Death returned Friday (June 12) to the Empty Bottle, sounding stronger and more confident than the group was back in 2009 at the same venue. This new version of Death — including two of the original members who made some fantastic protopunk recordings in Detroit in the mid-1970s — even played a couple of new songs, for an album that’s in the works. The incredible story of this band is chronicled in the documentary A Band Called Death.
One of this year’s best records was actually recorded back in the mid-’70s, but this is the first time most of the music has ever been released. The band was called Death, and it played something that sounded an awful lot like punk rock. That’s not what you’d expect three African-American brothers from Detroit to play in that era (or any era, for that matter), but these guys liked what they heard from groups like the Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper and put their own stamp on that proto-punk sound. Death’s demo tapes finally surfaced this year when Chicago label Drag City put them out under the title …For the Whole World to See. I was initially attracted to this album by the great story behind it, which you can read here in a New York Times story with the apt headline: “The Band That Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk.”
But beyond having a great back story, this is also a great album, with both the sheer force of classic punk and inventive bass, guitar and drum parts kicking together in those slightly irregular patterns that are the key ingredient in so many great rock songs. Death’s music reminds me of bands that came later, including Television, the Dirtbombs and the Damned, though it’s doubtful anyone in those bands ever heard a note of Death.
Death has reunited for just a handful of shows, including a concert Saturday (Sept. 26) at the Empty Bottle. (It was a late show, so I was able to catch both this concert as well as the earlier Schubas show by the Rural Alberta Advantage.)
The original lineup of Death was brothers David Hackney (on guitar), Bobby Hackney (bass and vocals) and Dannis Hackney (drums). David died, so for these reunion shows, Bobby and Dannis are being joined by a replacement guitarist, Bobbie Duncan. The big question was whether these guys would be able to pull off the terrific songs they recorded 35 years ago.
The answer is yes. But with an asterisk.
When Hackney brothers and Duncan rocked out on the Death songs, it sounded great. In case you hadn’t noticed all those cool bass lines, drum rolls and riffs on the original record, they came through loud and clear in concert, and Bobby Hackney nailed the lead vocals (skipping past a few high notes). The crowd loved it, and a rambunctious mosh pit broke out, a twisting mass of young bodies colliding with one another in front of the stage. The Hackney brothers must have found all this a little strange — a mob of mostly twentysomething white kids going nuts over the music they wrote more than three decades ago in complete obscurity.
Here’s the asterisk, however: The guys in Death did not quit playing music after Death disbanded in the mid-’70s. They went on to play R&B under the name 4th Movement and reggae under the name Lambsbread. And on Saturday night, they supplemented the Death songs with a number of these R&B/reggae tunes, which were not the greatest fit with the punk repertoire. Some of the fans respectfully waited through these songs for another chance to mosh. A few people in the back of the room were less respectful, shouting out things like, “This song sucks!” From what I could hear, the reggae and R&B songs were just so-so, nothing as distinctive as the Death songs. One or two of these songs would have been sufficient. The Death show also came to a grinding halt on two occasions, when the musicians huddled onstage in darkness trying to work out technical difficulties or some other unspecified problem, with bothering to tell the audience what was going on. During one of these unexplained breaks, some people in the crowd got into some sort of shouting match. The whole thing felt weird. But then Bobby Hackney stepped back to the microphone and simply said, “Death!” and everything seemed to be right again, as the band charged into “Freakin Out.”
At the end of the set, the members of opening act Rough Francis (including a second generation of Hackneys) joined forces with Death for the anthemic “Politicians in My Eyes.” For an encore, Death played an unreleased song from the Death era, which Bobby introduced as one of his late brother’s favorites, a song with “Rock and roll!” in the chorus.
Overall, the show was a mixed success, with moments of triumph along with a few fumbles. Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Rough Francis played a strong opening set — so strong that some audience members tried to get them to play an encore. The first band of the night, Tyvek, played primitive punk rock with an offbeat, catchy sensibility. www.myspace.com/deathprotopunk www.dragcity.com/artists/death