A Band Called Death

The story is irresistible: in the early 70s, three black brothers from Detroit form a brilliantly original protopunk band, walk away from a major-label record contract on principle, and ultimately throw in the towel, only to be hailed as visionaries when their recordings surface 30 years later. In fact, the story of Death probably accounts for the band’s cult following at least as much as its music, a mere seven tracks that were finally released in 2009 by Chicago’s Drag City Records as . . . For the Whole World to See (a second album of demos and rehearsals followed the next year). The band’s founder, guitarist David Hackney, died of lung cancer in 2000, but his younger brothers, bassist Dannis Hackney and drummer Bobby Hackney, are still around. In this slow-moving but often affecting documentary, they seem as awed by their myth as anyone else; they have in their bearing the poignant pride of ordinary men who discover late in life that they’ve done something special.

A Band Called Death wouldn’t be nearly as rich if it weren’t a family story as well. The eldest brother, Earl Jr., roars with laughter as he recalls the band’s deafening basement rehearsals and the agony of their neighbors, who couldn’t tolerate this “white boy music.” The boys’ father advised them always to “back up your brother,” and after he died in a traffic accident while driving an injured man to the hospital, David Hackney announced that the band, Rock Fire Funk Express, would forever onward be known as Death. The band’s name turned out to be a major commercial handicap, as if black guys playing furious punk rock needed another one; after the local Groovesville Productions got them into a local studio, Death were offered a contract by Clive Davis of Arista Records on the condition that they change their name. David flatly refused, telling his brothers, “If we give ’em the title of our band, then we might as well give ’em everything else.” Dannis and Bobby were livid, but in public, at least, they backed up their brother.

The band finally expired in 1980 after the Hackneys moved to Burlington, Vermont, and David decided to return to Detroit, leaving his brothers on the east coast. By then pop music had caught up with Death, and they were exhausted and demoralized. The death blow, as it were, came when David posted some of the band’s mysterious flyers—consisting of nothing but a black triangle and the legend death—and police showed up at the brothers’ door accusing them of recruiting a street gang. The Hackneys fooled around with other genres, playing gospel and reggae, but never got anywhere, and David was drinking heavily by the time he died. When some of his nephews got together a Death tribute band they named it Rough Francis after David’s last stage name, and, as his brothers explain, keeping his music alive has softened some of the pain of his passing. In that regard, at least, there’s definitely life after Death.