Death becomes them

Sep 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

The history of rock 'n' roll is littered with dozens of such stories — great bands discovered years after their initial obscurity has faded into almost nothingness. As Lester Bangs wrote of the Count Five in what many fans consider his defining piece: Some people are recognized in their own time, and some aren't. Or as Joe Strummer said in a Detroit hotel barroom many decades ago: "Tonight, the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world is playing somewhere, in some small town or city, and it'll be years before anyone hears them, if ever …"

Of course, being "ahead of one's time" also helps. And when it comes to such discovery or even rediscovery, 2009 pretty much belongs to Death, three brothers — guitarist David, bassist-singer Bobby and drummer Dannis Hackney — from the east side of Detroit who have the distinction of being the first all-black punk rock band, creating tunes in the early to mid-'70s that sounded like the MC5 meeting the Dictators ("Keep On Knocking") or the Stooges mating with the Ramones ("Freakin' Out"); one could even toss in a reference to Wire or Jack White by way of Peter Green for good measure and not be wrong.

"We were just trying to be like the bands we liked back then," Bobby says by phone from his Vermont home. "The Who. Or the Stooges. Naturally, the MC5. The Rationals. And, of course, we were very influenced by [legendary Detroit DJ and TV dance show host] Robin Seymour. That was our religion every week. The great thing about Robin Seymour was that he showed a lot of those film clips — well, we called them film clips back then, people call them videos now. But that was the first time we ever saw Hendrix. That was the first time we really saw the Who. It was on Robin Seymour's Swinging Time."

The brothers certainly didn't consider their music "punk" at the time. "Back in the day in Detroit, if you called a musician a ‘punk,' those were fighting words," Bobby laughs. Indeed, the only historical antecedents these dudes (and probably history) acknowledge are Hendrix and the mixed-race Sly & the Family Stone, although, ironically, not the Chambers Brothers. "For a long time," Bobby says, "we didn't think the Chambers Brothers were a black band."

"After the '60s, rock started adding that dirty word called ‘genres' to the mix," adds brother Dannis, who's joined us for this conference call. "There were no genres in rock 'n' roll! There was just rock 'n' roll!"

Master tapes of Death's recordings resurfaced in 2008; earlier this year, Chicago indie label Drag City released a seven-song CD, … For the Whole World to See, which included previously unreleased songs as well as "Politicians in My Eyes" b/w "Keep on Knocking," the only tunes to ever be commercially released — only 500 copies on the brothers' own Tryangle label — by the trio as a single in 1976. The result has been a bit of a cult phenomenon among hipsters, especially after The New York Times published a glowing historical piece about the band last March, noting that underground aficionados and punk historians had discovered the single before the Drag City release. The single was being auctioned on eBay for as much as $400.

This latter-day success is somewhat bittersweet, however, since oldest brother David — who wrote the majority of the music — didn't live to see Death's renaissance, succumbing to lung cancer in 2000 after returning to Detroit. "It's made this whole journey very emotional," acknowledges Bobby, who also notes that David was the one brother who always firmly believed that Death's music would be discovered by the world someday. The oldest Hackney, however, was also the brother who insisted that the band not change its name, even at the suggestion of record mogul Clive Davis, which led directly to Death ultimately being rejected by Davis' once-interested label (there's some dispute among participants as to whether it was Columbia or Arista). 

"Since this revival has happened, it's almost like we've been communicating with David from the other world. We can feel it right down to our bone marrow that he would be really thrilled to see what's going on."

All the acclaim and attention has led the surviving brothers to re-form Death, with guitarist Bobbie Duncan (who's been playing with Dannis and Bobby in their Vermont-based, Sly-&-Robbie-inspired, reggae-rock band, Lambsbread) filling in for David. There's old material to be revived and resuscitated, new material to perhaps be written, maybe even tours of Japan and Brazil in the works. But first, Death 2009 is testing the waters with a mini-tour to three Midwest cities — Chicago, Cleveland, and, most exciting for the Hackneys, their Detroit hometown.

It's the city where they say they got their entire "rock 'n' roll education, man," at places like Cobo Arena. "We were going to see a basketball game, and at Cobo that night, Alice Cooper happened to be playing," remembers Dannis. "My mother's boyfriend at the time was the head of security down at Cobo Arena. So we used to get in to see a whole lot of shows and I talked my mother into taking me. So there I was, in the midst of an Alice Cooper crowd, with my mother! He was on his Billion Dollar Babies tour — so he had the big boa constrictor and everything else going on up there. My mother kinda looked at him and said, ‘That fella has some problems.' And I told her, ‘Mom, that's Alice Cooper.' She heard his first name and said, ‘You don't need to say no more!'

"But that was really the cap on it. Well, that and David went to see the Who at Cobo during the Quadrophenia tour. And when I came back with my stories from the Alice Cooper show, and David came back with his stories from the Who show, that's when we decided that we need to play this rock 'n' roll."

Their parents were actually more than supportive, much more so, in fact, than the typical moms and dads of the day. 

"Our mother sang in the choir, and our dad was a blues guy," Bobby says. "He never played the blues, but he was a Baptist minister and he loved blues music." 

Dad Hackney also made sure his sons experienced the Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan

"My dad took that to be a major event," Bobby says. "The entire country was electrified that whole weekend. I remember them doing that legendary press conference where Ringo was imitating Elvis. There was just a lot of electricity in the air. I was really young but I do remember that. If you weren't talking about the Beatles, then you weren't in America that week!

"And then our mom, every morning when we used to eat breakfast, she made sure we'd eat breakfast to CKLW. There was like this little alarm clock that was also a radio on her kitchen counter and it seemed like it just stayed on CKLW for years, every morning before we'd go to school. You'd hear a country song, and then a Rolling Stones song, and then you'd hear James Brown. So CKLW was another big part of our melting pot of education — all that great music that was coming from it."

Mom was especially tolerant after David found a guitar in a nearby alley not long after that Beatles' debut, deciding he needed look no further than his own family home for a rhythm section. "By the time we were really a full-tilt rock 'n' roll band, around '73,'74, we had bought all this equipment, and my mom, bless her heart, she allowed us to take all the beds and all the dressers and everything out of our room," says Dannis. "So we turned the room into this little rock 'n' roll world for ourselves. The agreement with her was — and we were playing pretty loud — but the agreement was that we were OK between 3 and 6 p.m. After 6, though, it was cut-off time. That was her time." He pauses. "When I look back on it now, it's like, wow, she gave us an entire lifetime."

"You'd be surprised how many kids [in our neighborhood] missed the whole Motown era because their parents were so stoic and didn't want music in the house, bought into that whole ‘rock 'n' roll is the devil's music' deal, and all that kind of thing," Bobby says. "It's amazing how many young people missed the whole musical movement of the '60s simply because they were oppressed by their parents."

If anyone put up any resistance to Death's music, though, it was the other kids in their neighborhood who were used to the brothers playing funk and soul. 

"They thought we were out of our minds!" Bobby laughs. "They used to call us the ‘black Hendrix' as a joke. They used to call us ‘The Black Beatles' sometimes. The thing about it was, back then, when we were in the throes of Death, the people in our community were listening to Earth Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, Motown, of course. The music coming out of Philadelphia then was just some of the most awesome music — the O'Jays and that kinda stuff. So our friends would always try to encourage us: ‘Why don't you guys play that kind of music?'

"I think maybe that's the reason why Death had such an aggressive edge," Bobby continues. "Because we were so aggressive about playing rock 'n' roll. If anybody would talk to us about playing something else, David would want to kill them with just the chords, you know."

"The more they wanted to change us, the more we just grinded into the rock 'n' roll and tried to make it harder, faster and grittier," Dannis agrees. "Whenever we started practicing, we'd hear the neighbors' doors slam. It was like, ‘OK, here they go again for three hours!'"

Bobby continues the thought: "The funny thing is, maybe a couple years after we started playing this, some of our friends miraculously jumped on board. I remember a friend of ours named Ernie coming over to the house one day just to show us that he had bought a Who album. So at least we educated other people about rock 'n' roll and made them appreciate it as well."

By 1976, though, Death thought Detroit wasn't the great rock 'n' roll city it had been only a few years before; they still blame it on disco and the new corporate thrust of radio; they even felt betrayed when David Bowie came to town for a week-long stint at the old Michigan Theatre. 

"We went expecting to see Ziggy Stardust and he came out with this disco show that eventually became the Young Americans album!" Bobby complains. "We felt like it was the night rock 'n' roll was betrayed in Detroit." On top of that, the future didn't look bright for either the band or the city's economy at that point. 

"I remember when 3,000 people showed up at the Renaissance Center for maybe three or four hundred jobs or something," Bobby continues. "We still loved Detroit and we had no intention of leaving. But we had a distant relative who lived in New England, and he suggested, ‘Come out to New England and just chill out … and then you'll go back to Detroit and have some good ideas about what you want to do next.'

"We were like, ‘New England? What did they do with the old one?'" he laughs. "But we went and we loved Burlington, Vt. It was like a Haight-Ashbury town at the time. It was just full of people who loved music, and we had a bar to play gigs. It was a college town, just vibrant. So we got into the mix of it, and we never came back home. We always say we never left Detroit. We're still just on vacation. It's been 30-odd years and we've raised families, but we're still on vacation!"

Not that Burlington greeted them with open arms at first. When they papered the area with fliers for their first gig, the Burlington police soon knocked on their door. They thought Death was a black street gang from Detroit in town to recruit new members! "That was one of the main things that prompted us to change the name from Death," Dannis says. "Because we had gone through so many problems with that name. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I said, ‘Look, fellas. We need to do something. …'

"Today, you have groups like Megadeth and all other kinds of ‘death' bands that are out there. It's not so bad now to say ‘death,' but we still have some explaining to do because people always want to know exactly where you're coming from. We always have to tell them, ‘This is a spin on death, taking it from the negative to the positive.' It's always been about looking at the concept of death in a whole new way. Or to at least understand what death brings, what it's all about. It's not an ‘Oh, God, he's dead, we're never going to see him again.' It's more like, ‘He's gone somewhere else now and we'll meet him later.'"

"That was David's main spin on the whole thing," agrees Bobby, who explains that his older brother was working on a rock opera about death during the group's Detroit era.

The band never played live much in Detroit back in the day. "We were an all-black rock ‘n' roll band!" Bobby laughs. "There weren't really too many opportunities for us to be playing out and about. It really was kind of an underground thing." So the upcoming show is more than just an average homecoming for the Hackneys; to a degree, it's bringing the whole Death thing full circle.

"David would always tell us, with a smile on his face, ‘We got the music. Don't worry,'" Dannis says.

"Our hearts will always be with Detroit," Bobby concludes. "That's where we were born, where we were raised, where we got all our musical education. All of it."

Death plays Friday, Sept. 25, at the Magic Stick, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. With the Readies and Rough Francis.

Thanks to editorial intern Brady Bell for help with interview transcription.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:[email protected]