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A Band Called Death Tells The Irresistable Story Of Long-Lost Punk Pioneers

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 27, 2013 6:20PM

2013_06_27_death.jpg The way the New York Times tells it, hearing Alice Cooper changed everything for the Hackney brothers. According to The Reader, it was The Stooges. Wikipedia has the pivotal moment even earlier, when Dad sits the boys down to watch The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

Everybody seems to agree that seeing The Who at Cobo Arena was pivotal. Whatever the exact set of ingredients was, these three kids concocted their own recipe for something nobody had seen before: Punk.

Before the Ramones and the Sex Pistols nobody was ready for it—especially not coming from three African-American kids from Detroit in the heyday of Motown. The name of the band didn't help. Even when they were able to get a few songs produced, no record company wanted anything to do with a band called Death. So although the music was tremendous, the one offer they got for the only seven songs they recorded—fierce, preternaturally tight jams that perfectly amalgamated their influences into something completely new, came with a string attached: Change your name. They wouldn't, and soon after pressing a single 45 themselves, the band broke up.

Cut to thirty years later and that lone 7-inch is so rare it might as well be a rumor. An L.A. collector puts a copy on eBay for $800. Jello Biafra is said to have a crate, and Henry Owings puts the MP3s on Chunklet's website. After hearing his friends rave about this obscure Detroit find, Bobby Hackney's son Julian fires up those MP3s without knowing who the band is, and is shocked to hear his father's voice. "Why didn't you tell me?" he shouts to his dad on phone a few minutes later. Chicago collector Robert Manis gets his hands on a copy for Chicago label Drag City, and soon the record is finally released, to widespread acclaim.

There is much more to this story, lovingly told in Mark Covino's and Jeff Howlett's documentary A Band Called Death. The children of the band members form their own band and perform their fathers' songs. Sparked by a request to perform at Joey Ramone's birthday party, the two surviving members get the band back together and successfully tour on the record (seeing them at The Empty Bottle was one of our favorite shows of 2009). Charting these songs' evolution from the youthful yawlp of three kids in a Detroit bedroom torturing their neighbors to startlingly assured demonstrations of ahead-of-its-time vision to neglected orphans collecting dust in an attic to an emotional performance at Detroit's Magic Stick is great entertainment, but it is the detailed portrait of the band's deceased founder, David Hackney, that ties the film together. David comes across as a true visionary, supported by his brothers in his stubborn dedication to his art and resolute that "one day the world's going to come looking" for the Death recordings. He haunts the film like a ghost, insisting at every turn that "Death is not the end."

A Band Called Death is fascinating at every turn, and you don't have to care about the music to love this story. It's a shame it took 30 years of water under the bridge for this essential missing link between the MC5 and the Bad Brains to connect to an audience. In musical style, DIY ethos, uncompromising resistance to authority and sheer ability to scare the hell out of authority figures, Death was truly punk. But punk is not so threatening any more. The Stooges soundtrack Carnival Cruise ads and Jaguar uses London Calling to peddle luxury cars.

Death is safe now. We see the reunited band playing to a stock-still, standing crowd at bloodless Lincoln center in the daytime. We see Elijah Wood, his shirt buttoned up to his chin, saying the music "has a certain energy to it." A song gets used in an episode of "Entourage." It's excellent music, but the idea that it could frighten anyone now seems quaint. Meanwhile, the thing that does scare the pants off the suits, the threat of digital media to the bottom lines of the record companies, is where Death triumphs again. Without mp3s building interest and connecting the music to listeners who might never encounter have it, Death would still just be a fetishized collectors' item, a footnote to rock history with a dollar sign next to it. Now, they're planning a follow-up record and the subject of an outstanding documentary. Death marches on.

A Band Called Death kicks off the Summer Music Film Festival at The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., starting tomorrow.