festival feature: looking at death’s place in punk history. what does “proto-punk” even mean? #soundcheck

August 12, 2013

In the grand scheme of things there are probably more important things to argue about than whether Death counts as “proto-punk” or “quasi-punk.” But there we were two weeks ago. Drunk at 1AM on a Tuesday in The Rockery; a bar just south of Detroit. Strangers until moments before the argument erupted. His thesis: that because they were largely unknown until recently, Death can’t count as “proto-punk” as they were not really used as a prototype by any bands, thus the term “quasi-punk.” My thesis: it doesn’t matter who they influenced, merely by being a part of the zeitgeist in the early 70’s; that group of bands including the Stooges and the MC5 (also in Detroit), and the Velvet Underground and New York Dolls, who all played rock and roll a little harder, a little faster, and a little looser than bands in the 60’s, Death qualifies as a part of the “proto-punk” movement. So what is Death’s place in punk history?

For years, Death existed almost more as an anecdote than as a band. “Did you know the first punk band was all black?” was passed around as trivia among the acolytes of punk history, the same as “Did you know Greg Graffin is also a respected zoologist?” or “Did you know Chumbawumba started as an anarcho-punk band?” Until the 2009 release of their collected demos, only the most obsessive punk historians knew much about Death’s music, and even then all any of us really knew was the self-released single “Politicians In My Eyes.”

A run of 500 self-pressed singles taken from their aborted recording sessions with Columbia Records, Death began with all the trappings of punk firmly in place.

1. An unwillingness to compromise. The recording sessions broke down when the band refused to change their name to something more “commercially palatable.”

2. A commitment to DIY. With the masters in hand, Death formed their own record label to release them. Nearly every punk label from ’77 on was founded when a punk band realized that even the small established labels wanted them to sacrifice more control than they were willing to.

3. Anti-establishment lyrics. While it may not be the poli-sci dissertation of Bad Religion or the impassioned screed of early Bad Brains, “Politicians In My Eyes” is the first of punk’s long glorious history of “Screw specifics, the whole damn system is fucked!” songs.

4. They burned out bright. The number of punk bands who released a single 7” (or EP) before disappearing into their scene’s oral history vastly outnumbers the number of punk bands that even made it to their first full length record.

5. They played their rock and roll loud, fast, and hard.

If that’s not a prototype for punk, I’m not sure what is. So does the fact that outside a few bands in Detroit, not many folks in that first ’77 wave of punk bands would have considered Death an influence invalidate their claim to be prototypical? Or does the fact that they were one of many bands in the early 70’s to help shape that prototype earn it for them? Does the fact that they’re back together and touring now impact that? Certainly the modern incarnation of Death, though lacking the sadly deceased founding guitarist David Hackney, would be described as a punk band if they had been founded in 2009.

So where do you stand? Is Death punk? Are they quasi-punk? Proto-punk? Do these labels even matter, or are they essential in helping give form to the often convoluted history of the punk movement? Should a band be judged by their place in the lineage of punk bands, or should they just be judged on whether or not they kick ass? Personally, Death will always be the prototypical punk band to me.

Check them out at this year’s AFROPUNK Festival and decide for yourself. Or don’t. And just rock out.

– Words by Nathan Leigh

* DEATH will play AFROPUNK Festival 2013. To RSVP or Make a Donation to AFROPUNK Fest 2013, click HERE.