August 13, 2013

A BAND CALLED DEATH Will Rock Your Face Off

"Your pure rock 'n roll, that's what doesn't get played on the radio."
We're now firmly entrenched in mid-August, which means that while parents rejoice and students lament the impending return of  fall classes, there are some folks out there engaged in a feverish debate over what to classify as "the song of the summer."  Well, it kind of depends on who you ask.  Stephen Colbert has certainly made his choice, whereas my wife has spent her vacation in the throes of a newfound love of One Direction.*  For me, there's no debate.  The music of my summer can be summed up in a single word:


A Band Called Death is the story of David, Dannis and Bobby Hackney, three black brothers from Detroit who started a band in their bedroom in 1973.  While most of their peers were gravitating towards Motown and disco, the Hackney brothers instead fell in love with the likes of Alice Cooper and Pete Townshend. After the sudden and altruistic death of the boys' father, David (the group's John Lennon) settled on a controversial name and for the band: Death.  Their style was like none other - a little bit of The Who, a little bit of Led Zeppelin, and a whole lot of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, which is impressive when you consider that the latter two bands didn't actually exist in 1973.  Those guys may have ushered in the punk movement, but the Hackney brothers definitely got there first - there just wasn't a name for it at the time.  I guess that means that we can now chalk up punk on the list of musical styles innovated by black folk and popularized by white people.  (Bad Brains would probably agree.)

Death played a few local shows and even managed to record a seven song album at a local studio, but they couldn't get a major label to pick them up.  They actually got an offer from Arista records, but only on the condition that they change the name of the band.  Needless to say, they weren't having it and they walked away from the table.  They self-produced a few hundred copies of a 7" single and eventually pursued other endeavors.  The three brothers moved to Burlington, VT and became a Christian rock group called The 4th Movement for a few years.  David eventually returned to Detroit while Dannis and Bobby went from afros to dreadlocks and became a reasonably successful reggae band called Lambsbread.  The brothers married and had kids while the original Death master tapes collected dust in a Detroit attic.  David eventually died of lung cancer, but not before he made sure to give the Death tapes to his brother Bobby, telling him, "The world is gonna come looking for these."

Those words would soon become prophetic.  You see, while the remaining Hackney brothers were playing jam-band festivals in New England, their proto-punk demo had become an underground sensation.  A handful of their original 7" records were still floating around indie record stores and private collections, and as the years passed the legend of Death grew stronger.  Original pressings started showing up on Ebay for hundreds of dollars as MP3's spread virally into the hands of DJs who played Death at underground clubs.  The whole thing came full circle when Bobby's son Julian was turned onto the original single by a college roommate and instantly recognized his father's voice coming through the speakers.  The family dug out the old master tapes and, after working with a private collector, eventually reissued their original album, ...For The Whole World To See, under Drag City Records.  Not only that, Death has even gone out on tour, playing live along with their kids band Rough Francis and recording new music for the first time in over 30 years.

It's an incredible story that espouses the importance of family ("Back up your brother" is a popular refrain) and it's fairly impossible to watch the film without falling in love with the entire Hackney family.  But what really puts it over the top is that the music is almost preposterously great.  The name "Death" instantly brings forth images of cacophonous metal bands or gothed out depressives, but David's entire concept for the band was meant to be positive and even transformative - death wasn't something to fear or to worship, it was just another part of living.  Not only is their music in no way depressing, it's straight up catchy as all hell.  When I played it for my friend Billman, he was absolutely blown away that no one was willing to sign them back in the day.  It is, quite simply, some of the most brilliant music I've ever heard.  It instantly transports me back to my high school and college days as a teenage punk rocker, with a drawer full of band t-shirts and a box full of ticket stubs from bands like Flogging Molly, No Use For A Name, Mad Caddies, The Bouncing Souls, Dropkick Murphys, Anti-Flag, AFI and Lagwagon, all of whom would come to town and tear up the tiny clubs that once lined Landsdowne Street right across from Fenway Park.

I downloaded Death's album the moment I walked out of the theater and listened to it the whole way home. I've basically listened to almost nothing else since, it's that fucking good.

Don't believe me?  Check it out for yourself.  The movie is still making a theatrical tour around the country and it's been available for download and VOD for a few weeks now, but today it hits DVD and Blu-ray.  I'll be ordering this Collector's Edition set with the vintage t-shirt, and the only reason I'm not ordering Freakin' Out Edition with the repressing of the original 7" is that I don't own a record player.  I should probably fix that.

While my favorite song on the album is definitely Freakin' Out, the "best" song is probably the last one, Politicians In My Eyes, which I'll leave you with now.

Now that's a fucking song.  And there's plenty more where that came from.

*For those of you who may be scratching your heads, just know that Jamie's favorite band of all time is Hanson, and not just for the one song that the rest of us will be able to hum to our graves.  While my and Jamie's taste in movies has a lot of overlap, our taste in music generally does not.  But I certainly can't claim I didn't know what I was getting into.

Title: A Band Called Death
Director: Jeff Howlett, Mark Christopher Covino
Starring: Bobby Hackney, David Hackney, Dannis Hackney
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Brattle Theater

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