By Jim Pace
Song: Keep on Knocking
Genre: Proto Punk
In the early 70s, the Hackney brothers were playing R & B in their parents' garage, but after seeing Alice Cooper and The Who, respectively, they decided to become a hard rock band. Bobby handled the vocals and bass, Dannis was on drums and David was the group’s guitarist and primary songwriter.
As an African-American hard rock band who called themselves Death, living in a mostly black Detroit neighborhood, their shows were often met with an unenthusiastic response. The more they gigged, however, the more popular they had become, but the band's primary focus was to make a record.
After literally throwing a dart at the yellow pages studio listings, they settled on Groovesville Productions, which was owned by Don Davis, a successful producer for Stax Records. Groovesville signed the band, and in 1974 they began recording a 12 song demo. They would complete only seven songs.
Don Davis brought the demo to Clive Davis at Arista, who liked their music but wanted them to change the band's name otherwise there would be no deal.
David Hackney’s response was quick and to the point, "Hell, no!" They were young, brash and confident they would get another deal.
It is this middle finger moment, combined with the great demos, that have made the band true underground legends. In a business where artists will pretty much do anything to get signed, including firing its members, Death walked away, artistic integrity intact.
With the demo sessions dead in the water, the Hackneys pressed 500 copies of “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking” under their own Tryangle label, and sent it to the local radio stations.
But in 1976 Donna Summer was catching fire, Don Davis was producing Johnny Taylor's soon-to-be number one single, "Disco Lady," Saturday Night Fever was around the corner, and a tidal wave known as disco was about to wash away any black artist who was not laying down dance beats.
Dejected, the Hackney brothers relocated to Vermont to clear their heads, eventually recording two albums as a gospel rock band called 4th Movement. David became homesick and returned to Detroit in 1982, while Bobby and Dannis stayed in Burlington and formed a popular reggae band.
A year before his death in 2000, David gave Bobby some old demos. When Bobby told him he had enough of their stuff already, David said, “No, Bobby, you gotta do this. Listen, the world's gonna come looking for this music. I know that you will have it.”
In 2009, Bobby’s son Julian was at a party in San Francisco, when he recognized his father's voice on a song that was playing. His father never talked about his music, but had mentioned the band's name. Bobby Jr. Googled "Death" and was shocked to learn the Tryangle single had achieved mythic status.
Bobby’s sons started a Death tribute band. Drag City Records released a seven song demo For the Whole World To See to universal acclaim, including Jack White of the White Stripes, who wrote, “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Ahead of punk and ahead of their time.”
The documentary A Band Called Death debuted at The LA Film Fest in June 2012 to critical success. Bobby and Dannis reformed Death and released another album of demo material.
Just as David Hackney had predicted, the world came looking for their music.
Today, many artists market themselves as “rebels," but only if it’s profitable. In truth, they themselves have become the establishment. They will sell shoes, water, headphones, cologne, hair dye, etc. And if you happen to be a thirteen year old fan who got a hold of that 99 cent single without paying for it, they will attempt to have you shipped to prison.
These so-called "rebels" talk a lot about artistic integrity, but let’s be serious, 35 years from now will anyone be talking about how badass that hair dye commercial was?
So enjoy the Rolls Royce and all the perfume money. But if you're looking for the type of respect and admiration that Death has found, you can keep on knocking.
But it's not for sale.
(Jim Pace is a musician and filmmaker living in NY.)