Interview with Death- arguably one of the first punk bands…
On february 9th, 1964 in Detroit, Earl Hackney sat down his three sons: David age 12, Dannis (pronounced Dennis) age 10, and Bobby age 8 in front of the tv set and told them they were witnessing something special. The Beatles were playing on the Ed Sullivan show, and David, entranced, sat 6”Â from the screen wide-eyed, while the other two sat equally mesmerized. The very next day, David found a guitar in the alley, took it home, and taught himself how to play. By 1970, the brothers had started their first band and begun playing garage shows. They played funk/r&b, influenced by the Motown sounds coming out of their East Detroit neighborhood. They practiced relentlessly and home recorded often. in early 1973, the brothers went to the Michigan Palace and saw a performance of Iggy and The Stooges. from that day forward david moved the band into the direction of rock n’ roll, feeling it was a better fit for them. David wrote the music and Bobby the lyrics.
Their songs became more political and the power trio seemed complete. The band named themselves Death. With more garage shows and a demo under their belt, david opened up the yellow pages to recording studios and threw a dart. The dart landed on Groovesville Productions, a label owned and operated by Don Davis. Davis, impressed with the band, brought the demo to the attention of Clive Davis of Columbia Records. Clive gave Death an advance and contracts were drawn to begin recording a 12 song album. After recording the first 7 songs, Clive insisted that the band change their name before the album was completed. David and his brothers refused, causing Columbia and Groovesville to back out of the deal. However, with their received advance, Death leaked out 500 copies of a 45 on their own Tryangle records in 1976 which was distributed at garage shows for free.. nothing more was heard of Death over the coming years other than a few collectors who had raved about their legendary 45. In 2002, an obscure punk compilation titled “No one left to blame”Â featured the b side “Keep on knockin'”. Six years afterwards, Bobby Hackney’s sons caught wind of the 45 songs being played at parties in California. Bobby Hackney then brought the 34 year old master tapes down from the attic for his sons to hear. Finally, a deal with Drag City records was worked out to release the album on february 17th 2009 ”â ”Â¦for the whole world to see!!!
Big up to Bobby Jr and the Hackney Brothers, thank you!
1) Hello Hackneys, we salute Detroit’s finest, Death. I read on your bio that you mark two moments as milestones in your musical evolution. First, seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as kids and then seeing Iggy & The Stooges live in early 1973. The latter shifted the band from their Funk/R&B roots into a more rock attitude, starting with the band name Death. What did you find in this (if you pass me the term) more “violent” style? What were you musically and socially seeking at that time?
Bobby Hackney: Our lyrics really were more expresssions of what we were feeling at the time. We weren’t trying to be violent, just socially aware in our music. The Viet Nam war was going on, riots in various cities, the late 60s and 70s was a very social and uneasy time.
2) How did it feel to be a powerful and angry Black punk band in Detroit in the early 70s? How did you interact with the musicians and the “scene” of the Motorcity?
Bobby Hackney: Of course we grew up in Detroit so Motown and The Beatles had to be a big part of our lives, but once we were exposed to the Detroit Rock Scene we were influenced heavily by bands such as Grand Funk Railroad, Wayne Kramer & MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes, and British Bands The Who, Led Zepplin, and many others.
3) And you were a three piece made up by real brothers… did your family support Death of was it a pure “brotherhood” thing?
Bobby Hackney: Our mother supported our musical talents from day one. It was her who let us use the garage, use her cadillac car to go across town to United Sounds for recording sessions, and a lot of other things. Of course we were a brotherhood. B.H.
3) Once you demoed the songs with Don Davis at Groovesville Productions, the tracks soon came to Clive Davis of Columbia Records, and a deal was signed for an LP before all the tracks were finished. Then Clive forced you to change your name before the LP was out and you basically told him “f**k you”, Detroit style. Were you aware of this big “manipulation habit” from the record companies? How did you brothers cope with the name imposition thing?
Dannis Hackney: The Name Death came from David. The name was to revolve around a concept of Albums and Rock Operas that we were planning. Don Davis brought demos of our sessions from United Sounds to New York and presented the demos to a number of music moguls in New York City, Clive Davis at Columbia being one of them, Clive and Don was already involved with other projects such as Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” so Don presented the tapes to him and He liked what he heard, but he did not like the name of the Band and this is what was told to us by Groovesville’s offices. When our brother David heard this he replied “Hell No!!”.
4) The Drag City Reissue of “…For The Whole World To See” is absolutely fantastic. Every riff cuts like a razor, and I think all your “urgency” is perfectly pictured in every track… even in the strangest one, “Let The World Turn”, a kind of psychedelic, “proggy” tune… could you please tell me about this outstanding track? How did it take shape?
Bobby Hackney: We thank you for that. Now you’re making us name more influences like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Emerson Lake and Palmer like Brain Salad Surgery. When Davis composed this song he did tell us it was like a mini Rock-Concerto. The lyrics I wrote to convey the notion of Death from negative to positive. Also the album is not a re-issue because this is it’s very first official release.
5) “…For The Whole World To See” seems to commuicate a sense of “pressure”, a need for freedom and a determined way to get it. Could you please tell me about your life in the 70s, what were your biggest expectations and your worst fears, and how did you pack ’em up writing songs?
Dannis Hackney: Our biggest expectations was to become a touring Rock-N-Roll band with a popular original album. You have to understand our goal was to record original records, in Detroit at that time, making records was just as, if not more important than playing a lot of shows. Our worst fears in 73, 74? Getting drafted by the army for service in Viet Nam.
6) Was it painful to give up with the band after the Coulmbia “affaire”? How did Death came to an end?
Bobby Hackney: When the deal fell through with Columbia, Groovesville lost interest in the continued marketing/shopping for a major record deal. We and Groovesville mutually parted ways in 1976. We locally realesed the single “Politicians In My Eyes b/w Keep On Knocking in the fall of 1976. By then corporate radio had taken over and it was near impossible to get airplay on local Rock Radio, so by February 1977, we relocated from Detroit to New England in Vermont and became known as The 4Th Movement and recorded 2 entire Gospel-Rock albums and a single. David returned to Detroit in 1981. Being left as only a Bass and Drum duo, myself and my brother Dannis Hackney became attracted to Reggae music and formed the Reggae Band Lambsbread.
7) We’re in 2009 now, and Death came back with the Drag City reissue… could you please tell us how the master saw the light and how the reissue project took place?
Bobby Hackney: By chance really, my son found out about this huge underground demand and brought it our attention. We had the masters in our own possesion since we came from Detroit, and our brother David had brought extra tapes from Detroit before he died. He told us that one day the world was gonna come looking for this music, and he knew that we would have it, and he was right.
8) Thanks so much for being with us, for releasing such a nugget like “…For The Whole World To See”, and for these in depth answers… we’d like to you to leave a message for all us proto punk freaks! Cheers!
Bobby Hackney: When we were writing, recording, and performing this music in 1973 to 1975 we were not trying to pre-date or create a new moniker for Rock-N-Roll, we were just playing whatÃÂ all of us Detroit Rockers called “Hard-Drivin Rock_N-Roll Baby!!! (That’s just the way we used to say it).