Saturday, March 28, 2009

DEATH: PUNK BEFORE PUNK WAS PUNK


DEATH 1974

ON an evening in late February at a club 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.

Rough Francis "Freakin Out"




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.




The brothers Dannis (left) and Bobby Hackney.

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.”

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9 comments:

  1. I stumbled onto their sound not too long ago. Read more on The NYC Times, so much to respect, 1974, before what most would consider the beginninng of Punk, but regardless of where or when it started, Death, from Detroit, did to punk, so posthumously, what the Mars Volta does the Alternative now, this funked influence and blaring sound thats just transcendent. I am absolutely more proud of where I'm at. Detroit, stand up...

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  2. Nice work RetroKimmer. Will the Hackney's be writing anything themselves?

    Check out this piece in todays NY Times about Detroit music: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/travel/29journeys.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

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  3. Thanks KB I added your feed to the blog too. These guys are phenominal aren't they? Look at the traffic feed already! I am not even finished yet!

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  4. Black is Punk, Punk is Black!

    Tupa Knows!

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  5. Did Death play the New York area in the mid seventies? I think I saw live footage on TV around that time of Death. It was on German TV in a documentary on youth gangs and ghetto culture. I think they depicted gang life in NY. But perhaps also Detroit?

    I distinctly remember it after all these years (saw it some three decaeds ago) Somewhere in this documentary there was this scene that showed some dark small venue with three (or four) black guys on stage raising hell with the singer convulsing on stage - with a really intense distorted guitar sound - uberpunk. I think they wore simple white t-shirts.

    All these years I wondered what band this was. It was so intense and heavy!

    Could it have been Death? Perhaps German TV still has this footage in their archive.

    regards.

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  6. Great detailed information, I ll be visiting you more frequently, here is very interesting information. public records
    It’s a very good post I have come across.I really like this post very much.It’s a very appreciated post.Thanks for sharing.Keep blogging.

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  7. U GUYS!!!! NEVER HEARD U BEFORE 2NITE...JUST BUZZIN' THE NET LOOKING FOR SOME PROTOPUNK AND COME UPON YOUR MUSIC (you tube). FANTASTIC ALBUM!! AMAZING TRACKS! U MADE ME FEELING GREAT! GREETINGS FROM ITALY! KEEP ROCKIN' ON!

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  8. A. Death were the original Afro-Punk band. There were the original black rockers (Chuck Berry and crew), There was Hendrix, and now there's Death, the origninal Afro-Punk Band.

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  9. One of the best unknown bands, come to Bogotaa kidss , !!!!!!!!!!!!!

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