A Band Called Death (2013) and Serendipitous Revival

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The “punk” lifestyle and movement typically conjures up anger, rebellion, isolation, etc. However, the new documentary, A Band Called Death is about the world’s nicest punk band, Death, formed by three brothers in Detroit in the early seventies. What other punk band has the support of their parents to play as loud as they want in an upstairs spare room, but only from 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM? That isn’t the only out-of-the-ordinary detail in the lives of the Hackney brothers documented in this film, which I have been eagerly anticipating ever since I heard Death’s For The World To See album a few years ago. The documentary, out now in theaters and video on demand, can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of your interest in punk music.

It’s hard to even figure out where to start when talking about A Band Called Death. It’s a film about music, religion, the importance of family, and a film about amazing consequences and fortuitous events. David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney wanted to start a band in the early seventies and, being black, assumed that they would start a funk/soul band. After David saw The Who and Alice Cooper live, he convinced his brothers to play rock and roll. What emerged was the origin of the greats like The Ramones, The Stooges, MC5, and other punk-influenced bands. However, Death was doing this years before any of those bands did, but no one had heard them until 30 years later.

David Hackney, the leader and visionary of the band, had a very set vision for Death, which included a triumvirate of spiritual elements, represented by their triangle logo. Death’s music got the attention of major labels with the one stipulation: they must change the name. David refused, and his brothers, despite their frustration, valued sticking with their brother over doing what the labels suggested. After numerous rejections merely because of their name, the Death concept was abandoned and the master tapes of their album were relegated to storage in an attic. Bobby and Dannis Hackney continued with music, finally forming a reggae band and putting death behind them.

Thirty-odd years later, the amazing journey of one of their record singles begins. A record collector foumd their single “Politicians In My Eyes” in a batch of used records, listened to it, was amazed at what he heard, told another major collector about it, who then posted about it on a popular message board. Suddenly everyone was on a mission to find an elusive Death single, and one appeared on eBay for eight hundred dollars. The single is transferred to mp3, played by punk music aficionados and at a party attended by Bobby Hackney’s son, who never knew his father and uncles had a punk band. He begs his father to find the master tape, and the album is re-released to critical praise thirty-five years later.

As with any documentary that chronicles a time in the past, it can only rely on flashbacks from interviews. The surviving Hackney brothers (David died from lung cancer in 2000) and their families are so funny, emotional, and charismatic that I found myself not needing actual footage to relive the story. They seem generally so happy and at peace with life, it’s hard to imagine them as a hardcore punk band. They are also delightfully “aw shucks” about their newfound fame, illustrated by a great moment and Bobby Hackney proclaims, generally surprised, “Why would anyone want to pay eight hundred dollars for that record? I would have just given him one.”

This documentary is already rich with different parts of Death’s story, and there is only so many elements it can cover, but it also leaves so many fascinating questions. Firstly, what was it like for these men to play a music genre associated with white artists in Detroit during the early seventies? What were people’s reactions to that? Also, is this another case of something created by black artists, co-opted by white artists who then receive all the acclaim and fortune? Hard to say, since the music wasn’t found until now, but the idea must have come up. I believe this film will bring Death even more attention than they already have had among music bloggers and record collectors, and perhaps these issues will come up in further discussions.

The surviving family members recall David Hackney as a genius, a visionary, who like many creative people, also struggles with depression and substance abuse. “Don’t lose these tapes,” he tells his brother Bobby after they get the master tapes back from the studio. “One day someone will come looking for them,” and he couldn’t have been more right.

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