Do you like music? I mean it, do you really like music? You don’t need to like music to enjoy this movie, but it gonna help—especially if you like punk music. ‘They Were Punk Before Punk Was Punk,’ a New York Times article about three brothers who were writing and recording punk music well before Bad Brains and The Ramones. If you heard their music today, you would accurately label them as a late 70s punk band. If you saw a picture of the group, three teenage black brothers from Detroit, that is probably the last thing you would expect to hear.
A Band Called Death is a documentary from Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett about the band that never was. Death was formed by Bobby, Dannis, and David Hackney in the early 70s. Considering that they lived in Detroit in the 1970s, it is not unusual that they had a love for music and wanted to start a band. What was unusual was the type of music they were playing. Fast, hard, and loud. Punk music had not broken through to the mainstream yet, and when it did, it was still the music of white kids. Death had a lot of obstacles to hurdle. Thirty-five years of hurdles, to be exact.
David was the guitarist and lyricist of Death, and the band was his brainchild. Their father was killed by a drunk driver, inspiring not only the name of the band but the concept. Death is something universal and inescapable, and David hoped that Death might be able to bring celebration back to the concept. As Bobby put it, “His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell.” After recording their one and only LP, a record label approached them about changing the name to something more marketable. David declined, and his brothers followed their mother’s advice of “always back up your brother.” The original Death single (containing “Politicians In My Eyes” and “Keep On Knocking”) was a run of only 500 copies, self-published and promoted. A nice way of saying it didn’t go anywhere. For the next several years, they were rejected by everyone because of their name, their style of playing, their concept, their skin color, everything. Eventually, they got sick of it, and Death disbanded.
David hit the bottle and continued to practice in solitude. Bobby and Dannis started a reggae band, Lambsbread, and saw moderate success. David died in 2000 from lung cancer, but not before giving the Death master tapes to his brother and promising him, “someday the world will come looking for these.” How right he was! Through a series of events that would seem contrived in a narrative film, Bobby’s son (the lead singer of the band Rough Francis) learned of the Death recordings through a website without knowing that it was the band of his father and uncles. He disperses the recordings, even covering them in concert, and in 2009 …For The Whole World to See finally saw a proper release. Bobby and Dannis hired a guitarist and hit the road playing Death gigs. Death is still touring and plans on writing and recording some new music. Thanks to the internet and a few dedicated vinyl collectors, Death lives on. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: You can have a second act in America.
A Band Called Death (2012)
Directed By: Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett
Produced By: Mark Christopher Covino, Jerry Ferrara, Jeff Howlett, Kevin Mann, Scott Mosier, Matthew Perniciaro
Starring: Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, David Hackney
Drafthouse Films, Running Time 96 minutes, Not Rated, Released June 28, 2013.