Life after Death: Reviving a Pioneering Punk Band
In 1971, in a working-class Detroit neighborhood, three rock 'n' roll-obsessed brothers started a band. David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney were influenced by fellow Motor City denizens Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper, and they loved The Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. They were supremely talented innovators. If the stars had aligned, the band would have been known across the US by 1973.
Unfortunately, they had three strikes against them.
The Hackneys were young black men in a world that expected them to be Earth, Wind & Fire, not the MC5. They called themselves Death in tribute to the fragility of our physical being, but that nuance was completely lost in translation. Most importantly, David was a musical genius, so possessed by his artistic vision, that even a request by music mogul Clive Davis to change the band's name in order to get a deal would not deter him. Death was inviolate.
The brothers did record one album but couldn't gain any traction once Davis balked. They financed a pressing of seven-inch singles and knocked on radio station doors, leaving records with programmers who refused to take them seriously.
Seeking a fresh start after so much rejection, the band moved to Vermont. David would later return to Detroit, but Bobby and Dannis stayed and formed the reggae band Lambsbread. Certain the world would come looking for Death, David hung on to the master tapes, and just before he succumbed to cancer in 2000, he turned them over to his brothers.
Now, flash-forward another decade.
Musician and filmmaker Jeff Howlett had been friends with Bobby and Dannis Hackney for 20 years before he found out that they had played in a band called Death. While the family had long moved on from their early disappointments, Death had been quietly acquiring a mythic reputation, just through their singles on vinyl. Record collectors were hooked on the sound-a progenitor of punk rock, driven and raucous, yet musically sophisticated and even now, ahead of its time.
Howlett called on fellow filmmaker Mark Covino, and together they've told the story not only of Death's remarkable resurgence, but of the Hackney family's passionate commitment to each other, their faith and their art.
We spoke with Howlett and Covino by phone about A Band Called Death
Documentary: The film isn't just a rockumentary; it's an incredibly intimate family portrait. How did this all come about?
Jeff Howlett: I met Bobby at a music festival in Vermont. That's how I was introduced to the entire Hackney family. We hung out quite a bit over the years. In 2008, when Rough Francis [Bobby's sons' band and also David's nickname] was playing a club, Bobby Jr. said that I should come by because they'd be covering some of his dad's music. I thought they'd be doing Lambsbread, so I was completely blown away when they played some of the most amazing protopunk I've ever heard. I knew it was special. A New York Times article about the Hackneys and the single's resurgence was about to happen too. I approached them about doing a documentary and they were all for it.
Mark Covino: When Jeff contacted me, he said he wanted to make a 30-minute documentary about his friend's band and had already shot a couple interviews. I immediately told him I wasn't interested. I was coming off a three-year shoot on another documentary and was burnt out. I put him off for two weeks, and then I started having these feelings that the other film I was working on wasn't really the film I wanted to make. I read Jeff's e-mail again and I read the New York Times story. Finally, I listened to the two songs that were online, "Politicians in my Eyes" and "Keep On Knocking." I fell out of my seat. I called Jeff back and said ‘These guys are fucking maniacs. We're not going to make a 30-minute length doc. We're making a feature-length doc!'
JH: Tammy Hackney [Bobby's wife] actually calls Mark her son now. He was at their house nearly every day for three years. We built a lot of trust with the family. At about a year and a half in, when we were getting the main interviews with Bobby Sr. and Dannis, we didn't leave the room for nearly 10 hours. We stayed until all these questions were answered. In total, the film took four years from start to finish.
D: You got quite a lineup to talk about Death. Everyone from Henry Rollins to Kid Rock and Questlove and Elijah Wood weighed in.
MC: Some of the interviews we got were from Jeff, and a couple others were through our producers. We knew that all of these people knew about the band and we wanted to capture their side of the story and hear how they felt about discovering them.
JH: Jello [Biafra] had heard about the band about 15 years ago when he got the seven-inch. Questlove had discovered the band about 10 years ago. All these guys are serious record collectors and were aware way before the Times article broke.
D: Clive Davis plays an unwitting role in the Death's fate. Did you try to talk to him?
MC: We tried many times. Mike Rubin, who wrote the New York Times article, tried to get in touch with him too. The general response is that Clive just doesn't remember this happening. The guy's seen and heard so many bands and it was a long time ago.
D: One of the main threads throughout the film is David's prescience. He wasn't just on the cusp of trends; he was so far ahead of them, they hadn't been created yet.
JH: David did a lot of things that other people didn't do. He was an original thinker and just outside the box about everything, not just music. The whole family knew that. It was almost as if he was from a different planet.
D: Social networking and the Internet played a big part in the band's rediscovery. It's ironic considering neither had been invented, and most of their fans hadn't been born, when they recorded.
MC: It was huge. The post by Ben Blackwell in 2008 was propagated throughout different blogs. It started with the collectors hearing about the seven-inch and then pushed even farther afield to the underground parties, which is where Julian [Bobby's son] first heard it.
D: We've heard you have several extras for the DVD release.
MC: We spent months putting together special features. We actually talked to Wayne Kramer [MC5], but he didn't make the final cut of the film, so that interview is one of the extras that we're both very fond of.
JH: Wayne actually said that if these guys were playing with the MC5 in the Grand Ballroom back in the day, it would have been a whole different story. Their crowd would have totally embraced them. Instead, Death played a lot of backyard parties. It was a tragedy for them to not make it out of the neighborhood.
D: Do you have any upcoming projects?
MC: I started production on my new doc about two Irish-American cousins/surfers who meet for the first time while on their way to a family reunion in the Blasket Islands [off the coast of Ireland]. I've got a Kickstarter campaign at www.crestmovie.com.
JH: I'm working on a doc about the people who are trying to create the world's hottest pepper and the community that surrounds this hot pepper scene.
A Band Called Death opens in theaters June 28 through Drafthouse Films.
Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Documentary, Movie City News, Dice.com, Health Callings and more. Her stories have covered the gamut from movies, music and culture to IT and healthcare.