I am so late to the Death party. Super late. Late enough that I’m pretty sure you’re saying “How did you not know about this?” Whatever – just in case you haven’t arrived yet, let me walk you in. In 1974 when the charts were dominated by Terry Jacks and The Jackson 5 punk rock was just beginning to form. From Patti Smith to the Ramones, young musicians merged The Who with speed and politics, spitting out a new genre of music. Punk was about conviction and self reliance as much as it was about limited resources and opportunities. It was also about a way of seeing the world, as Saint Joe Strummer proved.
One young man walked into a Who concert a rocker and walked out a punk. It wasn’t a sound anyone expected from a black Detroit sibling band. (Even today, with so many great acts proving them wrong, the music world narrative is that metal, rock and punk are white genres.) The film A Band Called Death beautifully follows how the music was forgotten and then rediscovered. On the surface this is the sort of hipster tale that crate diggers love. It hits all the right notes. Everyone wants to find the overlooked gem, the forgotten artist that should have been famous but ended up forgotten. Tastes change. A sound that was wrong for 1974 could be perfect for 2014. That’s not the case with Death. I was alive in 1974. Death would have fit nicely in my record collection, if I’d ever heard of them. Who knows? Maybe I did. After all, we were both listening to late night radio out of Detroit.
As a tale of musical rediscovery A Band Called Death is incomplete. You don’t care about the people endorsing it’s quality. You want to hear the music. The LP never had the benefit of full production. The sound is appropriately rough, ranging from psychedelia to pop punk to experimental. There’s no doubt the band was headed in the right direction, a direction that could have taken them anywhere. A Band Called Death is also a story about the compromises you take to make it. David Hackney, the brother who built family tragedy and a Who concert into a vision, wasn’t a compromise kind of guy. Ultimately A Band Called Death is about a family. David was the dreamer. Bobby and Dannis were the ones who had to say enough. Together and apart they experimented with different genres and different interpretations of what a music career meant.
I wanted to know more about Dannis and Bobby’s view of music. A Band Called Death was obviously intended as a tribute to David, who died before Death was rediscovered. It left me with the feeling that David was the band, that without David there is no Death. Yet that isn’t true. Bobby and Dannis are obviously talented musicians in their own right. The next generation embraces the musical legacy of their father and uncles. The Hackney family is not a one man operation. Their parents believed in their talent and supported it. In turn, the Hackney brothers tried to support each other. This is the real power of A Band Called Death. It’s not the dream of finding the talent everyone else overlooked, it’s about promises kept between brothers. It’s about recognizing the greatness and accepting the flaws.
The music is good. The film is enjoyable. The Hackney brothers are great. David’s DIY determination has paid off in posthumous recognition that he, as well as they, deserved a place in punk’s history. It’s not the one they could have had, but it’s one that lets them be heard now when so many other voices have been forgotten.
Final Assessment: Solid film about family bonds and closed doors. A
Source: Streaming on Amazon Prime