Saturday, October 10, 2009

Detroit Rock City Paints It Black

Death: The First Black Punk Band?

...For the Whole World To See
(Drag City, 2009)
Track listing:
1. "Keep on Knocking" (David Hackney, Bobby Hackney) – 2:50
2. "Rock-N-Roll Victim" (D. Hackney) – 2:41
3. "Let the World Turn" (D. Hackney, B. Hackney) – 5:56
4. "You're a Prisoner" (D. Hackney, B. Hackney) – 2:24
5. "Freakin Out" (B. Hackney) – 2:48
6. "Where Do We Go from Here???" (B. Hackney) – 3:50
7. "Politicians in My Eyes" (B. Hackney) – 5:50

Bobby Hackney - bass, vocals
Dannis Hackney - drums
David Hackney - guitar

We recently got a bunch of new CDs in at the library where I work (thanks Tyson!), but none was more interesting than this audio oddity that, at first glance, looks like a run-of-the-mill heavy metal platter with generic cover art (point in fact, there is a contemporary Florida metal band also named Death). But there's more than meets the eye...and thanks to the discerning folks at Drag City records, it's now for the whole world to see.

I had never heard of this band, but from what little info's out there about them on the Internet, Death were the Hackney brothers - David, Bobby, and Dennis - three young black musicians in the melting-pot of mid-70s Detroit. And unlike most black musicians from Motown, they played rock 'n' roll; and not just Bob Segar "heartbeat of America" R&R but punk rock 'n' roll - at least 5 years before Bad Brains, the DC-area rasta punks most often credited with being black punk pioneers. Heck, in the words of New York Times music critic Mike Rubin, they were even punk before punk was punk!

"Yo Bad Brains - I was a punk before you were!"

According to lore, the Heckney bros absorbed the rock and roll sounds of local heroes like Alice Cooper and Iggy and the Stooges and "traded the strength of the r’n’b and funk that they’d been raised on for the strength of the rock music that was in the air all around them" after seeing an Alice Cooper concert. There was a precedent, of course, in the example of Black Merda, the Detroit (by way of Mississippi) rock band active in the '60s and '70s who reunited in 2005.

Black Merda

In 1974, Death attracted the attention of Clive Davis and started recording an album at Columbia Records. But after refusing to change its name (coined by David Hackney, who believed the spirit of rock 'n'roll could "spin death from the negative to the positive"), the band was canned by Columbia after releasing a lone single - 1976's "Politicians In Their Eyes" - and the album was never completed. The brothers later moved to Burlington, Vermont, and hitched their wagon to gospel rock under the moniker The 4th Movement. They later formed a reggae band (hmmm, more Bad Brains comparisons...) called Lambsbread. Guitarist David Hackney eventually moved back to Detroit, where he passed away from lung cancer in 2000.

After Bobby Hackney stumbled across the 26-minute 1974 Columbia demo tape in his attic, Chicago record label Drag City decided to release ...For the Whole World to See, nine years after the passing of David Hackney.

According to writer Jessica Nunez, "The record immediately caused a buzz in the punk and rock music world." She quotes fellow Detroit native Jack White (White Stripes) telling the New York Times: "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."

Mos Def is also a big fan of the Motor City pro-punk rockers.

Now enjoying name recognition after three decades, Death marches on, with Bobby and Dennis Hackney reuniting for a mini tour. The remaining brothers are on MySpace and there's already a documentary-in-progress about them: Where Do We Go From Here???.

Watch a sample clip from director Jeff Howlett's rock doc below:

Detroit's own DEATH -Where Do We Go From Here? Documentary - Tour 2009 Promo from Howlermano on Vimeo.

In closing, I gotta agree with the Pitchfork reviewer who wrote that "The album falls short of a diamond-in-the-rough-caliber discovery, but considering these seven songs are the remains of an aborted 12-song full-length-from a band that reinvented itself every three or four years, ...For the Whole World holds up well alongside, say, concurrent Blue Oyster Cult or New York Dolls albums." It may not be hands-down brilliant or absolutely essential, but it's pretty good and fairly interesting.

More Reviews:

According to Mike Rubin, writing in the March 12, 2009 New York Times ("This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk"),
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.

Jason P. Woodbury's Tiny Mix Tapes review:
As hard-rock takes on the shape of minimalist composition, the repeated rhythms and snatches of melody express rage and frustration long after the lyrics have ceased explicitly stating the message. It’s the kind of song that feels as appropriate today as it did 33 years ago. That kind of fervor makes ...For the Whole World to See such a blast and a defining example of the spirit that drives not just rock ‘n’ roll, but true outsider art.

Adam Moerder's Pitchfork review:
No matter how extensively technology's all-seeing eye attempts to catalog every rock recording ever made, Drag City's recent stream of reissues keeps unearthing uber-obscure excellence at a steady clip. After resurrecting 70s folk singer Gary Higgins and early 80s punk polymath JT IV (John Timmis IV), the Chicago-based label brings us Death, an all-black punk/hard-rock trio from Detroit (not to be confused with the 80s speed-metal band). Comprised of brothers David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, the band started out in 1971 playing R&B but switched to rock after hearing the raucous proto punk of their neighbors the MC5 and Stooges. That incarnation lasted only a few years and seven songs, and after balking at Columbia Records' demand for a name change, the band relocated to Vermont and reinvented themselves as a gospel rock group.

...For the Whole World to See, recorded in 1974, requires more ballpark adjustments than your average reissue. For one, most bands today fusing breakneck punk with arena rock bombast do so under a massive cloak of irony, and are commonly shunned (c.f. Electric Six). Making matters worse, Death espouses earnest political views while walking that tightrope. Luckily though, there's enough stylistic diversity and ahead-of-time knick-knacks on the album to prove Death more than just fanboys fawning over Kick Out the Jams and Raw Power.

Leaning heavily on pregnant pauses and choppy two-note melodies, opener "Keep on Knocking" confirms the rock+punk arithmetic of the band's mission statement. The other six tracks don't play out so predictably. "Let the World Turn" starts out in a Pink Floyd-style haze of reverberated guitars and detached vocals before igniting into a frenzied speed punk chorus. The ho-hum AOR verses of "You're a Prisoner" collide with a doomsday refrain straight out of an Ozzy Osbourne nightmare, while "Freakin Out" stands the test of time as the band's most innovative song here, anticipating the jittery pop punk that'd soon arrive from the UK.

The album falls short of a diamond-in-the-rough-caliber discovery, but considering these seven songs are the remains of an aborted 12-song full-length-from a band that reinvented itself every three or four years, For the Whole World holds up well alongside, say, concurrent Blue Oyster Cult or New York Dolls albums. This is the kind of reissue that re-instills faith in today's frustrated rockist, the listener whose fidelity gets tested by a rogues gallery of calculating rock revivalists every year. Armed with profound musicianship and the bona fide origin story so many less interesting bands' press kits grasp for, Death comes across as extremely likeable despite gleefully ripping off all the obvious influences.


"Politicians in My Eyes" b/w "Keep on Knocking" 7" (1976)
...For the Whole World to See (2009)

More Death Links:

Death on MySpace
Long-lost Detroit punk band performs locally this fall (
Death (Wikipedia)
...For the Whole World To See (Metacritic reviews - 76 overall rating)
Listening Booth: Death - Politicians In My Eyes (
The Detroit Band That Never Sold Out (Guardian, UK)
Death (Drag City)
Drag City Records
Hackney Brothers Interview (
Chicago Reader review

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Anonymous Modern Rock said...

"Let The World Turn !" wow ! What a track ! It's rocking I love it.

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