see death, like the record company execs did, as negative. According to the story in the New York Times, he was, at this same time, “writing a rock opera about death that portrayed it in a positive light.” I can’t help but wonder if it still exists. I’d love to see a rock opera about the positive aspects of death.

And, as an aside, I wonder what they mean when they say that the 1976 Death single recently sold for “the equivalent of $800.” Did it sell for a side of beef? An ’84 Nissan?

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11 Comments

  1. Sid Viscous
    Posted March 15, 2009 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    “And, as an aside, I wonder what they mean when they say that the 1976 Death single recently sole for “the equivalent of $800.” Did it sell for a side of beef? An ‘84 Nissan?”

    Read the last paragraph of the NYT’s article: $400 cash plus ~$400 rare records.

  2. Gman77
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    And, as an aside, I wonder what they mean when they say that the 1976 Death single recently sole for “the equivalent of $800.” Did it sell for a side of beef? An ‘84 Nissan?

    $400 and $400 worth of records…

  3. soundman
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    not sure if you were just trying to be funny (i never know) but they tell you exactly what “the equivalent of $800.” means if you read the article. 7th paragraph from the bottom.

  4. soundman
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 3:07 am | Permalink

    also, a couple more:

    http://www.popsike.com/DEATH-45-DETROIT-KBD-punk-MC5-politicians-in-my-eyes/110216165187.html

    http://www.popsike.com/DEATH-detroit-45-protopunk-TRYANGLE-mc5-psych-1976-KBD/320323124298.html

  5. Chelsea
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Catchy. Maybe these worthy guys can enjoy a renaissance, too:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3kX5J3hEic

  6. Paw
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I like the idea of three black kids in Detroit getting inspired by Alice Cooper to start a band. That in itself is great, even without the music.

  7. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 16, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I am I the only one who finds the story to be a little too perfect and too beneficial for a band in Vermont (Rough Francis) which also has three brothers? From Death’s myspace page:

    ON FEBRUARY 9TH, 1964 IN DETROIT EARL HACKNEY SAT DOWN HIS THREE SONS: DAVID AGE 12, DANNIS (PRONOUNCED DENNIS) AGE 10, AND BOBBY AGE 8 IN FRONT OF THE TV SET AND TOLD THEM THEY WERE WITNESSING SOMETHING SPECIAL. THE BEATLES WERE PLAYING ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, AND DAVID, ENTRANCED, SAT 6” FROM THE SCREEN WIDE-EYED, WHILE THE OTHER TWO SAT EQUALLY MESMERIZED. THE VERY NEXT DAY, DAVID FOUND A GUITAR IN THE ALLEY, TOOK IT HOME, AND TAUGHT HIMSELF HOW TO PLAY. BY 1970, THE BROTHERS HAD STARTED THEIR FIRST BAND AND BEGUN PLAYING GARAGE SHOWS. THEY PLAYED FUNK/R&B, INFLUENCED BY THE MOTOWN SOUNDS COMING OUT OF THEIR EAST DETROIT NEIGHBORHOOD. THEY PRACTICED RELENTLESSLY AND HOME RECORDED OFTEN. IN EARLY 1973, THE BROTHERS WENT TO THE MICHIGAN PALACE AND SAW A PERFORMANCE OF IGGY AND THE STOOGES. FROM THAT DAY FORWARD DAVID MOVED THE BAND INTO THE DIRECTION OF ROCK N’ ROLL, FEELING IT WAS A BETTER FIT FOR THEM. DAVID WROTE THE MUSIC AND BOBBY THE LYRICS. THEIR SONGS BECAME MORE POLITICAL AND THE POWER TRIO SEEMED COMPLETE. THE BAND NAMED THEMSELVES DEATH. WITH MORE GARAGE SHOWS AND A DEMO UNDER THEIR BELT, DAVID OPENED UP THE YELLOW PAGES TO RECORDING STUDIOS AND THREW A DART. THE DART LANDED ON GROOVESVILLE PRODUCTIONS, A LABEL OWNED AND OPERATED BY DON DAVIS. DAVIS, IMPRESSED WITH THE BAND, BROUGHT THE DEMO TO THE ATTENTION OF CLIVE DAVIS OF COLUMBIA RECORDS. CLIVE GAVE DEATH AN ADVANCE AND CONTRACTS WERE DRAWN TO BEGIN RECORDING A 12 SONG ALBUM. AFTER RECORDING THE FIRST 7 SONGS, CLIVE INSISTED THAT THE BAND CHANGE THEIR NAME BEFORE THE ALBUM WAS COMPLETED. DAVID AND HIS BROTHERS REFUSED, CAUSING COLUMBIA AND GROOVESVILLE TO BACK OUT OF THE DEAL. HOWEVER, WITH THEIR RECEIVED ADVANCE, DEATH LEAKED OUT 500 COPIES OF A 45 ON THEIR OWN TRYANGLE RECORDS IN 1976 WHICH WAS DISTRIBUTED AT GARAGE SHOWS FOR FREE.. NOTHING MORE WAS HEARD OF DEATH OVER THE COMING YEARS OTHER THAN A FEW COLLECTORS WHO HAD RAVED ABOUT THEIR LEGENDARY 45. IN 2002, AN OBSCURE PUNK COMPILATION TITLED “NO ONE LEFT TO BLAME” FEATURED THE B SIDE KEEP ON KNOCKIN’. SIX YEARS AFTERWARDS, BOBBY HACKNEY’S SONS CAUGHT WIND OF THE 45 SONGS BEING PLAYED AT PARTIES IN CALIFORNIA. BOBBY HACKNEY THEN BROUGHT THE 34 YEAR OLD MASTER TAPES DOWN FROM THE ATTIC FOR HIS SONS TO HEAR. FINALLY, A DEAL WITH DRAG CITY RECORDS WAS WORKED OUT TO RELEASE THE ALBUM ON FEBRUARY 17TH 2009 – …FOR THE WHOLE WORLD TO SEE!!!

  8. Posted March 17, 2009 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Very cool stuff, this is the first I’ve heard of Death. I’ll def be on the lookout for that 45. You hear of stuff like this happening quite a bit, but being as how this is a significant piece of Detroit music history makes it pretty important – so this is something I’ll def be looking into more.

    Groovesville was a soul label who was pretty much at the end of their rope around 73. So that’s why they passed on a punk rock band and Columbia picked it up I’m guessing in response to major label competitor CBS putting out “Raw Power” in 73. As far as the missing link I still haven’t had a chance to listen, but it would have to be pretty different from what the Stooges were doing, or even someone like Sonic’s Rendevous. But as far as African-American kids switching from Philly r and b to Detroit punk is unheard of and pretty interesting.

    Great post Mark!

  9. Will
    Posted March 17, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I happen to have a copy of the 45, which is everything all these stories are making it out to be. It rocks the most.

    And Geoff, it’s for sale! $850 and it’s yours. I’ll even drive it out to Cousins Vinyl gratis!

  10. Posted March 17, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Hahaha! Sweet, Will. $850 huh? How about $50 plus 800 records of my choosing, and I’ll even throw in a rough copy of “Back to Ypsilanti”. And I’ll come to you!

  11. Posted March 21, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Just listened to the actual music, as I have been w/out my laptop for the past week….

    As far as the beats not existing back then, and being so cutting edge, as Mark and his friend alluded to, the thing is, the bass line (at least from Politicians In My Eyes) is typical Detroit-based funk (Funkadelic, but closer to Fugi), which had been around for a few years, but never used in that style. That’s crazy, I’ve never heard anything like that before. It’s almost a blend of super-fast Detroit blues rock – Grand Funk or Stooges, dark funk, and elements of early rap. The singing sort of reminded me of a more polished Wesley Willis.

    Very cool, and I am jealous of Will’s copy :)

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