Queued up this month was the rock doc, A Band Called Death, about an enigmatic Detroit trio whose music was initially ignored or dismissed, only to be rediscovered and embraced by later generations. This subject is hardly novel (the excellent 2012 Oscar-winning Searching For Sugar Man immediately comes to mind). However, what makes up for A Band Called Death‘s lack of originality as a film is the warmth that lies in the abiding family bonds and winning decency of the group’s surviving members.
And the Hackney family (Dennis on drums, Bobby on bass, David on guitar) likely needed that unity as young black men playing hard-rocking “white boy music” in the early 1970s when black musicians were deep in the R&B moment. Inspired by Pete Townshend’s windmilling intensity, Alice Cooper’s gothic theatricality, and the pandemonium of The Beatles’ invasion, visionary songwriter and guitarist David Hackney pushed his brothers to perform loud, fast, politically engaged anthemic rock that presaged punk’s raucous passion and rebellion. Before you say it – Death predated Bad Brains.
The enigmatic David Hackny
The documentary heralds the Hackneys as being the originators of the sound that would eventually become known as Punk – and the Hackney trio even predated fellow Detroit punk originators, The Stooges. Death’s nearly forgotten existence was revived in the late 2000s when their self-published singles resurfaced nearly forty years – long after the brothers had moved on, with families and new music, and David, the band’s creative but troubled leader, had died. Bless you, Internet.
Now, three black men from Detroit playing angry, confrontational rock would be a hard sell even today, but it was damn near impossible in the early 1970s. Aside from the color barrier, it was the group’s name – Death – that proved an even greater impediment to the band’s success. In a pivotal story to Death’s mythology, tastemaker Clive Davis offered to make the band members famous if they simply picked a more commercial name for the group. Within the context of the yet-to-be-defined punk ethics, the Davis deal was a Faustian bargain. Davis was offering to have the Hackney’s sound heard around the world, at the cost of losing something central to its identity. A more pragmatic musician might have rationalized the name change as an acceptable, superficial price for becoming viable in a hostile industry, but Death would never have roared into existence if David Hackney had been practical. He set out to play chords like Townshend and leads like Jimi Hendrix; he wasn’t about to curtail his ambition to accommodate lesser minds. Davis’ offer was refused, and soon thereafter, the trio imploded.
After Death’s demise, the brothers channeled their spiritual convictions into a new group called The 4th Movement, but David Hackney never got over the failure of his audacious vision for Death. He became an alcoholic and died in 2000 of lung cancer.
There isn’t much footage of Hackney in A Band Called Death. Since Death was a commercial nonentity during its heyday, the filmmakers didn’t have music videos, live footage, TV appearances, or even a studio album to draw on. And yet, the visionary David dominates the film. His magnetic, larger-than-life personality comes alive through the anecdotes shared by his brothers, nephews, bandmates, and everyone else who loved him and mourned him and his band.
Like Searching For Sugar Man, A Band Called Death is bifurcated: The first half is devoted to its subject’s failure to attract contemporary audiences, while the second half is devoted to later generations discovering and resurrecting the music. Over the course of the documentary, Death’s tragedy evolves into triumph. Much like how the Clive Davis offer destroyed the band, the resurfacing of Death’s one rare, extremely valuable single, along with other long-abandoned demos, is the catalyst for Death’s resurrection. These unearthed recordings are assembled into the 2009 Drag City released album, For The Whole World To See, to much critical praised.
A Band Called Death excels as a familial love story that echoes through the generations, as Death’s music is discovered by Bobby and Dannis’ sons, who grew up in households rich with music and togetherness. This latter generation had no idea of their family’s secret legacy as overlooked punk-rock pioneers. This new generation of Hackneys begins covering old Death songs and, eventually, the long dormant light on this pioneering band begins flickering with interest.
With the reformed Death, the surviving Hackney brothers now perform angry, defiant music from a place of peace and acceptance. Although they have ample reason to be bitter toward the music industry, the surviving Hackney brothers exude nothing but humility and gratitude for this opportunity to cement the vision of their late brother.
Consequently, the documentary doubles as a powerful testament to the transcendent power of music and its capacity for eclipsing racial, social, and economic barriers. Hell, in the case of the Hackneys, the power of music even transcends the finality of death. A Band Called Death is a beautiful tribute to a man whose vision was too bold and revolutionary for his lifetime, but was ultimately too powerful to be denied.