For listeners who come to …For All the World to See with no context, the music of Death will sound startlingly modern. The Midwestern trio plays forceful punk with passion and precision. Spiraling riffs and shout-a-long choruses drive their songs, but the band also switches things up by shifting into unusual time signatures and experimenting with psychedelic soundscapes. Lyrically, they write from the perspective of the outcasts and outsiders. Many of their songs deal with mortality (as would befit a band called Death), but their awareness of how time is running out gives their songs a greater sense of urgency than you might expect. The airy, minimal production shows off each band member’s musical abilities and the near-intuitive chemistry among them.
While their scrappy, spiky-yet-swirling sound might seem like it could be coming out of today’s rehearsal spaces, …For All the World to See carries a dual copyright date of 1974 and 2009. Even more amazingly, they released only one single before disbanding in 1977. Many of Death’s fans credit them with creating punk rock in their Detroit basement, but where had this music been hiding out for the prior thirty-five years?
David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney – the siblings who comprised Death – started playing music in their Detroit basement in the late 1960s. Their father, a music maven, sparked the brothers’ interest in rock bands in 1964, when the family sat down to watch the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. By the time the Hackneys hit puberty, music had supplanted car manufacturing as the main industry in their hometown of Detroit. Initially known as Rock Fire Funk Express, the trio’s sound nodded towards the popular soul sound of their hometown.
Then, their influences started to shift. The siblings attended concerts by the Who and Alice Cooper, which inspired them musically and ignited their rebellious streak. While artists like Tina Turner and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott had set a precedent for black rockers, Detroit still wasn’t ready for an all-black rock band. In a recent interview with Way Too Indie, Dannis Hackney acknowledged their neighbors’ hostility towards them. “They called the police [on us], they knocked on the doors, they walked around and insulted us. Our way of getting back at them was, “Ok, you want to insult us? We’ll turn it up to eleven-and-a-half!”
Their father’s sudden death also shaped the Hackneys worldview. David Hackney delved further into spirituality and insisted that the band change their name to Death in tribute.
While Death didn’t play publicly too often, David became a prolific songwriter, and the band recorded a seven-song demo in 1974. Their propulsive music caught the ear of Clive Davis, who offered the band the deal of a lifetime if they would just change their name. David Hackney declined the offer, citing the band’s autonomy: “If we give ’em the title of our band, then we might as well give ’em everything else.”
Within a few years, the group disbanded and moved to Vermont, where they formed a reggae band that failed to find an audience. Apart from a series of placards the band posted around Detroit – which the police misinterpreted as a gesture towards gang recruitment – Death’s legacy had been all but snuffed.
Bobby Hackney, however, believed the music of Death was eternal. Before he succumbed to lung cancer in 2000, he gave the band’s demos to Dannis as a wedding present. Speaking to The Fader, Dannis recalled: “He says, ‘One day the world’s going to come looking for this, and I know that you will keep them.’” His foresight came true in 2006, when Bobby Hackney Jr. heard their only single at a party and recognized his father’s voice. An internet search revealed to the younger Hackney that record collectors coveted the scarce 7”. After learning of his father’s and uncles’ early work, he formed a Death tribute band to bring his family’s songs to a wider audience.
“When I first heard it, I thought: ‘This can’t be real. People have to know about this. This is crazy!’” Hackney Jr. said to the New York Times in 2009. “I felt like I had found Jimmy Hoffa or something.”
Death’s legend grew when record collector Ben Blackwell posted MP3s of “Keep on Knocking” and “Politicians in My Eyes” on his blog. Record companies clamored to release Death’s recordings, allowing the band to release the recordings under their own name and everything. In 2009, renowned Chicago indie Drag City released …For All the World to See to great acclaim. The album’s popularity among independent music fans and fellow musicians eventually led to A BAND CALLED DEATH, a documentary about the Hackney brothers’ musical career and Death’s resurrection.
The obscurity and redemption of the Hackneys’ music career reads like a rock-and-roll fairy tale. David and Dannis Hackney are fully aware of their surreal good luck, but they’ve maintained a modest, good-humored perspective on their recent career renaissance. As the Hackneys wryly observe, “Every day is a good day for Death.”
A BAND CALLED DEATH screens July 12th – July 14th