It was 1971 in downtown Detroit, a few good years before the dawn of punk, and three young African American brothers — David Hackney (guitars, vocals), Bobby Hackney (bass, vocals), and Dennis Hackney (drums) — were escaping the tension and instability of the era by playing their loud, angular music in an upstairs bedroom from 3 to 6 p.m. every day while their parents waited patiently for practice time to end. They started out calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express, but after they saw the Who in concert, they changed their name to Death and turbo-charged their songs.
Maybe Death weren’t full-on punk in the vein of the Ramones, the Dead Boys, or the Sex Pistols, but they were fast and furious, combining the revolutionary spirit of MC5 and the Stooges with the musicality of funk acts like Parliament and classic rockers like Bob Seeger and Alice Cooper. And their proto-punk lyrics addressed the motives of politicians, the horrors of war, and the hardships they faced trying to get noticed. Songs like “Politicians in my Eyes,” with its half-talked, half-screamed vocals, rolling basslines, and abrupt guitar stabs (before the melodic chorus), and “Freakin Out,” propelled by a galvanic blues riff, more jagged guitar work, and speedy, confrontational vocals, were especially aggressive for the mid-‘70s.
“When Death was doing rock ‘n’ roll music in the ‘70s, we were high school kids and when we walked down the street we feared for our lives,” Bobby Hackney tells Yahoo Music. “It wasn’t inner-city violence we were concerned about so much. The biggest fear a kid had in the mid-‘60s to the early ‘70s, if you was between the ages of 16 and 18, was getting drafted and going to the Vietnam War. We were seeing our friends coming home in body bags. We were having fun and we loved playing, but we were definitely angry about what we saw going on around us.”
Forty-plus years later, Death (not to be mistaken with the ‘80s pioneering death metal band Death) have relocated to tranquil Vermont, but the band — which replaced frontman David Hackney with Bobby Duncan in 2009 nine years after frontman David Hackney died of lung cancer — are still motivated by the desire for social and political change. In some ways, life is tremendously different than when they were forced to spend all their time in the ‘70s recording and rehearsing, since no clubs would book them and most labels weren’t interested in signing them.
Today, numerous black musicians play in rock bands, and groups with more graphically violent names than Death regularly tour the world. What hasn’t changed is that incidents of street violence are still common, and countless soldiers — many from Michigan – are still killed in conflicts overseas. The current state of the world inspired Duncan to write the new Death song “Cease Fire”; the track will be available across the U.S. on Record Store Day (Saturday, April 22).
“I felt like just putting something down to speak to the people about what’s going on in the world,” Duncan says. “It wasn’t like I had to think too deep, because every time you turned around there was something happening in the news. I wanted to put out something that will ring in people’s ears, to kind of wake them up so we can go in a different, more positive direction or maybe help turn things around a little.”
“When Bobby [Duncan] presented the song to us, we got behind it 100 percent, because it reminded us that what’s going on today is kind of like what went on in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” adds Hackney.
“Cease Fire” weaves jazz chords and strings through a rubbery bassline and multifaceted vocals. On the whole, it’s more diverse and musically developed than the songs off the band’s debut, For the Whole World to See — which was recorded in 1974 and finally released in 2009 — yet it carries the same charge.
“I wrote the song two and a half years ago when I was sitting on my bed practicing my guitar,” Duncan recalls. “I thought the riff sounded pretty good, and when I started playing it with the other guys, it just started growing. I had this little melody and an idea and it went from there. In total, it took about a month to compose because I wanted to take the time to make it right.”
Endless patience has been a paramount element of Death’s career. When the band seemed to run out of steam in 1977 following the release of a single seven-inch of “Politicians in my Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking,” the Hackneys kept playing music, first as the gospel rock group the 4th Movement, and even after David returned to Detroit in 1992 his brothers persevered as the reggae outfit Lambsbread.
It wasn’t until after David died that Bobby Hackney’s sons heard the “Politicians in my Eyes” seven-inch and started covering their family’s music in a band called Rough Francis. By then, Detroit clubs were more open to booking black punk rockers, and with a little exposure, the underground finally started to open to Death. Record collectors sought out their seven-inch, and in early 2009 Drag City released For the World to See, which comprised previously unheard recordings that had been collecting dust in an attic.
But the greatest catalyst for Death came when directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino approached the Hackett’s about making a movie. In 2012, the touching and inspiring documentary A Band Called Death came out, and the band’s following grew considerably.
A couple days before the release of “Cease Fire,” Yahoo Music connected with Death to talk about growing up in Detroit, their first exposure to rock music, their very first gig, the race riots of 1967, what we’ve learned since then and their upcoming plans.
YAHOO MUSIC: You grew up right down the street from Motown and were into soul and gospel music. What turned you on to punky rock ‘n’ roll?
DENNIS HACKNEY: There were a couple of incidents where me and my brother David discovered a different path by going to concerts that we had never encountered before. I was accidentally, and then on purpose, caught in an Alice Cooper concert. And a couple months later, we all went to see the Who. And between those two, that’s what steered us into the direction of what we called back then “the actual rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s when we became Death. And then we started writing our songs and playing too loud and fighting with the neighbors.
There was such a vibrant and volatile scene in Detroit back then, with bands like Alice Cooper, MC5, and the Stooges. What’s the wildest thing that happened at one of your shows?
BOBBY HACKNEY: To be honest with you, we never really played much shows because we went through a lot of rejection. But once our brother David, in his infinite wisdom, decided to book us at an all-black cabaret and they wanted to hear rhythm & blues. Here we were trying to play our rock ‘n’ roll. And of course, every time, we’d hit them with this rock ‘n’ roll crescendo to end the song. And after we’d finish the song you could hear a pin drop.
Did that lack of interest keep you from playing gigs?
BOBBY HACKNEY: No one would book us! So we just stuck to doing a lot of rehearsing and a lot of studio work. I think that kind of paid off for us, because we had a wealth of recorded music because that was really all that we could do. Even though all that we had was these little cassette machines and a couple reel-to-reel machines, we were just going nuts recording.
Did you like the Detroit music scene, or did you feel like outcasts?
BOBBY HACKNEY: Are you kidding? Detroit was magic. You had Motown, Bob Seeger, Grand Funk Railroad, Funkadelic, all these great singing groups. And on top of that we had Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges. The wonderful thing about Detroit is everybody in Detroit had the good standing belief that we all worked and lived together. And I think that kinship was extended from the automobile factories. There was every culture, every walk of life, and that helped create the pulse of the city. We used to go see Bob Seeger at the Detroit Auto Show when he had his group the Last Heard. Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes were there and the Rationals and all these great wonderful rock ‘n’ roll Detroit bands. Those were magic times.
What’s the strangest recording session you can remember?
BOBBY HACKNEY: When we were recording For the Whole World to See at United Sounds, George Clinton and Funkadelic were recording Mothership Connection at the same time and that was quite an experience. George was just cool, man. He didn’t say a lot. But when them guys came into the studio, it was like a three-ring circus. They brought everything with them. They brought props. The girls would come in. There’d be a wall of pampers for the babies. They would literally move into the studio. Funkadelic didn’t come in to do a session they actually took over.
Were you in Detroit when the riots happened?
DENNIS HACKNEY: We lived two houses away from a playground at the Lillybridge School, and that’s where the National Guard was encamped at the time of the riots. We were actually paperboys. But we sold our papers at night, because that’s the time when the factories let out. And in the city there were bars lined up and down the street. That was exciting because you could go into a blues bar and then you could go into a country & western bar, and there was such a bevy of different things, it made selling the papers fun. So we were selling papers while the riots were going on all around us.
Did you ever have any run-ins with the National Guard?
DENNIS HACKNEY: We used to come home and walk down the alley in the back of our house. One day we were playing around and we came in running down the alley– and little did we know as we were running down the alley, the soldiers were running towards us. We just stopped and held up our hands and dropped our papers and they was like, “Don’t you know there’s a curfew?” And we said, “We live right there!” It was just three houses away. We got off lucky that night.
As wonderful as the Detroit music of the ‘60s and ‘70s was, there was an undercurrent of violence.
BOBBY DUNCAN: There’s always been street violence. Even though there might be a specific lyric in our songs which might ring or chime about something that might happen today, it’s not just about Detroit and it’s not just in America. People have been dying in churches for years. People go in the church for sanctuary. Next thing you know, the church blows up… It’s just how the world is, and we’re just laying it out for you.
Can music help unite different kinds of people with opposing political or theological views?
BOBBY HACKNEY: Absolutely. It’s the legacy of what rock ‘n’ roll has done for the world and for our country, and that’s a powerful thing. We always say, “Long live rock ‘n’ roll!” and “God bless rock ‘n’ roll!” Sometimes it starts to sound like a cliché. But if you take away rock ‘n’ roll, man, the whole ‘60s thing and ’70s thing would have been different. John Lennon was right, man. And Bob Dylan was right. These guys, when they wrote songs, they had meaning. What they were saying changed people’s lives. “Give Peace a Chance,” man. C’mon. I mean, today give peace a chance. We need that shining light, and if nobody else can say it, then artists, musicians, and poets have to say it and we will always say it.
How significantly did the movie A Band Called Death jumpstart your career?
BOBBY HACKNEY: That helped us quite a bit, but even before the movie, when the music was getting discovered, it was amazing how many people from around the world was reaching out to us and saying how much they loved the album. The funny thing was when Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino approached us about the movie, we thought they wanted to make a music video! We had no idea it would turn into such a masterpiece. And that’s a tribute to those guys coming into our family. Basically, they became Hackneys for almost five years.
Did the movie expose Death to people who would otherwise never have heard of you?
BOBBY HACKNEY: Most definitely. Andre 3000 just wore our shirt to the Super Bowl. We’ve had support from Metallica; we got to open for them when they played a festival in Detroit. Howard Stern’s a fan now. It’s just been amazing. And a lot of Detroit musicians say they wish they discovered us back in the day. When you get the nod from your fellow musicians, that’s a sacred compliment.
What did you do after the movie came out to keep the band going?
DENNIS HACKNEY: For a while we stayed in the studio and recorded. Because, as my brother Bob said, we went through a lot of disappointment with production companies and them sending the music out to record companies around the world and everybody seemingly collectively said, “No, we don’t like the name. Their music is too fast. And who are these dudes, anyway?” After that happened, we just kind of laid back and stayed in the studio. So that’s what we were used to. It even took us a while to start touring and then we found out people really liked seeing us, which was a great feeling.
Do you have new songs ready for release besides “Cease Fire?”
DENNIS HACKNEY: Well, yeah. We have another single that’s coming out this summer. And we’re going to do a five or six-song EP of new music that we’re going to be putting out hopefully in the fall. We’re really enjoying rehearsing it and performing it and recording it. And hopefully the songs will speak to people.
BOBBY DUNCAN: And even though our name is Death and everything, we mean what we say in a positive way as well. Like, “Cease Fire” is not a protest song. It’s a song of awareness, a song of love. I don’t want to be preachy, but when you have a message and you put it to a melody, it transcends the words and becomes another thing. And that’s why Death’s songs transcend time.