Although the focus of this film is fairly explicit in its title what really stuck with me after walking out of the theater was the slight reggae act Lambsbread. That’s the group formed by a couple of the Hackney brothers after Death’s ill fated rebranding as the gospel rock “Fourth Movement”. This is a group I’m intimately familiar with. How many of our parents, aunts, and uncles wound up in a similar state? The last refuge for their dreams of rock stardom as a residency playing island-themed bars in furthest reaches of the suburbs.
You can appreciate the enthusiasm of the newest generation of Hackneys to discover their parents were once hard rockers. That the neighbors repeatedly called the police to complain of the noise, and that their fathers responded by playing faster and louder. That uncle David, an amiable alcoholic, was once a fierce guitarist.
But that’s my takeaway. “A Band Called Death” sits at the intersection of a dozen cultural shifts: the fall of Detroit; the fall of the regional record label; the supreme novelty of blacks playing unabashedly hard rock; the vibrant collectors community still enthralled by punk rock; and more and more. The filmmakers could have turned the Hackney’s journey into an extended investigation of any of them, but instead focused in on their family dynamic.
Brother David is painted as the soul of the group. Responding to the passing of his father, he christens the band “Death”, a striking name that haunts the group’s fortunes. It ruins any prospect of signing with a major label, it draws the ire of the police when the brothers try to advertise their local shows. Bobby and Dennis, who round out the trio plead to change the name, but David remains steadfast.
David becomes a difficult person in this story. While his stubbornness snuffs out any hope of graduating to the next level of fame (the next level being anything above total obscurity), its the same temperament that made the brothers respond to their neighbors complaints by playing louder. Its that snot and spunk that gives Death’s music just the edge it needs to play in punk circles to this day.
For the most part this film is hyperbole free, save for an unfortunate comment from Questlove that the regard the Ramones earned belong instead to Death.I shudder when thinking about it. He delivers this assessment very carefully as if in immediate regret but resigned to every word. The rest of the talking heads largely stick up for Death for more pedestrian reasons. Kid Rock is in it for Detroit, that the music holds up is an added bonus. Other commentators seemed thrilled at the chance to enshrine another black punk group, even if the “punk” bonafides are pretty dubious. To my ears Death belong in the stew of proto punk bands, for which Detroit was particularly fertile. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and the MC5 were established local products at the same time the Hackney brothers recorded their demos.
The lack of notable black groups remains a very sensitive spot in punk circles. Before discovering Death the list of blacks with any significant scene impact in those early years was limited to Bad Brains and the guitarists for Fear and Richard Hell and the Voivods. All this while punk grew into an explicitly progressive artform as the Reagan era settled in, making the obvious lack of diversity very contradictory.
So here’s the elephant in the room: how good is Death’s music really? What if this exact same music came from a white band?
Well the music is quite fine. Obviously the work of younger men as evident in its energy and bluntness, though far from “classic”. If not for the circumstances surrounding Death I doubt vintage 7”s would fetch $500 a piece on ebay, but it’s not a stretch to see their demos meriting a Numero Group release.