Death arguably invented punk rock…

Death were arguably the first punk band in the world

Punk rock was started by a black band.

Ok, maybe not but Detroit’s amazing Death, formed in 1971, were right in there inbetween the Stooges and MC5 and the New York explosion. They recorded about seven amazing songs that you can hear on youtube and then fucked off.

Along with Bad Brains and Pure Hell they are part of a clutch of bands who thankfully retell the story of punk rock from a different perspective.

Because the story of punk is somehow, sadly, white.

It wasn’t meant to be like that. When punk started there were black punks- Don Letts for one- and a clutch of black faces in London and Manchester.
There was the punk reggae party- the great crossover, opening possibilities. Reggae was part of the soundtrack, Bob Marley acknowledged the punks in song and dub was everywhere in punk opening up the compressed sound giving it a sense of space. Tracks from Gen X’s ace ”ËœWild Dub’ to the Clash’s fusing of the styles to the Ruts perfect dub punk synthesis to Public Image’s dub fused soundscapes and even the Stranglers ”ËœPeaches’ acknowledged the form. And that was before we tip a pork pie hat to Two Tone.

But as the years went by punk slowly became the whitest of musics which is not necessarily a problem but a little crossover party flavouring is always healthy!

Somehow, though, just beyond the narrative that we know and love there is a great clutch of black punk bands.

Everyone should know about Bad Brains- four rastas playing fast as fuck hardcore split with reggae. They have become one of the most influential bands in America. Without them- no Minor Threat. No DC hardcore. No New York Hardcore. Maybe no Chili Peppers and by extension no funk metal. The list is endless. They don’t always get the credit but those that know. Know.

There was also Pure Hell- a fantastic rush of sound produced by Sex Pistols Steve Jones in the early eighties, who have recently reformed.

And there was also Death who have been lost in the sands of time.

Death were three brothers – Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis (drums) Hackney who formed the band in Detroit, Michigan, in 1971.
They started out playing R’n’B in the amazing music city of Detroit. The motor city is arguably the best music city in the UK (can you argue against Stooges/MC5/Motown/George Clinton/acid house and even Eminem?).

Seeing an Alice Cooper gig in 1971 they switched to rock. But they went way beyond the comedy schlock of Cooper and played a fast, speed thrills, precursor to punk rock by about five years and hardcore by about ten.

It made success almost impossible in the cozy USA of the seventies. Playing music like this in perhaps the richest mainstream society in history and a music scene where soporific soft rock was the radio staple was never going to work. The white mainstream also wasn’t in a rush to embrace three black kids playing a fierce rock music but in 1975 they got their one break.

Columbia boss Clive Davis funded a demo for the band but asked them to change their name from Death- the band, again presaging punk rock, refused to be pushed around by the corporates and refused.

Since this was 1975 there was no safety net of the underground to fall back into and Death were basically fucked.

The backing was pulled from them and they recorded seven songs instead of the intended twelve which, the following year they self-released on 500 copies of the 7″ single “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking,” on their Tryangle label, which eventually became a collectors’ item before being re-released by Drag City in 2009.

A busted flush the brothers moved to Virginia in the eighties and released two albums of gospel rock, David died in 2000 of lung cancer whilst the remaining two brothers formed the reggae band Lambsbread. Their sons recently formed a tribute band called Rough Francis playing Death songs whilst last year a reformed Death played three shows with original members Bobby and Dannis Hackney, and guitarist Bobbie Duncan.

Their music was amazing. They are not here because they are a curio. They stand the test of time and their music is tight, fast and thrilling and the songs are incredible. All connoisseurs of punk rock should check the band out.

Please go and check the youtube clips now!

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. thanks for this, an interesting link, id never really connected black bands with punk before. the clash were the nearest i thought dub or reggae got to punk. i’ll check ‘Death’ out in more detail.

    • check out bad brains and Pure Hell as well…

      Bad Brains are one of the most influential bands in US music…

  2. […] From The Tombs), Toronto (Simply Saucer), Oklahoma (Debris), Australia (Radio Birdman), and Detroit (Death) have been consensus additions to the […]

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  4. Ill be honest, i didn`t know that Death sounded like this but even without them Punk, heavy rock/metal,Goth,Thrash,Hardcore,Crust,Grindcore and all other flavours of Rock `n` roll stem from black music. There is this ridiculous standpoint that punk began with the pistols or Ramones,-no-,Uk pop punk was recognisied by the main stream media starting with the Pistols who were a plastic stage-managed band modelled on the sound of french Punk bands and primarily used by McClaren to sell clothes (previous to this he made his money selling Teddy Boy clothes which is why pop punks wore brothel creapers etc),probably the only band from that era in the uk recognised by the mass media to play any hard punk was The Dammned the best British punk bands didnt come untill later e.g The Exploited, then followed the Hardcore and crust bands leading to Grindcore which so far is the apex of punk and extreme music in general.
    Back in the states the Ramones were a good band but pre-dated by Stooges,Mc5 etc. New york dolls deserve a mention however as well as a Mick Jagger look alike lead vocalist they have some of the Stones in their sound that leads us back to early rock n roll and in turn Blues.
    In summary punk is just another destination on the journey from Blues to Grindcore-rock becomes metal and punk then with electronic music we get industrial and these interweve and bounce off each other to give the plethora of sub-generas we have today.
    As a side note “skin head” was also begun from black music but again the main stream press helped make sure it has been remembered for the later racist national front assosiations of the mindless crowd followers.


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