Death | photo by Tammy Hackney | courtesy of Drag City Records
Ahead Of Their Time: The 40-year journey of inspiring Detroit rockers Death
As an Afropunk, interviewing an all-Black punk band called Death might be the most existential thing I could possibly do on a Tuesday afternoon in 2019, but five minutes into the discussion, this writer also realized another thing was true: it was one of the most revealing.
Death’s start began in 1971, when three Detroit brothers — guitarist David, bassist Bobby, and drummer Dannis Hackney — turned on their instruments in a room in their parents’ modest home and got to channeling the raucous sounds of The MC5, the grandiose rock of local upstart Bob Seger, and The Who, much to the chagrin of their slightly more buttoned up neighbors. Despite their reverence to the most obvious, looming musical influence of the city at the time, Motown, and in a move especially treacherous for Black musicians, the brothers instead decided to play music that wasn’t going to get them booked at any R&B studio sessions: rock n roll.
Lost in the narrative, of course, is the fact that rock music started as an offshoot of the blues and jazz, a precursor to Rhythm and Blues; that rock started as Black American music. “Black people got disconnected from rock n’roll,” Bobby laments. “It’s funny,” adds Dannis, “Black people, we are very innovative people, but sometimes what we innovate, it’s hard to hold on to. Down through the history of rock ‘n roll, being a very young guy listening to Chuck Berry, they innovated the music. We are an artistic people, but back then we weren’t an administrative people. I mean, rock n’ roll was called ‘jungle bunny music’ and all kinds of names like that, so [white people] distanced themselves from rock n’ roll until they realized it could be a very, very lucrative thing.”
Rising through those frustrations, the band, as teenagers, were able to write sublime music. Death’s perfectly innovative collections of songs — the post-humously released For All the Whole World to See and Spiritual-Mental-Physical — stand as a monumental feat of precision instrumentation and more importantly, as a pre-cursor to the noisy, controlled-chaos of the punk movement. Ultimately though, Death often chooses to eschew the proto-punk term– “We didn’t think too much about [punk] at the time,” says Bobby. “When we did this music back in the ’70’s, there was no term for ‘punk rock,’ or anything then. It was just, you know, rock n’ roll. You know, if you called someone a punk back then, those would be fighting words. We didn’t think of it that much in the ’70’s, we just called it hard-driving, Detroit rock n’ roll.”
It’s an interesting discussion where one could make the argument that by even attaching the “proto” label to Death’s clearly punk sound, clearly punk DIY ethos, one could be limiting the reach of their influence and boxing Death in as simply “kinda punk” without attributing their work as among the first of the sub-culture.
However they’re ultimately classified, their music will stand as a testament on its on. Whether it’s songs like “Freakin’ Out” and its proggy, challenging stop-start riffs that explode into dreamy, beachy chords, or the claustrophobic lyrics of “You’re a Prisoner”, sung so powerfully over pummeling Stooges-esque post-garage rock, and certainly with “Politicians in My Eyes” and its raw combination of emotional energy and political relevance that bands like Fugazi would later master, it’s clear that those first recordings were among some of the best the genre has to offer– proto or otherwise.
But in their day, bands like Philadelphia’s Pure Hell and Death, African-American rock outfits with decidedly edgy band names who staunchly fought for their artistic autonomy, who didn’t have massively plugged-in, charismatic figures like Malcolm McLaren backing them, never “made it.” In fact, despite self-releasing their 7,” it was if they never existed. The reel-to-reels of Death’s albums languished in Bobby’s attic until prominent indie label Drag City came calling. When asked if it was a possibility that the burgeoning punk and underground scene in New York might have heard and been influenced by the Death 7”, Dennis offers: “Maybe sporadically. In New York, you know, everybody was good. We were probably in the pile somewhere and maybe they heard about it and commented on it, but not much. Not really, would be the answer.”
When I offer that the music was so much more innovative than what was coming out at the time, and that the current state of rock, punk and even post-punk all sounds like a Death record, and that everything they were doing that was different then is considered the norm now, Bobby humbly admits, “Well, I guess that’s a testimony to the fact that they said the music was ahead of its time. In ’74 and ’75, we were just doing what was energetic to us. The way those songs were crafted and constructed, they were pretty much meant to be fast, but we didn’t think we were making a new musical genre.”
The band has since carried on, three angelic, powerful Black rockers, inspiring a new generation of Afropunks, carrying on in the name of their brother David — the mastermind and essential resident genius behind the band’s name, aesthetic, themes, and general sound — adding friend Bobbie Duncan on guitar, not just as a replacement for the genius of David, but as a songwriter and collaborator in his own right. Their newest record, N.E.W., boasts some of their earlier influences even more blatantly, cutting in on late ’80’s outfit Living Colour’s rapturous riff-laden heavy guitar pop-metal. Though they’re not afraid to shy away from topical themes in their songs, their lyrics now exhibit a pure joy in the idea of rock n’ roll.
Particularly with the song “Resurrection”, a song about being able to exist as yourself without your current age or the machinations of time getting in your way, the band opts for shimmering hope with its astute political observations. As Bobbie Duncan explains, “I was using the brothers as an example [when writing the song], I thought about them and they’d been away for awhile and now they’re back and they’re free, ain’t nobody gonna put a hold on me’. It was the first lines that came to my mind because they were kind of looked over back in the day, that happens but they hung in there to be there when the ship came back around. On another level, it could be [viable] for anybody, it’s a resurrection when you realize where you’re at and how to get there.”
It’s been an amazing 40-year journey for the band. To get personal, as an Afropunk, it’s interesting that their first records were recorded and subsequently abandoned in 1976, a year after I was born. I spent many years in punk and hardcore, oftentimes the only Black person in the venue, looking for visual confirmation of my existence in other bodies in the pit, looking for role models and folks that might share the same cultural experience as me. Finding out about Death, it seemed surreal, strange and mythological. It would have been critical to have this band on mixtapes when I was younger. But here we are, today, in 2019, and the band’s relevance is still essential, still a part of the milieu, still relevant, and still inspiring.
“Civil Rights, women’s rights, The Vietnam War — those were really the main issues of the ’60’s,” Bobby Hackney recounts. “So, that really was the driving force [behind songs like ‘Politicians…’]. The song is so timeless that it touches on subjects today. A lot of people are referencing the song as if it was written for today’s political landscape. It’s a universal song, I guess politicians will be the same always.”
In a twist of irony to solidify Death’s continued relevance in a strange way, on the way to the interview, I had Death on my phone’s screen, and surely enough, there were folks on the bus looking over my shoulder, visibly cringing at the site of the word DEATH scrawled under the image of three Black men emanating from my phone. On Monday, April 22, the band plays The Foundry– their first time ever in Philadelphia! — as part of a 9 day stint, proof that they’re still rocking, still freakin’ out. It promises to be both an emotional outburst with the band commanding the stage despite their encroaching age, despite having to fight through bitterness and getting put on the back-burner in the annals of punk rock.
“We never differentiate our audience. It’s important for us to play rock n’ roll,” says Dannis in his infinite, prescient wisdom. “If people wanna listen, they’ll listen. If they wanna tag it, they’ll tag it. If they wanna brag it, they’ll brag it. We just play rock n’ roll, man. We play to Black, we play to white. If they put us on the moon, we’ll play to green.” It will be great to see Death unhinged, prisoners of circumstance no more.
Death plays The Foundry of The Fillmore Philly on Monday, April 22nd; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.