Death is a Detroit-based punk-rock band that was formed in 1971, years before the first acts associated with the genre emerged or the genre reached popularity in the US. The original band members are three brothers: Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis Hackney (drums). David Hackney encouraged his brothers to make the switch from funk (via their band RockFire Funk Express, 1964-71) and change the name of the band after their father died in an accident. Death, which is usually associated with negative and dark themes, underwent a transformation to more positive meanings, thank (in part) to David, which proved to be a tough sale to record labels during the 1970s. Also during that time, African-American musicians who had ventured into musical genres like punk and metal have been stigmatized because those genres have traditionally been viewed as music that is performed and listened to by the Caucasian audience. Moreover, as more African-American punk rock bands entered the music scene in the 1980s and ‘90s, and gained popularity. More recently these bands have been categorized as “Afro-Punk” bands instead of just punk-rock bands. The term “Afro-Punk” was coined by James Spooner in 2003. Why the distinction? To me, the distinction is purely racially motivated, the same as calling Caucasians singing R&B music being called “blue-eyed soul”. Music is music, no matter what race or ethnicity sings it.
Seven songs were recorded at United Sound Studios (seen above) in 1975 in Detroit. The Hackney brothers almost landed a recording contract with Columbia Records, provided that the band was willing to change their name to something the label felt would be more commercially marketable. When the trio refused to change the name of their band, they walked out of the recording contract. This action truly exemplified the punk/do-it-yourself attitude of “I don’t want the corporate world to own my life. I will be the master of my own success”.
The Hackney brothers tried for two years between 1975 and 1977 to find a record label that would accept their branding and music, only to face multiple rejections. Frustrated, the trio moved to Burlington, Vermont in 1977 and released two gospel rock albums under the name The 4th Movement in the early 1980s. David, who felt discouraged, returned to Detroit in 1982 to continue his dream of becoming a punk-rock musician, adopting the name Rough Francis. He died in the year 2000 of lung cancer. Meanwhile, David brothers (Bobby and Dannis) remained in Vermont and started recording four reggae-rock albums under the name Lambsbread from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. By the way, Lambsbread is still recording and playing their music today.
Copies of one of Death’s songs “Politicians in My Eyes” continued to be in circulation by vintage record collectors, even though only 500 copies were released in 1975. MP3 recordings of two songs made their way to a Georgia-based humor and music magazine in 2008. Over the course of a year, the singles and the story of the band Death spread like wildfire. Among those who came across Death’s music were the three sons of Death’s bass player Bobby Hackney (Bobby Jr., Julian, and Uriah), not knowing that their father and two uncles were in the band. The discovery of their father and uncles’ music reached a recording agency called Drag City Records. An executive from Drag City contacted Bobby and Dannis Hackney, which led to the release of the original seven songs they and their brother David recorded back in 1975. The LP, titled “…For The Whole World To See”, was released by Drag City in 2009. David Hackney, just before he died, predicted during the wedding of his brother Bobby that someday, someone would be looking for the master tape for which the band’s songs were recorded and stored.
With the release of “…For The Whole World To See”, Bobby’s three sons quickly formed a band, using the name that his brother David adopted when he returned to Detroit in 1982—Rough Francis. Bobby Jr. (lead vocals, precussion), Julian (guitar), and Uriah (drums) teamed up with Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan to play, for the first time ever, the recordings from their father and uncle’s LP. The film A Band Called Death documented the bands history and the historic concert.
Watch the film “A Band Called Death”:
Contributed by Phillip Williams-Cooke a writer from The Clive Davis Institute x Billboard MUSIC INDUSTRY ESSENTIALS program.