Ten Words or Less Review – A 30 year origin story.
In a fair world you could look up Death on allmusic.com and you’d see the following kind of discograhpy. A pioneering original album in which the Hackney Brothers from Detroit (David, Bobby and Dannis) help define the roots of punk rock just a step ahead of the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. It’s more dynamic follow up is quickly bestowed classic status and followed by a third album which is equally impressive but suffers just a touch from following on the heels of the second. The fourth album is good but the band is starting to strain for ideas. The fifth album changes stylistic gears as the 70’s close out and the casual fans fall away but the die hard fans think it’s an underrated listening experience. The sixth album takes 4 years to materialize because someone in the band has a serious drug problem and infighting reigns. The seventh album is a disaster in which only two of the brothers play on all the songs while the third brother/lead singer with drug issues barely warbles over a few tunes. The band then breaks up for 18 years, forgettable and useless solo albums multiply, and only through age and maturity do they come back together to reclaim a piece of the music history they rightfully own. It’s not an uncommon story in the music business, cliched really, but for Death, it was a common tale never meant to be. They were black, they played rock music only white people thrived on and they called themselves Death. Everyone in a position to decide things hated the name.
A Band Called Death chronicles the sad history of Detroit’s first, and only?, African-American punk rock outfit. Death tried for years to be heard by the public at large. False starts and a refusal to change the name resulted in lost opportunities and the band going nowhere. 30 years later a few select music nerds slowly built up the legend of the band and then in coincidences beyond strange, a son of one of the original band members came to find his father and uncles lost work had caught onto the underground listening scene of San Francisco. Almost overnight, aside from those 30 years, Death became the defacto unknown band every music lover had to know. Their master tapes were assembled into a complete, albeit short, album. At just 7 songs and 25 minutes it’s barely a complete record but none the less, it’s unlikely and strange existence now places it in the pantheon of great punk records.
A Band Called Death isn’t any kind if master class documentary but it’s made well and isn’t too shabby around the edges. The story it chronicles is fascinating to take in and punk fans, and fans of off beat stories in general, should find no end of curiosity within its 90 minute run time. David Hackney can now stand as one of the lost musical visionaries whose ship never came in, though he knew time would find his music. His insistence that his brother keep the Death master tapes is the kind of forward thinking often mistaken for wishful thinking. It was also a last wish as David would die of lung cancer shortly after insisting on this.
Punk rock fans and documentary lovers owe it to themselves to catch A Band Called Death. Maybe you won’t run out and buy an LP of their long lost works, even though you should. Their music was innovative and fierce and there was far too little of it to listen to.