This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk
Death in its prime: from left, the Hackney brothers, David, Bobby and Dannis. The band’s 1974 demo tape was released last month as “... For the Whole World to See.” Photo-Tammy Hackney
By MIKE RUBIN
Published: March 12, 2009
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.ackney.
The Hackney brothers as the 4th Movement, from left, Bobby, Dannis and David.
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.”