Detroit punk band Death, ahead of its time

Jun 17, 2013

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In the mid 1970s, three teenage brothers from Detroit formed a band.

That’s not exactly an unusual story. Motown history is full of bands that made it, and lots more that didn’t.

But this band was unique. A new documentary explains why.

The name of the band is Death. And it’s often described as “the first black punk band.”

Here are brothers Bobby and Dannis Hackney in a clip from the film “A Band Called Death.”

“We grew up in the black community, so at that time people were tuning into groups like Earth, Wind and Fire, and you know here we are in the middle of all of this playing rock and roll…. White boy music!”

The film tells the incredible story of the band, which languished in obscurity for decades before stumbling into sudden fame.

When Death began playing Detroit clubs in the 1970s, no one was prepared for the proto-punk sonic attack the brothers unleashed on stage.

Drummer Dannis Hackney says they were just playing the music they loved.

“When people say you pioneered punk music, and you did this, and you did that … we weren’t trying to pioneer anything, we were just trying to fight for our identity,” he said.

“And back in the 70’s if you called someone a punk, I mean that was fighting words,” said Bobby Hackney. “You got a bloody nose for that.”

Their lyrics captured the political rage that typified the punk movement.

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In 1975, Death looked like it was on the brink of a record deal. But the band had one problem: No one would sign a record deal with a band called Death. But David Hackney, the band’s guitar player and leader, was unwilling to change the name.

In a decidedly punk more, David told his brothers he wasn’t going to sell out. So they put out their own 45 record. But it never took off.

David Hackney died in 2000. But he told his brothers to hold on to the tapes. He said one day the world would come looking for them. David Hackney predicted the world would know their music. And 35 years later the remaining Hackney brothers are telling their story.

“It’s wonderful, we love it!” says Bobby Hackney of the band’s newfound fame. “It’s what our brother David predicted and that’s what kind of makes it weird. I keep looking in the corner to see Rod Serling smoking a cigarette talking about the Twilight Zone.”

In 2008, a friend of Bobby’s son was raving about some great music she’d discovered.

Turns out, it was his dad’s band.

But Bobby Jr. had no idea about the band Death.

“I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing, my eyes started to tear up, the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck, and I just started shaking,” he says in the film.

Death’s story spread like wildfire, and the documentary was soon under way.

At a screening of the film, Steffanie Christi’an said she sees her own life reflected in the band’s story. 

“Me being a black rock artist it just solidifies that what I’m doing may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m not going to stop doing it because it’s what I love,” said Christi'an.

The remaining brothers are now on tour, promoting the movie and opening for bands like Metallica. And they give a lot of credit to their late brother, who stuck to his punk beliefs. They say they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The documentary “A Band Called Death” opens at the Birmingham 8 Theatre on June 28.