feature: black punk history—proto-punk rockers from detroit, death

February 10, 2016
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Alright, the time has come, my little friends, to talk of many thing, but first let’s talk about DEATH! Woo! A few of you were worried we had forgotten about these legends, but how could we? DEATH are the quintessential proto-punk band formed in Detroit by brother Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis (drums) Hackney. Like many, DEATH were inspired early on by The Beatles. After witnessing their first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, David found a discarded, beat-up guitar and started teaching himself how to play; his brother followed suit and soon they formed a band. They started out as funk-infusion ensemble called Rock Fire Fun Express until 1973 when they began listening to heavier music like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and more, prompting David to change their name to DEATH. “His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell,“ said Bobby. That same year, the band released their killer self-titled demo, earning themselves a few spins on the radio station W4. Even though the demo was only played during ”off“ hours and their gigs rarely extended outside of garages, their word-of-mouth reputation was enough for them to reach out to producer Don Davis (of Funkadelic). Pumped by what he heard in just one rehearsal, Davis helped them to record ”…For The Whole World To See“ (which wouldn’t be released until 2009) at United Sound Recording Studio. The logistics about who actually funded that project are unclear. Clive Davis possibly had something to do with financing early recordings, but thought their name and brand identity needed to be toned down for commercial consumption and when David refused, Clive dipped out.

Everyone knows working with family can be a bitch, and when David wouldn’t agree to a name-change, tension between the brothers grew. Alcoholism, differing ideas of musical direction, etc., caused DEATH to slow down and, soon, they relocated to Burlington, Vermont where they released two gospel rock albums as The 4th Movement, in the early 80s. In 1982, David moved back to Detroit and Bobby and Dannis started playing reggae music in their new (still popular) band Lambsbread.
In 2008, Bobby’s sons (Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr.) started a cover band, Rough Francis, after discovering their dad’s old recordings online.

The 2012 documentary “A Band Called Death” is a must-watch. For real. It documents the early days, the turbulent days, and the bond and strain between the brothers.

By Erin White*, AFROPUNK contributor

Video credit: Drafthouse Films and Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films

*Erin White is AFROPUNK’s editorial and social media assistant. You can follow her on Tumblr or friend her on Facebook. Have a pitch or an inquiry? Shoot her an email at