Top image: Still, ‘A Band Called Death’ (2016) Drafthouse Films
Before John Lydon created anarchy in the UK, there was Death, three brothers from Detroit who were punk long before Creem‘s Dave Marsh coined the word in 1971. Having watched that iconic Beatles’ debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (at the age of twelve, ten and eight), the brothers were hooked, and glimpsing the likes of Alice Cooper and The Who’s riotous live performances, the trio quickly developed a sound that would tear up the rulebook and venues in unison.
Under the radar, and then part of the Underground, the music of David, Dannis and Bobby assailed its time and landed in the limelight some 30 years later. They were called Death – and they were quite adamant about this. So attuned to their artistic integrity, major labels turned them away and they struggled to get the bigger venues they dreamed of. Columbia Records’ Clive Davis supported the recording of seven songs, but withdrew funding when the brothers refused to change their name to something more commercially viable.
They self-released a limited 500 copies of Politicians In My Eyes and Keep on Knocking on their own label, Tryangle, before disbanding in ’77 – pressings that were simply given to gig-goers are now part of a great musical legacy. After David sadly passed away in 2000, the brothers teamed up with friend, Bobbie Duncan, and reformed in 2009 with Drag City releasing their early demos. Jeff Howlett’s 2012 documentary A Band Called Death brought the genius beyond their years to a new generation, and now Death are on the road and enjoying the success David said would eventually be theirs. We caught up with the trio following their sell-out show at London’s Moth Club.
Clementine Zawadzki: I heard that you started as a funk band but switched it up after seeing The Who and Alice Cooper playing live?
Bobby Hackney: You know, we were kind of fooling around with the funk-rock thing, like Parliament-Funkadelic, and one time I happened into an Alice Cooper concert, and I had never seen a rock concert before. They used to have parties in the back of the arena, and Motown used to rent out the back of the arena for private parties and other events, and my mum would be invited to some of those events, and I would go out with my mum and on the way there we had to go through the arena to get to the place where the party was going on. Alice Cooper was on the stage, and I was just walking through the crowd with my mum, and we were walking and walking, and the more I walked, the more I kept turning my attention to the stage. He was on the ‘Billion Dollar Babies Tour’ and he had the boa constrictor and I just stood there and watched. At that point, I was just totally blown away, and I went home and told my brothers we can forget about this funk-rock stuff, we need to start playing the real rock ‘n’ roll. That whole show just totally changed my world. Well, my brothers kind of threw me out of the room. They didn’t want to be bothered with it, until my older brother, David, saw The Who when they came to town, and he fell in love with Quadrophenia, the London scene, the Mods and the Rockers. From then on, we just got involved.
CZ: At a time when Detroit itself was very funk-centred, and Motown, the blues and gospel were at large, you really must’ve needed confidence and belief in yourselves to try out this new style…
BH: Oh yeah. Well you know what it is…we were influenced by so much rock ‘n’ roll around us. We were fortunate in Detroit, like we used to see Bob Segar [and the Last Heard] for his annual gig when we were really young kids at the Detroit Auto Show, which was literally down the street from where we lived on Jefferson Avenue. And there was Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes, and The Rationals, and of course Motown, which just ran through the veins of everybody. So playing rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t really a crazy choice to us, but it was the fact we were doing it growing up in the black community, and they were attuned to a whole different type of music, as we were. We just wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll and play it correctly.
CZ: What makes Detroit so inspiring?
Dannis Hackney: Detroit’s kind of like Memphis…they don’t have the factories, but it’s one of those cities that has such a rich musical culture, and if you stay there you have to be inspired by something. Even country music had its own corner in Detroit, and they would kick on Friday and Saturday night. You had so much of a choice about what you wanted to get into, and back then Detroit was financially thriving and booming in business, so there was a bevy of activity.
CZ: Were you friends with other Detroit bands at the time?
DH: We’d go to Grosse Pointe and hang with some other street bands that we knew. Our mission, which kind of failed a little bit, was to get into clubs like the Electric Circus and Uncle Sam’s which were rock clubs on the outskirts of town.
CZ: How did people react to your sound?
BH: We were always fighting with the neighbours because they wanted us to turn our music down. They’d called the police on us and the police got to know us by name. I remember even one time the police came to our house and they wanted to complain, but we were playing Keep On Knocking and they said they liked that song. It got to be like that, but it was a constant war. David tried to get us booked at a Gabber Rave – an all black Gabber Rave frequented mostly by factory workers who on the weekend want to have a good time – It’s just one of those ‘bring your own bottle’ things, and suddenly you’re in front of a packed house and we’re playing songs like Politicians in my Eyes and I’m a Man and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and after each song you could just hear a pin drop, they’d just look at you. Finally, this old man came up to us and he said, “You’re playing too loud.” We didn’t care. We tried to get gigs at white clubs, but I don’t even think it was because we were an all black band, I think it was our name, which at the time seemed to be a problem for everybody. David used to call those clubs, like Electric Circus, and I remember that distinctly because the guy thought it was a prank and hung up.
CZ: But your take on the name Death isn’t what first springs to mind. It’s more of a positive, isn’t it?
BH: That’s the way David spun it, we all did, even to this day. Our whole theme around Death was not the negative, but just a transition of life that we all make. It was like a statement that we’re all on this journey. We never did regret changing the name, although we did wonder about the possibilities of what the outcome might have been.
CZ: The story of Death has certainly been a journey. What’s it like looking back to when you recorded those first demo tapes…
DH: David was the leader of the band at the time, we told him we needed a recording contract and he opened a phone book, nailed it to the wall and threw a dart and it landed on Groovesville Productions. It wasn’t just a dart. We all had faith in the dart.
BH: We all loved recording music, especially at a studio like United Sounds in Detroit. It’s where The Who did demos, The Rolling Stones, George Clinton did all of the Funkadelic records there, and it’s just legendary. To this very day we love recording. We’re celebrating a new album we put out last year.
Bobbie Duncan: It’s a continuation, we’re on the same page. Our new album’s actually called N.E.U and it’s songs that Bob, Dannis and David had written years ago, but had never recorded. I added four songs and collaborated on one and it’s really hot. It’s seems like we’re constantly in the studio, and when we’re not doing that, we’re rockin’ with you guys.
CZ: Did you ever think Death could come together again?
DH: No, ‘cause at the time we were playing in Lambsbread, which was a reggae band, and that was after all of the heartbreak and the sad situations that we were confronted with in Death. Dave left Vermont and went back to Detroit, and me and Bobby were just bass and drums, and at that time this cat named Bob Marley started to get popular, and I fell in love with bands like the Roots Radics, Sly and Robbie, stuff like that. That’s when we met Bobbie Duncan, and we really hit the Reggae thing hard and started to make a mark. In 2000, that’s when my brother [David Hackney] died. He came up here to film my wedding, which was the last thing he actually did. That’s why I have so much value for my wedding tape. Back then, he was telling me, “You guys are going to make it, but I’m not going to be with you,” really sad, sad stuff. He was telling me stuff that would soon happen, and the freaky part is it did happen and is still happening today. Dave never cared about money and things like that. He wanted that stuff for Bob and me.
BD: One day we were just doing our reggae thing, and it just came back to these guys. We were rehearsing, tuning up, getting ready for a gig coming up, and Bobby said, “Something happened,” and he told me the whole story. I’d been playing reggae with Bob and Dannis for a number of years, and I never knew these guys did rock, they never mentioned Death. And then one day he comes to rehearsals and tells me this whole story. It was amazing. We’re all from the same era and around the same age. I grew up in New York, but it’s not a melting pot like Detroit is. We’re like brothers automatically and we’re on this trip now. Everything that David predicted, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. Sometimes I’m in total amazement in the reception we get from the audience, young and old, small and short, it doesn’t make a difference.
CZ: Going back to that idea of sentiment being the basis of Death, your music has always been very emotive and expressive of the community, your values. Does that still resonate now?
BH: I think we all really want the same thing at the end of the day, and that’s to be with our family and friends, and to enjoy the journey together. It’s the same message that The Beatles had. The only platform we have is music. We don’t have guns and knives, the only weapons we have are our instruments, and the only thing we shoot is bullets of pure sapphire and love.
DH: One thing Bob Marley said about music is that when it hits you feel no pain.
BD: Music has always been what’s held people together.
BH: What inspired us in the 70s still inspires us today. Good music, good sounds, and music you can feel in your heart. And just rockin’ it out.
CZ: You’d never be those neighbours calling the police . . .
BH: No, I’d never call the cops on a musician! I would call a musician on a cop.
DH: “Go play ‘em a song.”
CZ: You’ve become this real cult band. Do you find the reaction and recognition strange?
DH: It’s a fun run to us. People call us the Godfathers of Punk Music, and how we made a record before the Sex Pistols, and this and that, but we also had Iggy Pop over here . . .
BH: Everybody’s doing something . . .
DH: We have respect for all these guys. They’re putting us in museums and we appreciate that, we love that, but we’re out to capture the fun that we missed out on. When you get a second-chance, don’t fool around.
BH: I don’t know if everyday we’re more grateful that this thing came back to us, or the fact we hung around the music business so long that we could appreciate it when it did come.
CZ: Does it feel good to be back doing what you do best?
DH: It’s like Tony the Tiger – it’s GRRREAT!
BH: We just love the fact that the new fans really love us and the kids of today are really tuned in. It’s just amazing. We’re really excited every time we play for a new crowd. I guess that Death was just something waiting for the generation that would appreciate it.