No Concessions: A Band Called Death Comes Alive

June 28, 2013

There’s a scene early on in the new documentary A Band Called Death--which recounts the story of the recently rediscovered 70s proto-punk band Death--in which Brian Spears, then the director of publishing at Detroit’s Groovesville Productions, recounts hearing the band play live for the first time. “The moment that that band fired up those was just amazing. With every song they played the energy level kept growing and growing because they just wanted to show every bit of talent they had on every song.” Spears brought Death’s demos to the desk of his colleague, producer Don Davis. “I’m like, ‘Brian,’” Davis recalls, ‘Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H. What’s the matter with you?’”

Davis’ reaction would come to exemplify Death’s reception in the recording industry. The band wore its name like a scarlet letter, though it was hardly the group sole distinction. Death—composed of three teenage brothers--was a punk band coming out of Detroit, the very home of Hitsville, U.S.A., in the era of Motown and disco. In fact, Death may very well have been the first black punk band.

The story of Death is a story of struggle: In the early 70s, Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney—inspired by rock acts of the era—decided to launch their own band. David, the oldest brother, was the group’s driving force and a family tragedy leads him to settle on the name Death. The group was undeniably gifted, and the raw drive of their music quickly garnered praise. Despite Don Davis’ initial reluctance, Groovesville agreed to record a debut album, though shopping it to labels proved challenging: as soon as the executives saw the band’s name they swiftly tossed their demos into the trash bin. In a rare stroke of fortune, recording mogul Clive Davis got in touch with the group with an enticing deal: change your name in exchange for a contract. Ever the idealist, David Hackney flatly refused the offer.

That decision seemingly sealed the group’s fate. Death languished, busying themselves with shipping off 7” singles to radio stations across the country in vain hopes of getting air time. Conceding defeat in 1980, the brothers moved to Vermont, where Dannis and Bobby settled down and pursued other musical avenues, eventually starting Lambsbread, a reggae group. Meanwhile David returned to Detroit where his health deteriorated. Shortly before he passed, David flew out to Dannis' wedding. “Before he left my wedding, he brought all the Death master tapes and told Bob to hold them,” remembers Dannis. “He says, ‘One day the world’s going to come looking for this, and I know that you will keep them.’”

And true to David’s prophesy, the world came knocking on the Hackney's doors.

Though at moments A Band Called Death fails to match the vibrant energy of the band it portrays, the film is nevertheless a moving and sincere portrait of a group that’s getting their dues three decades too late. Directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino have a keen documentarian eye, and realize that the lost and found journey of Death—what Henry Rollins calls, “one of those great music stories…it’s why you listen to music”—is just part of the tale here. At its heart, A Band Called Death is a documentary about a deep bond shared by a group oftalented brothers who refused to cave on their ideals; a lesson about standing by your family at any cost. The kind loyalty on display here is more rare and valuable than any lost record. It's a powerful force—strong enough to bring Death back to life.

Since the renewed interest in the band, Death has regrouped, enlisting their Lambsbread collaborator Bobbie Duncan to fill David’s shoes on guitar. I had the pleasure of speaking with the band earlier this week.

Bobby, were the Hackney's a musical family to begin with? We were encouraged to play music really throughout our entire lives by our mom and our dad. Earl, our oldest brother, when he was 14 or 15 years old--that was right around the time that Motown started really churning out their hits--he brought home a record by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, although at that time it was just called the Miracles. There were songs like “Ooh, Baby Baby” and “Shop Around” and we just became immersed in Motown. We had all these wonderful 45s and we used to do like all the other families, move the furniture in the living room and pretend like we were the Temptations or Jackie Wilson or the Miracles. Of course our brother David—David was the one who did the best Jackie Wilson. David was the only one in the family who could do the splits and get back up. Everybody else would do the splits and just stay down.

When did the brothers seriously start considering forming a group? Right around ’71 we started really becoming serious. We’d always been talking about music, but then we got some guitars out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue with the help of my mom. Then we started playing music, we became a band. We didn’t even have a name at the time, we were just jamming. David, he was the one who started taking it a little more serious than everyone else. By around the end of ’72 we were serious as a unit. In ’73 we became RockFire Funk Express and we recorded our first demo—which Jack White has actually just released on his Third Man Records.

Right around that time my mom had a boyfriend whose name was James. James was a security guard who had had access to Cobo Arena, Olympia Stadium and the Masonic Temple Theatre, and he would let us get into any shows that came. So we were able to see James Brown, the Rolling Stones, the Who—Peter Frampton opened up for Carlos Santana two weeks before the Frampton Comes Alive! album came out. We saw all those great shows and that helped us to get immersed into rock’n’roll and that’s really how we started as a band.

Dannis, when did you know you wanted shift the band to playing rock? Well, my mother was on her way to a Motown party because she used to be invited by all the people in Motown that she knew from church and other places. She was on her way there but in order to get to there you had to cut through the Cobo Arena and Alice Cooper was performing. So she was going to the Motown party and I kind of stopped to check out Alice Cooper. When I saw what they were doing and the kind of music they were playing, it just totally kind of excited me. I ran home to the fellas saying that this was the kind of music I wanted to do and if they wanted to be having fun, they had to do this too. But they weren’t so convinced, they threw me out the room and we left it at that.

A couple of months later, David saw the Who come through Detroit on their Quadrophenia tour and when David saw them perform, that’s when he was convinced. And as he was the leader of the band, we weren’t going to play the music until he was convinced. And that’s when we started to go in that direction and changed the name of the band.

Download a free, never-before-released 1974 Death demo recording of "Politicians In My Eyes" here

The name of the band had a pretty big impact on the band’s trajectory. Do you ever regret not changing it? The name is even more important to me now than it was then. When we had the chance to name the band, as much as me and Bob would’ve considered it, David stuck to his guns. To him it was like, ‘If I let you change the name, then you’re going to come back and ask for this, then you’re going to come back and ask for that, and by the time you get to asking to change all the things that make us real, we won’t be real anymore.’ He stuck to his guns and that’s what made us proud of David. By sticking to his guns, we’re here today.

Bobby, are you happy with how the film turned out? What Jeff [Howlett, director] did that really made the difference in making this film something that we liked and something that everyone else seems to like was he really got into the heart, the mind, the soul, and the spiritual side of our brother David, which opened up the door to me and Dennis, which in turn opened up the door to our whole family. For four and a half years, Jeff became kind of like an adopted member of the Hackney family. That really is what’s made the difference in the heart and soul of the film.

One of the more remarkable parts of your story is that your sons rediscovered Death and started a tribute band, Rough Francis. What lessons would you want to pass down to them? The only lesson we would want to pass down is the lesson that Dannis said in the movie: Back your brother. Sometimes the hardest people to deal with in the whole world are the people we grew up with in our own households. For some reason, we’re put together. And that’s the way it works in the world. The very first conflict in the world between two guys was between two brothers. Maybe this is the full circle of life saying that this is the reason that we’re here. Back up your brother, back up your sister. That’s the reason why we’re connected. If anybody, anybody can get inspiration to reconnect with their family, or to make their family better, or to make a relationship better…

One of the greatest things for us was when the movie was first shown in LA. It was the first screening and a gentleman came up to us with a cellphone and he had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘I want you to know—after watching your film I called my brother who I hadn’t spoken to in 5 years.’ That was powerful for us.

A Band Called Death is available on iTunes, VOD and for digital download, and will be in select theaters starting today--check out the screening schedule here. Death is also playing upcoming shows in New York and LA.

No Concessions: A Band Called Death Comes Alive