A Band Called Death

“Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death”.

The independent documentary “A Band Called Death” portrays the long, heartbreaking and inspiring story of three African American teenage brothers from Detroit, Michigan, who decide to form a band in hopes of making it big and sharing their music with the world. The Hackney brothers, Dennis, Bobby and David, first start out practicing in their bedroom and with the complete support from their parents, eventually go on to play various gigs in their local area. Ahead of their time, the band experiences consistent rejection both from people and record companies because of the punk rock style of their music and the intimidating name of their band. This rejection was also primarily due to the time period, which was around the early 70’s, a time where Motown was dominate in African American culture. Its blend of R&B and pop music style was a complete contrast to rock “n” roll’s more aggressive tone.

The film shows Dannis, Bobby and David as being normal, fun loving teenagers always looking for a way to laugh and have a good time. Their free willed personalities along with their parent’s open mindedness to music, encouraged the Hackney brothers to go beyond social norms and create their own identity; one that rejected the typical Motown loving African American teens of their time. However, it was extremely difficult to not be a part of a trend or go along with the social current of society and still be accepted around the 70’s. Motown music encompassed so many different kinds of people, that rock “n” roll seemed exclusive, particularly to white people. Almost three centuries later, their music has revolutionized punk rock, which is typically referred to as “white people music”.

The group searched as far as Europe for a contract but couldn’t find anyone who would accept their punk image or name. Instead of conforming to record companies David’s never faltering persistence, dedication and faith towards the band’s reputation kept the band true to it’s music and identity. “David was convinced more than any of us that we were doing something totally revolutionary,” said Bobby Sr., 52. However, this strong loyalty to the band’s image/concept led the group nowhere and eventually forced the group to disband, erasing “Death” from existence until the early twenty-first century.

The rejection got to Bobby and Dannis: they were rejected for the name of the band, rejected for the fact that they were black boys playing “white boy music”, rejected for the sound of the music itself which didn’t “fit” at the time. (Shelia O-Malley)

Original “Death” band members.

About 35 years later, the band’s original master recordings are discovered in Bobby’s attic and ultimately changes the history of music forever. With the help of punk rock music lovers and both Dannis and Bobby’s children, the band’s music finally catches on. After everything they’ve been through, “Death” gets a second chance and finally makes their first album in 2011. However, David, the band’s founder, had died of lung cancer in 2008 and wasn’t able to witness the emerging success of the band in 2008. Today, the band is reformed and consists of Bobby and Dannis Hackney, who play the bass and drums respectively. Bobbie Duncan, who was the guitarist for the brothers’ former Reggae group, Lambsbread, now replaces David as the new guitarist for the group.

Today, “Death” is considered to be a protopunk band and has gained thousands of followers over the years. This revolutionary story intertwined with brotherhood, depicts the power of  loyalty towards something you love and the many rewards that come with it. The band is recognized as the “first black punk band (hell…the first punk band!) and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers”.   The film doesn’t mention any other emerging punk bands, so there seems to be some type of bias in its content. However, it’s also important to mention that is it focused primarily on the fairy-tale music career of the Hackney brothers. It portrays one of the very first pioneers of punk rock and their struggle as African American musicians.

“Death” members today: (from left) Bobby Hackney, Bobbie Duncan and Dannis Hackney

I decided to chose this particular topic because it consisted of the start of a music genre and a personal heartfelt family story. I believed that the personal touch of the brothers’ lives would help me better relate to a time period that existed before I was born. In addition, I was especially interested with the fact that an all African American band was playing punk rock in the early 70’s. I could not believe it and immediately decided to see the documentary. Sure enough, I found the film both inspirational and a life lesson.

Today, Bobby’s kids (Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr.) have formed a band in honor of their late uncle, David, called Rough Francis. They play covers of “Death” songs trying to spread their father’s and uncles’ music to anyone who will listen. Their songs “Politician in My Eyes” and “Keep On Knocking” are some of the best known in their album.

I know the early 70’s was a bustling time for music. Many genres like pop and disco were very popular among the public and other genres were just being invented, like hip-hop. To further research the topic, I would look into the many early pioneering bands that helped shape the history of music and their struggles/obstacles they face in aspiring to be known large musicians world wide. These different types of genres given rise to different types of identities that individuals can relate to, which can ultimately helps shape an era’s culture.

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