It’s been said that “Death were punk before punk”. Musician Jack White is an admirer, praising the band for being ahead of their time. Death are a proto-punk power trio from Detroit who formed in the 1970s that are only now, in recent years, finding the acclaim and recognition that their pioneering work deserves. They are credited as being the first African-American punk band, yes that’s right, they came before Bad Brains! A new documentary, A Band Called Death, directed by Jeff Howlett, has sparked renewed interest in the band. Howlett describes the rockumentary as being “one of brotherly love and fierce, divinely inspired expression.” I recently interviewed bassist-vocalist Bobby Hackney about where Death are at today, where they’ve come from, what’s next and continuing on after the passing of founding member, Death’s original guitarist and brother, David.
At this point in your life and the life of your band Death, what does Death mean to you?
BOBBY HACKNEY: It means something special, like a lost child that you thought you’d never see again comes back to you.
It’s been said that, Death would likely have remained lost in obscurity if not for the discovery last year of a 1974 demo tape in Bobby Sr.’s attic; tell us what it was like for you listening back to that demo tape for the first time after it being lost for so long?
BH: Actually it was the year 2008. When Dannis and I heard the tape on a reel-to-reel machine for the first time in over 30 years, it brought us back to Detroit, back to the 70s, back to that time. We also thought, wow we played some pretty good Rock n Roll.
Musician Jack White commented on Death saying: “The first time the stereo played ‘Politicians in My Eyes,’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I was told the history of the band and what year they recorded this music, it just didn’t make sense. Ahead of punk, and ahead of their time.” How do you feel about Jack’s comment?
BH: Jack is pretty cool. Especially being a musical brother from that Detroit group of high schools we all went to and interacted with, Southeastern, Cass, Denby, etc.
To you, what do you think is the biggest reason why Death never made it during the 70s?
BH: When the deal fell through with Columbia, Groovesville lost interest in the continued marketing/shopping for a major record deal. We and Groovesville mutually parted ways in 1976. We locally released the single “Politicians In My Eyes b/w Keep On Knocking” in the fall of 1976. By then corporate radio had taken over and it was near impossible to get airplay on local Rock Radio, so by February 1977, we relocated from Detroit to New England.
What were things like for you growing up in Detroit?
BH: Life revolved around the automobile industry, Motown, and Detroit Rock. We were fortunate enough to hang out on Detroit streets when all this excitement was happening. When a lot of the rock bands like MC5 and The Stooges were really red-hot in Detroit, we were quite young, but later in the early 70s we got the opportunity to see some of their concerts at places like Cobo Arena and Michigan Palace, among other places.
Who or what inspired you to pick up an instrument?
BH: Beside our own aspirations being kids, it was really our Dad at first. Of course we grew up in Detroit so Motown and The Beatles had to be a big part of our lives, but once we were exposed to the Detroit Rock Scene we were influenced heavily by bands such as Grand Funk Railroad, Wayne Kramer & MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes, and British Bands The Who, Led Zepplin, and many others.
Death started out playing R&B in your parents’ garage in the early 70s but switched to hard rock in 1973, after seeing an Alice Cooper show; what was it about seeing Alice Cooper that inspired the change in direction?
DH: My brother Dannis saw Alice Cooper at a Cobo Hall show in 1973 and came home that night and suggested to me and David that is the music we should playing. It was a hard sell at the time.
Death is an interesting choice of band name; what’s the story behind it? I’ve read that to many folks it seemed as though the nihilism of the name ‘Death’ was out of step with the times and yet your guitarist and brother David saw things in a different way, I understand that at a point he was writing a rock opera about death that portrayed it in a positive light?
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