Exclusive Clip From Drafthouse Films' A Band Called Death featuring tribute band Rough Francis
It was a ballsy statement. In the early 70’s, three teenage brothers from Detroit set out to make two-fisted rock music as a band called Death. The name itself was even more thought provoking and provocative than the scariest band on the planet at the time—heavy metal Godfathers Black Sabbath. Adding even more fuel to the proverbial fire was the fact that this trio was black. Indeed, when late leader David Hackney (guitar/vocals), Bobby Hackney, Sr. (bass/vocals) and Dannis Hackney (Drums) formed Death in their spare bedroom, the group had every intention on getting a record deal and conquering the music world. They were inspired more by hard-driving, controversial Motor City acts like the MC5, The Stooges, and Alice Cooper than the Temptations. This, of course, was an uphill battle in the era of Motown, funk, and disco.
Record companies rejected Death and their groundbreaking sound, a sound that predated the punk explosion lead by the likes of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones. We are talking about true change agents. But back then, Death was a strange, and to some, scary, premise. The band soon broke up before even recording their debut. But three decades later, after a 1974 demo of the band was discovered, something unexpected happened. Music fans wanted Death. Their critically acclaimed film documentary, A Band Called Death (due out in theaters on June 28), details the powerful and emotional story about a group that was well ahead of its time and paid the price. Now David, Bobby, Dannis, and Bobbie Duncan, are finally getting the recognition they deserve. VIBE set down with the band to discuss their turbulent road to from obscurity to respect, how they were almost signed by Clive Davis and why 35 plus years later their music and impact resonates.—Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: You are viewed as an important precursor to what would later become known as punk and hardcore. How did the A Band Called Death documentary come about and were you shocked that a director wanted to capture such an obscure yet pioneering band for the big screen?
Bobby Hackney: Well it came about because of a guy by the name of Jeff Howlett—we met him in 1990 when we were playing reggae music at the time. Jeff was in a hardcore band himself and we just kind of connected as musicians and as friends. I knew that Jeff was also in college and his major was filmmaking, but I didn’t think too much of that at the time. So when the Death discovery hit around 2008, Jeff approached us. He actually found out our story through my son Bobby and his band. And then Jeff approached me and Dannis and said, “Has anybody approached you guys about maybe doing a documentary or a video?”
That had to be shocking, huh?
Bobby: Right! We were just thinking in terms of the typical band video like, “Okay, we are going to do a little piece that will end up on public access.” But we didn’t know the gist of what Jeff was doing. After he showed us the first passes of what he put together me and Dannis looked at each other and said, “Wow, this is pretty serious stuff.” But what really propelled the movie to be a great film was that Jeff the filmmaker really got into the mind, heart, soul and spiritual side of our brother David. That helped to open up the door to me and Dannis and our whole entire active family.
Before we go more into David, let’s talk about the hurdles you faced as a band. Finding success in rock beyond the early pioneers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry to later Jimi Hendrix was still a rarity for African-Americans. What made you guys think three dudes from Detroit could break into that scene?
Dannis Hackney: It was a just a direction that we wanted to go in because everybody was doing something that was familiar. If you wanted to do funk-rock you couldn’t really do that because there was a band called Parliament Funkadelic that had that whole thing covered. So we didn’t really want to go that direction, so we kept looking for our own thing. But then when I saw Alice Cooper, for me, it was all bets off. I wanted to do that! He was on his Billion Dollars Babies tour and it came to Detroit. It was me and my mother in the audience, and she thought Alice Cooper had a lot of problems [laughs].
It must have been the decapitated heads, right?
[Laughs] I just told her, “Mom, that’s one of the biggest rock and rollers in the world!” My mom went on to go where she was going to and I stayed at the show and watched it. It just blew my mind because it was everything I wanted to do. Alice’s drummer was doing the stuff I wanted to do on my drums. He was kicking the drums and throwing the cymbals…but I couldn’t afford to do that [laughs].
Bobbie, what did it mean to join Death, a trailblazing band that is finally getting its due?
Bobbie Duncan: We started off seven years ago playing reggae in a band called Lambsbread that Bob and Dannis had established. So once I became part of the group we were just playing reggae, R&B and jazz. A few years later, Bobby came downstairs with a few things from the Death project, and I was like, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” It was so awesome. The first thing I did was go home and listen to the songs, and I came back the very next day just wanting to jump over all over this stuff.
How intimidating was it filling the huge shoes of such a driven, ambitious artist like David?
Bobbie: David was a bad dude. I wish I could have met him because we would have hung out. He was ahead of his time. The Death story is very deep. It took me a while to learn what was going on. We lived 2.7 miles from each other. I was driving by their house and I would just wave to them. Next thing you know we are playing together and doing the Death thing. I don’t know how this all happened. I just think that David had a lot of guts, a lot of balls. The kind of balls that a lot of cats didn’t have back in those days. A lot of people were ready to conform. You know how hard it was? I’ve been playing professionally since 1974. You had to play what everyone else was playing in order to get a job.
How big of a shock was it when David came to you with the idea to change the name of the group to Death in the era when funk and Disco was set to take over?
Bobby: Sometimes the way David would present things would make you think that he was crazy. But his message was serious; he was for real and he had a lot of commitment to what he was doing. So I had to fall in line with that with him being my brother. He showed me the good parts and made me understand the concept of what he was talking about. I got a lot of love and respect for the brother. I have to say that a lot of things he said back then I called him crazy for. Now I’m eating my words because everything he said is coming true. I have to look at Dave like he was a prophet.
But sticking to your guns alienated Death when it came to the mainstream music industry. There’s the story about Clive Davis, who wanted to sign the band only if you changed your name. Was there ever a point where you guys looked at each and said, “We have to do something about this name?”
Bobby: First we have to get into the meaning behind David coming up with the name Death. When we heard the name we were like, “Hey, man…you are going way too far.” I was aware of Black Sabbath and other band names like that, but Death, that was way too far. But David told us that Death was real…it was a real thing. Jim Morrison had the same concept when he named his band the Doors. David said that Death was a door that everyone has to go through. That was David’s concept.
That’s quite the heavy concept, isn’t it?
Bobby: It really was. But with us being signed to Bluesville Productions, which was owned by Don Davis and Don coming from STAX, he brought United Sounds to Detroit. Don didn’t really believe in us either, but he had his no. 1 man under him, Brian, who was an innovative guy. Brian had worked with Rare Earth and some of the other rock bands that were associated in Detroit with the Motown label. Even Brian was taken aback by our name, but he believed in us. He got us signed to that production company, but he had a tremendous challenge trying to market us to major labels.
So Clive Davis was one of the only executives to bite?
Bobby: At this time, Don Davis was putting out hits with Clive Davis. Clive was about to jump ship from Arista to go to Columbia. So Don had major business with Clive and he didn’t want that business interrupted, especially by a band called Death [laughs]. But Clive liked our record! He told us that we would have a record deal if we changed the name. So we are in Brian’s office and he’s like, “Clive Davis is about to go to Columbia and he likes what you guys are doing, but he says the name Death has got to go.” I can tell that David was thinking about changing the name maybe for a split second because he had his head down. But that spirit of resolve was in him. He just told Brian, “Tell Clive Davis to go to hell.” That was the end of our relationship with Bluesville Productions.
The band went on to drop a 45 of the track “Politicians In My Eyes”/”Keep On Knocking.” Did you realize how groundbreaking this music was at the time and how it would foreshadow punk bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols?
Bobby: When me and Dannis heard the Clash and the Pistols we would nudge each other and say, “This sounds like some of the Death stuff we were doing in Detroit.” Especially the Clash. We almost had a little bit of a thought to bring some of the stuff in terms of mixing in reggae with rock & roll like Bad Brains would later do. It would have been easy because by that time we were playing reggae. But we just said, “Nah, man…” We went through so much rejection with that Death stuff. We never knew we were laying down the groundwork for punk music.
You performed at South By Southwest in 2010. Can you describe the feeling of being back onstage and performing some that Death material after all these years?
Dannis: It was just incredible. It was almost too much to take in because here we are…we had went through the rejections, tapes had been in storage. And all of a sudden the tapes are out of storage and people are going crazy for the music. Being that it has been such a turn around this feels really weird. To be there performing and having the fans actually accepting it, we’ve never had that before. The very first gig before the Fun Fun Fun Fest, was the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash. That was so crazy. I didn’t know what to do with myself. This is the Ramones, man! I used to watch them on TV. I thought they had the music wrapped up. We were just calling our music Detroit Rock & Roll. We didn’t know about creating a punk movement. I’m still kind of mesmerized that people like our music.
What does A Band Called Death mean for the legacy of the band?
Bobby: It’s surreal…just very, very special. We never expected this.
Bobbie: Not at all…it came down from the sky.
Bobby: That’s where we are at, man. We are just living the dream. We just hope this whole thing continues. We are just grateful for people like you and rock & roll historians that have written about us. There was a guitar player that said, “You know what the great part of your story is? You had no idea what you were doing.” [Laughs] And this is true. We were just making hard-driving Detroit rock & roll music.
Will we see a full-length Death album on the horizon soon?
Bobby: Yes. The film company Draft House has inspired us. We gave them permission to put out a replica of a 45 record that we put out in Detroit. That inspired us to put out a brand new album. We are going to do a limited addition version of two of the songs from the new album. They will be in the same press that we did in the ‘70s. We want to do this as a tribute to not only the people that love Death, but as a tribute to our brother David.
You can catch Death live at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles (June 28-29) and New York’s Le Poisson Rouge (July 1). For info on a screening of A BAND CALLED DEATH near you go to http://abandcalleddeath.com/.
"Politicans In My Eyes"