(Resurrecting this post from the DM archives. A Band Called Death is released tomorrow by Drafthouse Films)
Imagine it’s 1975 and you’re a young Black man obsessed with the music of The Who, Alice Cooper, David Bowie and The Beatles. You form a band that plays loud, fast, rock ‘n’ roll in a city where grooving to the Motown sound of Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Gladys Knight is more than a past time, it’s a religion. What was Detroit to make of a kid with an Afro and a jones for Frank Zappa and T. Rex?
To the distress of your bewildered friends and Christian family, imagine calling your band Death and recording songs like “Rock and Roll Victim” and “Freaking Out.” Imagine that when the opportunity for success comes knocking at your door you sweetly tell it to “fuck off,” unwilling to pay the price of changing who are in order to make money being who you are not. Imagine all of that and you’ve put yourself into the world of David Hackney and his brothers Dannis and Bobby, three young cats who together formed one of rock’s most visionary and unique rock groups.
The idea for Death leaped from David Hackney’s imagination like a wild living thing that couldn’t be suppressed. It was a beast in search of its roar. This eruption had been a long time coming. Ever since he was a kid watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, David knew that there was something inside him that was restless and pressing its way toward the light of day. In time, he found the tools needed to excavate and give expression to this force, this beast - they’d been there all along: guitars and drums. The Beatles had pointed the way. The Who and Hendrix provided the maps. Ziggy Stardust drove the bus.
David’s brothers were quick to pick up on his calling. They shared his passion for rock ‘n’ roll and had faith in their brother’s vision of a Black trio that smashed musical stereotypes and re-invented itself in the style of trailblazers like Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee and Sly Stone. Death’s hard-edged, politically-charged rock ‘n’ roll had more in common with Detroit rockers like Iggy Pop, The MC5 and Bob Seger than the commercial soul coming out on Berry Gordy’s multi-million dollar record label. The cost that Death paid for being provocative and original was high. A record deal from Clive Davis was offered with the stipulation that the band change its name. David was unyielding. The name meant something too deep to fuck with. Where others saw darkness, he saw light. For the young songwriter and guitarist, Death symbolized transition and re-birth. It was more than just a name, it was a point of view. And it was precious to him. No, the name would never change.
Death stuck to their guns, recorded their music and eventually disbanded. David died of lung cancer in 2000. Dannis and Bobby formed reggae bands. It appeared that Death had died. But David’s longview in which death is just a process of passing through different dimensions became prophetic when The New York Times’ Mike Rubin wrote a piece on the long lost band in 2010. What had been an underground secret was now exposed to millions of people, with an enthusiastic endorsement from Detroit brethren Jack White:
“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.”
There was an immediate demand for the music of Death. Bobby and Dannis started considering what they once thought might be impossible: Death’s resurrection. David would like that. With the help of their spiritual brother, Bobbie Duncan, the brothers made David’s vision come to life again. Death was reborn.
Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s film A Band Called Death brings us close into the lives of the Hackney brothers, their family and friends. It takes us to Detroit, where Death found its sound in the grind and clang of industry. And it takes us into the spirituality of the band. The offspring of a Christian minister, the brothers found in rock ‘n’ roll a way to amplify their sense of the cosmic. With the coming of the hippie scene and psychedelics, they went further into the mysteries of being and found in their music a means to celebrate the dawning of the Aquarian Age. But into the mix of flower child trippiness, Death brought a blast of apocalyptic Motor City badassness that kept the psychedelic spaceship from tipping too far into the paisley zone. Their heads may have been drifting through the music of the spheres, but their feet were firmly planted on the cracked concrete of their Detroit garage.
A Band Called Death inspires as it illuminates the path the brothers took while riding out their dream with only their passion and positive vibes to carry them through. It’s a lovely film and deservedly won the Audience Award at this year’s SXSW.
Back in March, I spent a couple of hours with Death, shooting the shit and sharing war stories. I filmed the following video after seeing the band the night before. I was pumped up. The band were absolutely phenomenal live, my concerns about David’s absence were supplanted by the belief that his brothers more than ably channeled his energy.
Death lives. Feel the vibe.