Second Listen: Death


Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy takes a closer look at some of the lesser-known albums put out by well-known musicians.

Every once in a while there is an album (or in this case, a band) that time forgot. Either they were lost in the dismal abyss that is the music industry, or they just didn’t deserve recognition (i.e. they sucked). But, sometimes, neither of these are the answer. Sometimes the stars align and a talented band with every opportunity to sign that ever-elusive record contract just disappears. This is the story of Death.

Their story has been rapidly spreading in the wake of the recent documentary A Band Called Death, chronicling the band. In 1964, three African-American brothers from Detroit were forced by their father to sit and watch the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. From then on, their passion for music was born and immediately pursued. Originally an R&B group named Rock Fire Funk Express, the three Hackney brothers quickly switched their style after attending an Alice Cooper concert. Thus, Death was born. After scrounging for instruments in the trash, the Hackney brothers began playing and recording music in their parent’s house at designated hours of the day. With Bobby on bass and lead vocals, David on guitar, and Dannis on drums, they had found a style that suited them and was revolutionary. Punk was not a thing yet, and garage was still in its infant state. But Death was far ahead of its time. Maybe too far.

When paired together, the words, “punk” and “Detroit” typically signify Iggy Pop. But not anymore. Death has usurped the Detroit punk throne. In the short amount of time that they were together, Death recorded and released a single containing the tracks “Keep on Knocking” and, “Politicians in my Eyes” on a limited 500 EP release. After the EP, an LP by the name of …For The Whole World To See was recorded and set to be released by Colombia Records on one condition: change the band’s name. Through a unanimous decision, the band opted out of the contract and kept their name. Death was sticking it to the man before sticking it to the man was a thing. They gained their fans through word of mouth and their loud, rambunctious practices that kept the whole neighborhood awake. Death was the epitome of teenage punk angst released through music that confused and scared the generations before them. Too bad it took over 35 years for their seven-song, 26-minute album to reach the ears of listeners around the world. We have been denied access to this pivotal moment in music history until now.

“Keep on Knocking” doesn’t build. It doesn’t progress. It kicks your ass from start to finish. And what’s a better basis for a song than a bunch of neighborhood girls banging on the door of your parents’ house so you keep playing music in your bedroom for them to hear? Nothing, that’s what. (Well, maybe a song about a poopship destroyer, but that’s for another week.) From the very beginning, it becomes evident that Bobby Hackney had a voice that every punk band wishes they had. He was raw, ill-produced, and untrained, but fuck, could he belt a tune. The riffs in songs like “Rock-N-Roll Victim” and “Freakin’ Out” rip holes in preconceived notions of what punk should be. They are proof that talent does belong behind the curtain of low-fi recordings and simple lyrics. …For The Whole World to See never lets up; there is never a chance for a breather throughout the whole album, and Death is to thank for that.

“Let the World Turn” opens with a promise of a slowed-down, more melodic, romantic track. That quickly changes as Dannis’ drums rip through the song in a hectic solo that drives it forward. Nothing Death does is understated or remotely quiet. “Where Do We Go From Here” is more proof of this. The subtle bass riff builds the track and leads into a completely unannounced and unanticipated chorus full of Bonham-style fills and catchy hooks. Certain bands have musicians that can kick the shit out of their instruments, but Death kicks the shit out of music.

Although a disgruntled Roland Tembo from The Lost World: Jurassic Park believes that he has “spent enough time in the company of death,” I couldn’t disagree more. I want more Death. I need more Death. But, there will never be more Death in the form it took on this album. In 2000, David Hackney passed away due to lung cancer. The sons of former members have recently gotten together and started performing Death covers live, along with the surviving Hackneys. But, other than a 2011 re-release of session material, no new music is in sight. Sometimes we have to be thankful for what we have instead of hoping for something we can’t. Death is a band that is surrounded by a story as good as their music. For far too long the world has been deprived of Death. Who knows what would’ve happened if they changed their name and signed that contract? Maybe they would’ve gone commercial and sold out (bought in). Maybe they would’ve fizzled out and been forgotten for longer than they already have. Who cares? We have Death now. Go listen to Death.