A Band Called Death (Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, 2012)
If you are still somehow half-convinced that there is justice in the record industry, and that what you hear on the radio is the cream of the crop from among the many thousands of submissions to record companies, here is the movie that will finally show you what things are really like. In the early to mid-seventies, Death, a band formed by three African-American brothers in the slums of Detroit, toiled in perfect obscurity for five years. They released one 7” single and recorded the masters for an album; they had been signed to Arista, and things were looking up. But then, the album never got released because Arista’s A&R guy had a problem with the band’s name, which guitarist David Hackney refused to change. As a result, Death were never heard outside one Detroit rock station who briefly played the single the boys had self-released, and they became a footnote in rock history that no one referenced… until 2008, when a copy of the band’s 7” showed up on an Atlanta music blog, and all the sudden the Internet realized that these were the guys who invented punk. Before the Ramones, before the Pistols, there was Death, and they made some of the best punk rock you will ever hear.
But, as surviving members Bobby and Dannis Hackney explain (David died of lung cancer in 2000), being an all-black punk band in Detroit in the seventies meant you didn’t fit anywhere. The white kids in Detroit were doing proto-punk (think Iggy here) and metal (Alice Cooper), but the black kids were Motown, Motown, and more Motown. And both of those worlds were turning out amazing music, but the idea of anyone crossing that line, well, that didn’t work for anyone but David Hackney, and when he did, he didn’t do Alice Cooper, he didn’t do the Vandellas, and he didn’t combine the two, he came up with something entirely different. (Though it should be noted that David, later in his career, would release a solo single whose B side is called “I’ll Be Your Doggie”. That can’t be a coincidence.) And the band killed it. You will hear the samples of their music in this movie and you will most likely be as amazed as I am that this music went unheard for three decades. Death should have been rock and roll royalty.
There are inevitable comparisons to be made with Last Days Here, though the boys in Death didn’t have nearly as far to go when coming back into the spotlight; they still play music, when not working on Death, in a Vermont-based reggae band called Lambsbread. None of them took Bobby Liebling’s express train to self-abuse, so when interest in the band reignited, in no small part thanks to Bobby’s own sons (who, without knowing anything about Death, had formed a Bad Brains cover band in the nineties; punk does run in that family indeed), the surviving members were primed and ready for a comeback. And that is covered here, and it is as triumphant as you know it’s going to be, but the real value in this film is the incredible history lesson these guys, and those around them, tell. The people who did become rock and roll royalty (or who should have, like the Dirtbombs) are all here singing Death’s well-deserved praises, along with some other folks (Elijah Wood?) and talking about the climate of the time for those who weren’t around, and for those of us who were around but too young to be dialed into the music world yet. (In 1973 I still thought my parents’ Ferrante and Teicher albums were the bomb. But then I was also five years old.) This is about as perfect as documentary filmmaking gets—the guys behind the camera just get out of the way and let the people in front of the camera talk about the things they know and love the best, and the result is pure and utter magic. This is a guaranteed entry on my Best I Saw list in 2014. **** ½