Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Death Chronicles

‘If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they’re gonna wanna change — the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.’” David Hackney

The death defying resurrection of Death, is quite possibly one of the biggest stories in the annals of rock music. Death's post mortal rise from the ashes of obscurity and into the bosoms of music critics and fans of obscure music is unprecedented. By comparison, both The Shags and The Monks were as familiar as daybreak when the culture vultures pulled them out of history's dustbin. Whether they were the proto-punk originals that everyone makes them out to be or just opportunistic musicians attempting to glam on to a happening scene is surely up for debate.

Regardless of their motives, Death (the brothers Hackney: David, Dannis & Bobby) are either the missing link that ties The Stooges and the MC5 to The Ramones & The New York Dolls or the missing piece between the bombastic overkill of Grand Funk Railroad and the gonzo arena rock of Ted Nugent. Therein lies the rub about Detroit rock, in small doses it was brilliant. Not that any of its protagonists were capable of doing things in a small way. No Sir! every last one of them was gloriously over the top, Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Mark Farner, Suzi Quatro, Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper, The MC5, Brownsville Station, even Madonna Ciccone.

Detroit rockers were always better as the proverbial underdog. All too often (as in every last one of them) once they hit the charts,  they whored out like a prozy on Michigan Ave. I could draw a parallel with the Bob Seger System, ramblin' & gamblin' Bob's band before he got famous and jammed his insincere "road" ballads down our throats. (on a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha... ad nauseum!) We earnestly waited so long for Bob Seger to "make it" and our reward turned out to be the aural equivalent of a greasy tub ring.

How do three African-American brothers from Detroit, (the home of Motown) wind up playing hard rock? Initially they played R&B (as Rock Fire Funk Express) the switch to rock is said to have come after they saw The Who & Alice Cooper perform. (David would emulate Pete Townshends' technique) David Hackney claimed that rock music came naturally to the brothers, from the time they witnessed The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. After that, David picked up an old guitar and taught himself to play.

"One guy from San Francisco said, ‘I’m gonna pray for you guys to get a better name"

Guitarist, David Hackney's choice of Death as the band's name, was meant to be thought provoking. He had a contrary view of death, "his concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive" said Bobby Hackney in 2010, while adding "It was a hard sell" After originally calling themselves the Rock Fire Funk Express (sounds like one of those pizza parlor animatronic robot bands) David convinced his brothers to change the name of the band to Death. (he dramatically pronounced it  Deeeth!)  Just as well, Rock Fire Funk Express didn't go with the band's new style of music.

David pushed the band in a musical direction that presaged punk,  which didn't help them win over any African-American fans. "We didn't fit in all all" recalled Bobby Hackney "The rock bands that we identified with (The Stooges, The MC5, Amboy Dukes).... we didn't hang out with those guys. He explained, "We were in the inner city, on the east side, in the black community" They were cutting against the grain, "People just looked at us like we was weird, after we got done with a song, instead of cheering and clapping, people would just be looking at us"

With Dannis on drums, Bobby on bass, lead vocals and David on guitar, Death started playing gigs on Detroit's east side. The reactions ranged from confusion to derision, Bobby recalled "We were ridiculed because at the time everybody was into the Philadelphia sound" (Earth,Wind & Fire, the Isley Bros.) People thought we were doing some weird stuff, we were pretty aggressive about playing rock & roll, because there were so many voices around us trying to get us to abandon it" The brothers persevered, bulldozing their way through the east side like urban renewal.

David's lyrics and music didn't retain a hint of the band's soul/funk roots, instead he opted for an explicitly political approach that was more in line (albeit, toned down) with John Sinclair's radical political ideology. Sinclair had formed the militantly anti-racist White Panther Party. A group, formed in response to The Black Panthers call for the white counter culture movement to support them. Sinclair (who once managed The MC5) may have had some collateral influence on Death, though it's not known if he ever actually met them. 

The exact year that Rock Fire Funk Express became Death, is hard to pin down. Some sources claim Death was formed in 1971, while others say the switch took place in 1973. What we do know for certain is that in 1974, after recording a demo (which circulated around Detroit) it was decided that Death was ready to record an album. They allegedly picked a studio by throwing a dart at a section of the yellow pages ripped from a phone book. The dart landed on Groovesville Productions, which was operated by Don Davis, a producer and musician for Stax records. 

"They were just so impressive and the sound was just so big for three guys" said Brian Spears, who oversaw their recording sessions. "I knew those kids were great, but trying to break a black group into rock & roll was just tough during that time" The plan was to record twelve tracks for the album and then shop it around to the major labels. Clive Davis, the man with the midas touch at Columbia Records, was in the process of signing artists for his new label, Arista Records, he expressed interest in signing the band, under one condition.

Clive Davis insisted that the band change their name. "Nobody could get past the name" Spears recalled "It seemed to be a real detriment, when you said the name of the group to anybody, it was like.... Man! why you calling the group Death?" The name change was a deal breaker, "That's when my brother David got a little angry" said Dannis Hackney, "He told Don Davis to tell Clive Davis... "Hell No!"  With seven tracks in the can, the sessions came to a screeching halt. While that act of defiance added to the legend of Death, at the time it killed whatever momentum they had going.

Rumor has it that David Hackney was working on a rock opera about death, thus his steadfast refusal to change the band's name. There were other factors as well "He strongly believed that we could get a contract with another record label" added Bobby "We were young and cocky, but David was the cockiest of us all" In 1976 Death released a single Politicians in my Eyes/ Keep on Knocking on their own label, Tryangle.  However, disco had taken over the airwaves and there was no room for their style of rock music. 

Side Note:  Years later, Don Davis barely remembered working with the band. He couldn't recall if Clive Davis had a specific issue with the name.  A spokesperson for Clive Davis stated that Clive had no recollection of the group or of any meeting concerning it.  

Disenchanted with the process, the brothers moved to Burlington,Vt., "So, we came up here to clear our heads for a couple of weeks" said Bobby "that was like thirty something years ago" "We're still clearing our heads" added Dannis. In Burlington, they resurfaced as The 4th Movement, a gospel rock band that released two albums in the early 1980s. David returned to Detroit in 1982 and stayed involved in the local music scene until his death from lung cancer in 2000. Bobby & Dannis put together Lambsbread, a popular reggae/jam band with eight albums to their credit.

The master tracks for the United Sound studio sessions went unheard for over thirty years. The key to the rebirth of Death was the single released in 1976. Julian Hackney, himself a musician, heard the Tryangle single played at a party in San Francisco. He recognized his father's voice, and passed the news on to Bobby Sr. (who had the United tracks in his attic) after listening to them, they determined that they had something special on their hands. Bobby Jr. did a Google search and discovered that the single was the holy grail for vinyl collectors.

Around that same time, record collector Robert Manis purchased a copy of the single for $800 in cash & trade on eBay. Then by pure luck, he saw a post Bobby Jr. had left on a message board announcing the rediscovery of the Death tapes. Manis immediately connected with the Hackney's and put them in touch with Drag City, a Chicago indie label. "The music is an undeniable combination of classic and punk rock elements" declared Rian Murphy of Drag City records. The seven tracks from the aborted United Studio/Groovesville sessions finally see the light of day.

The subsequent album "For the Whole World to See" soon had music critics and musicians acting like giddy fanboys. "You can put the needle down on that record in any given place and just be completely transported" crowed Drag City Records. Jack White of the White Stripes (a native of Detroit) said "When I was told the history of the band and what year they record this music, it just didn't make sense. Ahead of punk... and ahead of their time" Death had preceded Bad Brains, the standard bearer for black punk bands by almost five years.

To my untrained ears, there is an element of punk in their music, but those expecting gabba gabba hey or blitzkrieg bop, will be disappointed.  The band's influences lean more towards classic hard rock, (Jimi Hendrix, Stooges, Amboy Dukes, Detroit Wheels, MC5, Alice Cooper) That's not to say their music is wholly derivative. David Hackney used his influences (Jim McCarty, Ted Nugent, Ron Asheton, Fred Smith, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix) to fuse together a hybrid that under better circumstances could have developed into something unique.

Ultimately, David Hackney, is the real story here. "For the Whole World to See" is a tour de force for David's songwriting and guitar skills. He was a visionary, at a time when black rock musicians were few and far between, David Hackney was boldly in command of his own destiny. (rock music, with a few rare exceptions, would soon regress to its lily white nature) Death's sudden acclaim has surprised many (including his brothers) but David had predicted that one day, fame would find Death. Says Bobby, "David knew it and always believed it, much more than we did"

This renewed interest in the band led to Bobby & Dannis reforming Death along with Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan. This resulted in a series of appearances (including South by Southwest) and a second album released by Drag City earlier this year "Spiritual.Mental.Physical"  The new long player is made up of demos recorded prior to the United sessions.

Richard Pryor once said "Death is the ultimate test for yo' ass"  Richard in the guise of Mudbone was talking about the cessation of life and not the Hackney Bros' power trio or the late Chuck Schuldiner's Orlando, Fl. based grindcore band, Death. (what is it about Orlando and death metal?) Richard Pryor failed that test, as do we all. The nature of death has long been a concern for all of us, so we're basically agreed upon, and I won't quibble over semantics.