Dusting Off… A Band Called Death
What is it?
Every once in a while a documentary comes along that completely shifts your understanding of its given subject. In the case of Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett’s 2012 documentary A Band Called Death, the subject is punk.
As the self-explanatory title suggests, the film tells the story of a band named Death, comprising three African-American brothers named David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney. If you’re a fan of the punk scene that began in New York in the late 70s you might be thinking “wait, who? Never heard of them!” Well, you’d be in the majority, because up until 2009, most people hadn’t heard of them either. This film sets out to change that.
At the very beginning of the 1970s, before the likes of The Ramones and Television began making a name for themselves at New York clubs like CBGB’s, some 650 miles eastwards in the industrial city of Detroit the three Hackney brothers were beginning to perform shows at which they would unleash their particular brand of fast, noisy rock and roll on bewildered audiences. It didn’t always go down well. Among the film’s many commentators is Alice Cooper, who explains: “Nobody was making music like that in ’73. You had these 3 black brothers from Detroit, Michigan. It was pretty hard to be black and playing rock, you had to be Motown if you were black.”
Years ahead of their time and completely out of step with the Motown music that dominated the scene in their hometown, Death were so unusual that despite the interest from record labels generated by the buzz from their live shows, none of them wanted to sign the band up as they had no idea how to market them.
Eventually, Columbia Records boss Clive Davis offered to fund some recording sessions for the band and in 1974 they headed to Detroit’s United Sound Studios to begin recording their debut album with engineer Jim Vitti. However, Davis insisted that the band would have to change their name to something less menacing if the label were going to release the album, a request that was steadfastly refused by the band. Davis pulled the plug, the group eventually disbanded in 1977 and the recordings sat gathering dust in one of the brothers’ attic for the next several decades.
Were it not for a handful of vinyl junkies who began trading ultra-rare copies of their singles for up to $800 a pop on ebay, the story might have ended there, but then the filmmakers picked up on the story and, eventually, Chicago-based Drag City Records released the recordings in 2011.
Why should I revisit?
A Band Called Death tells a fascinating story that totally re-writes the history of punk, finally shedding light on the work of the Hackney brothers and hailing them as visionaries, not just in the style of their music but in their uncompromising approach to making it. Not only that, it is also a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking human story, particularly in the sense that David, the band’s guitarist, died from lung cancer in 2002 before the band began to be recognised as the pioneers they were.
Who will enjoy it?
If you’re a fan of punk, hardcore or rock documentaries in general, then A Band Called Death is a code-red, put-down-what-you’re-doing-and-watch-it film that you absolutely must see.