The landscape of rock and/or roll is littered with bands that were rescued from obscurity by obsessive collectors and musicians who claim them as influences. Bands like Love, one of the first racially integrated rock bands who, in their heyday on the Sunset Strip, were bigger than The Doors. (Arthur Lee, Love’s mercurial leader, got The Doors their recording contract on Elektra, and was promptly — and unfairly — eclipsed by them.) Bands like the Monks, whose startlingly aggressive, primitive garage stomp is still revered amongst garage rock fans nearly five decades later, and who remain the greatest band in history to start an album with the words “All right, my name’s Gary.” Bands like Big Star, who never sold many albums in their lifetime but may be the greatest and most influential cult band ever (and who are the subject of their own documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me). Those of us who are fans of these and other bands like them can be grateful that somewhere along the line, some thoughtful soul put an album/tape/CD in our hands and said, “You’ve GOT to hear this.”
Which brings us to Death. A beneficiary of one of the most recent rock & roll rescue operations, Death’s story is all the more remarkable because of the kind of music they made, and the kind of people who made it. Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett’s documentary A Band Called Death chronicles the story of the Hackney brothers — David, Dannis (sic) and Bobby — three black brothers (in the fraternal sense) from Detroit in the early 1970’s who, rather than play the kind of soul music immortalized by Motown’s Hitsville operation, chose instead to play loud, fast, crunchy protopunk that presaged New York’s CBGB scene and the British punk revolution of the late 70’s. Ahead of their time, Death were also leagues ahead of the coming punk bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols in terms of musical sophistication: for all the critical raves about the punk aspects of Death, one can detect glimmers of prog-rock sensibilities as well, with their more intricate stop-start rhythms and occasional shifting time signatures that bring to mind the Canadian power trio Rush, who were themselves just starting out around the same time the Hackneys were unleashing their sonic sounds. Music of such jaw-dropping power from such a seemingly incongruous source demands attention, and A Band Called Death lavishes such attention on its subject for a cinematic celebration of the Hackneys’ legacy.
Most of the band, and several others close to the story, relate the failed struggle of Death to make it in a world that was utterly unprepared for them and unable to look past either their race or their supposedly uncommercial name. (Today they’re practically Lilith Fair material compared to bands with names like Cannibal Corpse.) The obstinate nature of bandleader David, his unwillingness to bend to the will of music industry types like self-aggrandizing record company big shot Clive Davis, led Death to a series of dead ends that effectively ended the band before it could get out of the gate; never releasing an album in their lifetime, all they ever had to show for their efforts was an unreleased collection of demos and studio master recordings and a 7″ single they pressed themselves in limited quantities. And yet Dannis and Bobby have naught but kind words for their older brother, perhaps borne of their obviously still-unbroken family bond and glowing pride in the music they made. Sadly, David died over ten years ago, well before the arrival of the fame he always knew would come to Death, and it’s a shame not just because he didn’t live long enough to enjoy that fame, but because the documentary needs to hear from him — as the prime mover of the band, it is clear from what everyone else has to say about David that the most essential voice in the story is the only one missing. One can detect a similar stubborn quality in David that Love’s Arthur Lee had which similarly kept his band from reaching the audience and level of success it deserved (check out Love Story, an excellent documentary about Lee’s band that was made with his full participation before his own tragic death from leukemia in 2006); one can also see glimmers of a similar untamed talent and unorthodox way of interacting with the world in David’s early creative expressions such as turning the family telephone into a sinister-sounding echo chamber for otherworldly prank calls that were light-years removed from canned princes and running refrigerators.
Through an extraordinary set of circumstances, the unearthing of Death came about not only through aforementioned obsessive collectors, but their own children — Bobby’s sons Bobby Jr, Julian and Urian, musicians themselves, were told of Death from third parties who had no idea there was a blood connection to the music, which led to tributes, an album release, and a reformation of the band. Despite the unfortunate lack of David’s presence, filmmakers Howlett and Covino bring the whole richly emotional journey to the screen with a thoroughness and obvious delight and adoration for its subject that recall such rock docs as Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, but with more of a feeling of satisfaction for the musicians — after all, Anvil at least had a lengthy career and a bunch of albums in their time, while Death’s first album was released over thirty years after it was recorded. The dignity with which the Hackney brothers carry themselves, the quiet triumph of David’s long-dormant aspirations, makes the happy ending of A Band Called Death that much sweeter, and is the perfect balance to their stunning, visionary music — music that rages with the power and aggression of The Who, The Stooges and the MC5, the righteous fury of Black Power, and spiritual fervor of the sons of a Baptist minister.
You’ve GOT to hear this.