Reunited and revitalized, Death keep on knocking
David Hackney always knew someday the world would come looking for his music.
Hackney, who died of lung cancer in 2000, was the guitarist and visionary leader of Death , a proto-punk power trio from Detroit active for only a handful of years in the early 1970s. But, as Hackney himself predicted — heeded by few outside his family — the band’s impact on the landscape of pop, punk and rock music is felt more than 30 years later.
The story is the stuff of rock and roll legend. And it’s spreading daily with the help of media outlets ranging from local newspapers and blogs to the New York Times , National Public Radio  and Spin magazine. A recent string of Death reunion shows in Chicago, Detroit and New York City and at South by Southwest — with Bobbie Duncan of local reggae band Lambsbread on guitar — has drawn rave reviews. Celebrities have taken notice, too, including the White Stripes’ Jack White and hip-hop mogul Mos Def .
Now the Vermont-based Death has a new collection of “lost” material, titled Spiritual, Mental, Physical, slated for an early 2011 release — a follow-up to last year’s groundbreaking …For the Whole World to See. This Thursday at the Higher Ground Ballroom, the reconstituted band plays Vermont for the first — and possibly only — time.
The unlikely second chapter of Death is being written.
To understand why Death is important, it’s essential to understand the context in which they were born and, ultimately, died. This is a point Death’s surviving members — brothers Bobby Hackney Sr., 53, and Dannis Hackney, 55 — frequently make when discussing the band’s origins.
“You gotta understand Detroit in 1973,” says Bobby Sr. repeatedly during recent conversations with Seven Days about the band’s early years.
Motown reigned in the Motor City in the late 1960s and early ’70s, especially in the east-side neighborhood the Hackneys called home. If you were a young, black musician in Detroit, you were expected to play R&B, soul or funk. The notion of three black kids playing rock and roll in Detroit, of all places, seemed absurd.
“We weren’t especially popular in our neighborhood,” jokes Dannis, adding that they “blew up” their mother’s garage on a nightly basis with booming practice sessions, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. “They never really knew what to do with us.”
The music industry also wasn’t sure what to do with a band that took more cues from The Who, MC5 and The Stooges than from Smokey Robinson or Earth, Wind and Fire. Death signed a deal with Detroit’s Groovesville Records  and made demos that attracted a smattering of major-label interest. But the suits scoffed at the band’s confrontational moniker and roundly refused to take a chance on them.
Changing the name was a concession David Hackney was unwilling to consider.
“People were afraid of the concept; they feared the name,” says Dannis. “Of course, we never really had the chance to explain the concept, either.”
Death and Groovesville parted ways in 1976. The band printed a run of singles of “Politicians in My Eyes” on its own label, Tryangle. But, since disco had jammed its platform-shoe-clad foot firmly in pop music’s door, finding airplay was next to impossible.
“Rock was dead,” laments Dannis.
Dejected, the band retreated to Vermont to visit relatives and regroup “for a few weeks.” Thirty years later, the Hackneys are still here and have raised families of their own.
It was family members — in particular, Bobby’s sons Bobby Jr., Julian and Urion — who unearthed the band’s lost tapes in the attic of their Jericho home. In honor of their father’s late outfit, the young Hackneys formed a tribute band they dubbed Rough Francis  after a country-music side project recorded by their late uncle.
Rough Francis gave voice to Death’s music for the first time in 30 years — and set in motion the events that lent Death new life. Nationally, the band is being acclaimed as something akin to a rock and roll messiah. Or, in Darwinian terms, punk rock’s “missing link.”
Clyde Stats is a local jazz musician and lecturer at the University of Vermont who teaches the school’s “History of Rock and Roll” class. He describes Death’s “Politicians in My Eyes” (on ...For the Whole World to See) as exhibiting early elements of punk, though it predates the “official” advent of punk by several years.
“Some of what punk was about, historically, was a rejection of this idea of rock and roll as art music,” Stats says, citing The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Yes as examples of rock’s artier side at the time. “The reaction from the punk movement was No, it’s not. It’s about energy, drive and attitude. That’s ruining rock and roll. And you hear that in ‘Politicians,’ especially.”
The Hackneys are flattered by the notion that Death is a “missing link,” but they also find it amusing.
“We never called ourselves punk. In fact, if you called someone a punk in 1973, you were asking for trouble,” jokes Bobby Sr.
Still, there’s no doubting that the band’s attitude, particularly David Hackney’s uncompromising passion, was akin to the heart and soul of early punk.
Mos Def, perhaps the band’s most high-profile fan, is also leery of the idea of Death as a missing link. For one thing, he notes, they’re no longer missing.
“Calling them a missing link is a bit complicated,” he says from a Boston hotel in a recent phone interview. “But that sound is really original. And it is always great to experience art that has an original vision and focus. They distilled the legacies of people like Jimi [Hendrix], Bo Diddley and Arthur Lee and created something new,” Mos continues. “They weren’t just mimicking or using heroes as influences. They created something distinctive.”
Stats agrees. “I wouldn’t call them a missing link, but they are definitely an anomaly,” he says.
Stats also hears in Death the roots of a shift that wouldn’t occur for another decade or more, when certain black artists moved away from what he calls “church-based soul music” toward rock — bands such as Fishbone, Bad Brains and Living Colour. “There’s a connection there: black groups going for a harder sound,” he notes. That is evident on the band’s forthcoming record, which is even more ragged and aggressive than its predecessor.
“That was David’s theory,” says Bobby Sr. “The harder you played, you could just annihilate anyone in your path.” He adds that David Hackney’s role resembled that of an orchestra conductor, arranging the band’s songs to hit with symphonic bombast and then ebb away. “He actually used to make us listen to the classical radio stations, and we hated it. But he saw rock and roll and classical music as being the same. He called it ‘the breakout,’ and that’s how a lot of our songs were put together.”
That compositional philosophy was immediately compelling to Mos Def. “There is a deliberate architecture in their music that I love,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s really free.”
Mos has taken a personal interest in Death and the Hackney family, and invited Rough Francis to open his most recent Higher Ground show. He’s planning a feature-length documentary about the band, though his will actually be the second such film. Burlington musician and filmmaker Jeff Howlett  is also producing a doc, Where Do We Go From Here? , slated for release next year.
Mos sees an interesting parallel — beyond the obvious one — between the two generations of bands.
“The Hackneys are very welcoming and good humored. So it stands to reason that their sons would move in the tradition of their father and uncles,” he says. “What’s interesting is that they were doing so without knowing.”
Bobby Jr., Julian and Urion Hackney, who were involved in the local hardcore and punk scene before coming together in Rough Francis, will open the upcoming Death show, as they have each of the reunited band’s performances. There is symmetry in an unlikely band of three black brothers in Detroit rocking out in the face of Motown in the 1970s and the family’s next generation delving into punk and hardcore music in lily-white Vermont some 30 years later. Until recently, that symmetry was a mystery.
“I never really understood why punk and hardcore music resonated with us more than other styles until we found the Death recordings,” says Bobby Jr. “It turns out, it was in our blood.”
“It’s another interesting feature to the Hackney story,” says Mos. “I’m just glad people are getting the opportunity to become aware of them, because that album would be amazing if they put it out today. If Death were a new group, they would be a big deal, and they still are.”
After a pause, Mos recites a quote recently given to him by a friend: “Things of quality have no fear of time.”
He adds, “I think it is wonderful that people are becoming aware of an album that I really think is a landmark, art created particularly in America, right in Detroit.”
And given new life, right in Vermont. Just as David Hackney promised.