Natalie Gravenor | Thursday July 24th, 2014
Detroit Rock City: the town that brought the world John Lee Hooker, Motown, MC5 (MC is an abbreviation for Motor City, Detroit’s nickname), Alice Cooper, George Clinton and P-Funk, Madonna (although she went to New York to make it big), techno, Eminem and the White Stripes. While Detroit was still the world capital of the automobile industry in the mid to late 20th century, Motown label mogul Berry Gordy recruited talent from the assembly lines and applied some Fordist work principles to the production of records. When the city fell into a long decline along with the car companies and main employers like Chrysler and General Motors in the late 70’s and early 80’s and lost much of its population (from 1.5 million in 1970 to 680,000 in 2013), techno music reclaimed disused urban spaces and became the soundtrack to the de-industrial revolution. In between Motown and techno, there was Death.
Death was not a reference to the shrinking city Detroit but the name of a rock band. Its members were the Hackney brothers who hailed from a middle-class African American family in Detroit and were inspired to play music after watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Racial stereotypes, however, also extended to music. Black musicians were expected to play funk, R&B, blues or jazz; white groups had more options – white soul singers and funk groups had to prove their “credibility” but nevertheless could go on to huge success. A musician like Jimi Hendrix, who transcended these arbitrary boundaries, was somewhat of an anomaly. Hard rock was what Death played, with heavy, yet catchy guitar riffs, interesting variances of chorus-verse structures and an energy and economy that can be found in punk which emerged a few years later. In 1973, however, the music world at large wasn’t yet ready for these lean, mean sounds, and certainly not played by African Americans called Death. The name was the final nail in the commercial coffin – powerful, adventurous label heads like Arista’s Clive Davis liked the band, but he implored them to change the name. (The Grateful Dead were likely never asked to do anything of the kind, and in the late 80’s a death metal band from Tampa became a second band called Death.) Band founder David Hackney felt a name change would compromise his integrity and vision. And so Death became a great lost group of the proto-punk era who explored a “black rock” sound that would be capitalized on later by acts such as Bad Brains and Living Colour. (Considering that an African American, Chuck Berry, was a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll makes the hard time black rock musicians had even harder to fathom.) David and his brothers disbanded Death in 1977 and switched to gospel and later reggae; in 2000, David died of lung cancer; his brothers carried on as Lambsbread.
As if this part of the story weren’t interesting (though tragic) enough, the proceedings get a Sugarman-like spin. In the 2000’s, a Nashville music nerd picks up Death’s sole single “Politicians In My Eyes” in a record store bargain bin. He is blown away. Soon mp3 files of the A and B sides pop up online. A certain Bobby Hackney, Jr. hears the music at a party. He is blown away. Even more so by the fact that the songs were made by none other than his father, Bobby Sr…. Jeff Howlett’s and Mark Corvino’s documentary A BAND CALLED DEATH tells the full story of Death’s demise and resurrection. It’s a musical detective story, a moving tale of family love and an introduction to some great music.