When Drag City announced a couple of years ago that they were releasing a long-lost early ‘70s album by a band you never heard of, named Death, comprising three black brothers from Detroit who made punk rock years before anyone else, the knee-jerk reaction was to assume this was just hipster bait. But your (my) knees should know better, for Drag City can be trusted by and large, and the band and their story are truly worthy of their unusual, if belated, place in the pantheon.
That story, of the band, and of the family, is now told in engaging and surprisingly moving style in the documentary, A Band Called Death by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett: from practicing in their bedroom under the leadership of visionary eldest brother David, to meeting universal industry resistance, mostly due to their name (it was not meant as a negative); through thirty years of this and that (a pretty fun-sounding reggae band included), until modern-day record collectors catch wind of Death’s sole 7” release and start salivating (to the tune of $800), and the torch is taken up again by the family’s new generation and the surviving brothers.
Best of all, the music really is (US) punk rock, two years before the Ramones, and played with considerably greater facility: machine-gun drumming, super-agile, snaking bass lines, and a guitarist who wanted to play Townsend chords and Hendrix lead all at once, roaring out of the speakers with a real Motor City (5) raw power. More than one person in the preview screening dashed a tear from their eye, and I daresay I am not the only one to see this doc and head straight for Amoeba to buy the record. Check it out at the Los Angeles Film Festival (screening dates: Saturday June 16, Tuesday June 19).
A Band Called Death official synopsis:
Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was Death. Formed in the early ’70s by three teenage brothers from Detroit, Death is credited as being the first black punk band, and the Hackney brothers, David, Bobby, and Dannis, are now considered pioneers in their field. But it wasn’t until recently — when a dusty 1974 demo tape made its way out of Bobby’s attic nearly 30 years after Death’s heyday — that anyone outside a small group of punk enthusiasts had even heard of them.
Documentary Competition, Los Angeles Film Festival, 2012
(USA, 2012, 98 mins)
Directed By: Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino
Producers: Matthew Perniciaro, Scott Mosier, Kevin Mann, Jerry Ferrara
Cinematographer: Mark Covino
Editor: Rich Fox
Music: Sam Retzer and Tim Boland
Featuring: David Hackney, Bobby Hackney, Sr., and Dannis Hackney