Ask the average person on the street to name the city that saw its walls shake with the birth of punk music and odds are they won’t answer “Detroit.” Ask them to name the band who first mashed the raw and the melodic together to create punk music before the term even existed, and they most assuredly won’t say “Death.” And we won’t even bother asking if anyone knew that the forefathers of punk were African American.
But thanks to the new revelatory and inspiring documentary A Band Called Death, the truth behind the band’s nearly simultaneous birth and death may yet find them their proper place in music history.
There were four Hackney boys growing up in ’70s Detroit, but while the oldest kept himself busy in other ways, his three younger brothers developed a serious interest in music. Bobby, Dannis and David taught themselves bass, drums and guitar, respectively, and then set out to change the sonic landscape. Christened Death by David, their de facto leader, the trio recorded a demo tape only to see door after door shut in their face. For some it was the idea of Black musicians rocking out instead of going the Motown route, but for most it simply came down to the band’s name. As quickly as the flame was lit it was subsequently snuffed out again.
But like a phoenix, Death was destined to rise again, and when the internet came calling thirty five years later, what remained of the Hackney boys were ready.
“And it would happen every time we tell somebody, they’d say well what’s the name of the band, and you know we’d kind of [sigh] do one of those and then we’d tell them the name of the band. We’d get the same old reaction we expected to get. Rejection.”
Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s film is essentially a story in two halves. We first meet Bobby and Dannis as they’re revisiting the street and home they grew up in, telling stories about their childhood and parents. The sons of a pastor, the boys were taught from early on about the importance of family in general and about supporting each other in particular. That lesson was carried into their attempted musical careers and was nowhere more apparent than in the issue of the band’s name. David had chosen it after the boys lost their father to a drunk driver (while their dad was rushing an injured man to the hospital), and while the pressures to change the name were immense and constant David never budged. Which meant his brothers never budged either. Not even an offer from soon to be legendary music producer Clive Davis could sway them, and unwilling to bend or conform the band’s demo tape fell into oblivion.
That the brick wall they faced was due more to their “shocking” name than anything else is both ridiculous and odd seen in the light of today’s world where we have bands with names like Cannibal Corpse, I Set My Friends on Fire, Goatwhore, and Death Cab for Cutie.
That first section is made eminently watchable thanks to the brothers’ charisma, positivity and contagious personalities. The oldest brother, Earl, recounts some familial anecdotes and chases each of them with the most honest laughter you’ve ever heard. The band dissolved quickly and quietly, followed by Bobby and Dannis’ spur of the moment move from Detroit to Burlington. The two changed musical styles, found minor success as a reggae band, started families and went on with their lives.
It’s the film’s second half where all of the magic happens. The details of Death’s rebirth in 2008 are best discovered by watching the film, but know that it involved dozens of complete strangers including college students, obsessive record collectors, and renowned musicians like Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins. Most surprisingly, and a source of much of the film’s heart and affection, the story also required the unwitting presence of Bobby’s own three sons. The eldest’s recollection of discovering that not only were his dad and uncles in a punk band but that their songs were now being played at underground parties is a smile-inducing joy to watch.
A Band Called Death’s biggest fault is an uncontrollable one and therefore no real fault at all: it’s made repeatedly clear that David was the heart and driving force behind the band, and his absence here feels all the bigger because of it. He died well before the band’s music was rediscovered, but as Bobby recalls, David was always convinced that day would come.
There’s no such thing as resurrection in the real world, but through Death’s rebirth David has managed the next best thing. And in the age of the internet the Hackney boys can expect to be playing together for many, many years to come.
The Upside: Great music; strong message about family; heartwarming tale of long-deserved success; scene where son relates his discovery is electric
The Downside: Ultimately slight in the grand scheme of non-fiction filmmaking
On the Side: Clive Davis was with Arista at the time he offered the record deal to Death. They passed on it, but some of the folks who said yes to Davis while he was there include Ace of Base, Air Supply, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, Alicia Keys, The Kinks, Ray Parker, Jr., Lou Reed, Carly Simon, Patti Smith and Dionne Warwick.
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