Detroit proto-punk band Death released a timely new single this week, “Cease Fire”. The song is a plea for reflection in a reactionary world where people are arming themselves out of fear of the “other.” From the DINOSAUR VAULTS, the following is a 2015 conversation the band had with DINOSAUR’s Larry Hirsch, which has never before appeared in print.
“With what Detroit’s been through, you know what they say about Dave Bing, don’t you? Just like when he was with the Pistons … he’s the only good guy on the team.”
Bobby Hackney is laughing his deep, rich laugh as he cracks up the room. The Detroit-by-way-of-Vermont rock band Death is spread out in their rehearsal space/recording studio, not looking (nor acting) their ages, which straddle sixty. They’re busy trading jokes, tales of 1960s Detroit, and talk of the NBA – and singing old cartoon theme songs – when they are interrupted by a knock at the door. An urgent message must be delivered to guitarist Bobbie Duncan.
“Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you … ”
Bobby Hackney’s grandson, Mikey, needs to wish Duncan a happy birthday, and Duncan is more than happy to shut down the interview for some family love.
If you’re a rock band looking to get far away from a big city like Detroit, a quiet house in rural Vermont is about one step short of the moon. And, after seeing how long it takes to get there, it’s no surprise Death had stayed lost for thirty years.
In the early 1970s, three brothers from Detroit began making some of the most electrifying rock ’n’ roll anyone had heard there at the time. Considering that Detroit had been home to the raucous, pre-Chevy Bob Seger, the raging Iggy and the Stooges, and the riotous MC5, that’s saying something. Rejected by numerous labels due to their controversial name, they moved on to Burlington, Vermont, and other music. Their debut album was never pressed. The only recording released was a single the band had pressed themselves, and that was just five hundred copies.
Death remained almost unheard for thirty years, until record collectors discovered the single and passed it amongst themselves, spreading the word of this undiscovered treasure … this missing link … this precursor of punk. In 2009, Drag City Records in Chicago finally released Death’s ’70s recordings. It’s not for nothing that the album was titled …For the Whole World to See. And it was about damn time.
Death has been described as an important proto-punk band, in line with acts like the Ramones. But listening to those early songs, it’s hard not to see them as more than that: their sound already so developed and practiced, with staccato riffs and soulful vocals, jazz inspirations and funk influences, all interspersed with fiery and frantic garage rock. It’s as if they helped invent, and then expanded on, a style of music all on the same record. But Bobby Hackney gives all credit to their hometown for helping develop that sound.
“We were just trying to play hard-driving Detroit rock ’n’ roll,” he says. “We was trying to be like The Who. We was trying to be like Grand Funk Railroad … Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.”
In the shade of Motown Records, the three youngest Hackney brothers – guitarist David, drummer Dannis, and bassist/vocalist Bobby – turned instead toward their city’s down-and-dirty rock sound to form Death. David, the oldest of the three, laid out the concept behind the unconventional name to his skeptical brothers: of death being the ultimate trip, the answer to the question implied by the Doors’ “Break on Through to the Other Side.” Despite some skepticism, the younger Hackneys dutifully backed their brother.
After torturing their neighbors with their bedroom practice sessions, Death went into the studio to record their debut album. They recorded seven songs, and record-label honcho Clive Davis expressed his interest in the music – but not the name. David refused to budge on what he saw as the band’s identity, and the deal was dead. The brothers soldiered on, meeting rejection everywhere they turned. Finally, in the early 1980s, they accepted a relative’s invitation to come to Vermont and get away from Detroit. They continued with a new name, making two records as The 4th Movement. That band had a more spiritual, gospel bent. But the rejection continued.
Finally, a homesick David returned to Detroit, leaving Bobby and Dannis to start up what became a regionally popular reggae band called Lambsbread. Before heading home, he turned over all of Death’s recordings to his brothers, with the promise that, eventually, people would come looking for their music. The brothers, apart for the first time in their lives, spent the next eighteen years hoping that either David would give Vermont another try or Bobby and Dannis would abandon reggae and come home to Detroit.
David died of lung cancer in 2000, before either of those things happened.
At the same time the Hackneys were exploring rock ’n’ roll, guitarist Bobbie Duncan, growing up in Harlem, was getting a similar musical education – by way of the disc jockeys on New York’s AM radio.
“They wouldn’t split the music up,” Duncan says. “You’d hear James Brown then the Beatles, Tom Jones then a Motown hit. Whatever was happening, they’d play it.” His exposure to the working musicians and session players from his neighborhood gave him access to impromptu lessons and tips that helped him become a musician in his own right. In fact, his first full-time job, at age thirteen, was playing music for the State of New York: Duncan and his band were hired to play block parties (in the days before DJs). This led to club gigs all over New York City, session work, production, songwriting, and eventually running his own record label.
Like the Hackneys, Duncan decided to head to Vermont when things weren’t working out back home. But for him, it wasn’t record-company problems. “Actually, 9-11 happened. When the World Trade Center went down … it seemed like all the recording studios started closing down because nobody was flying in to New York.” He did what he could to scrounge up gigs in the city but, eventually, his sister’s exhortations to “Come on up to Vermont” won out. Coincidentally, he found himself just over two miles up the road from his future band mates.
Want more Death? Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of this interview.