The story of Death is one of the most triumphant in rock history. In 1973, Detroit brothers David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney started kicking out brawny jams in the vein of fellow Motor City hard-hitters MC5, the Stooges and Alice Cooper. The difference for the Hackney brothers? They were young African-American men who didn't fit in with the overwhelming white rock scene or with Motown's traditional R&B and soul community.
Still, in 1975, Columbia Records president Clive Davis funded Death's first recording session – but begged the brothers to adopt a more commercially digestible name. David Hackney, Death's creative and spiritual anchor, decided to decline, though, and the band released 500 copies of one single, "Politicians in My Eyes," with the B-side "Keep on Knocking." Two years later, the Hackney brothers moved to Vermont and started playing Christian rock and reggae. When David moved back to Detroit in 1982, Death was officially done, quietly ceding what should have been their due credit as proto-punk pioneers.
But in 2009, cult Chicago label Drag City Records rediscovered Death's original demos, shining a light on the Hackney brothers' propensity for unpredictable punk melodies and forward-thinking blasts of heavy rock. Critics fawned over the remastered and rereleased For the Whole World to See, and a fascinating documentary, appropriately named A Band Called Death, followed. And even though David Hackney succumbed to lung cancer in 2000, Bobby and Dannis saw a chance to honor his memory, recruiting longtime friend Bobbie Duncan to join the trio so they could present the work that their brother believed in so passionately.
After the subsequent release of two more archival records, an album of newly written material in 2015, and steady touring in the U.S. and overseas, Death pays a visit to Florida this week for the first time. "You've never seen us and we've never seen you, so it's going to be a get-to-know-each-other party," Dannis Hackney says. "We're looking forward to coming down South and rocking out. I'm still excited to see the reactions we get when we go somewhere new."
Surprisingly, that kind of optimistic spirit infused every second of Orlando Weekly's conversation with the brothers – as if waiting 35 years to finally earn your due were normal. "We always said that our first album and our tour would be called 'For the Whole World to See,'" Bobby Hackney says. "My brother David picked that moniker way back when, and it's still our mission today – playing that album for the whole world to see, even if it's in each place only once."
Even by today's hypercritical standards, Death's sound – a mix of primal R&B, psychedelic blues, jittery New Wave, funk and soul that predated genre-blenders like the Clash and the Ramones – boasts unmistakable swagger. Duncan chalks that up to the current trio's longstanding chemistry (he played with Bobby and Dannis Hackney in their reggae band, Lambsbread, for decades before Death re-formed). "When we record today, the approach is the same as it was for Bobby and Dannis and David in that first session in 1975," Duncan says. "Get mic'd up, plug in, and capture that magical performance. We interact together, which you miss in a lot of new music."
Death's music retains the venomous snarl it had in the mid-'70s, when the brothers Hackney were lighting it up to baffled Motor City crowds. Given the currently apocalyptic state of American affairs, a song like "Politicians in My Eyes" deserves its place in the halls of the new African-American History Museum at the Smithsonian. Speaking with Orlando Weekly the night before Donald Trump was inaugurated, Bobby Hackney said, "We rehearsed about 20 minutes ago and played the most spirited version of that song in a long time. We appreciate everyone who made it one of the most popular songs on the internet during the election – it's going to be a hallmark song throughout the next four years. And I can believe that because our resolve has never changed."
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