By Darren Johnson
What would you do if, for a large sum of money, the biggest publisher in the industry said that they would buy your book … or the biggest art buyer your painted canvas … or the biggest music producer in the industry your album, if, and only if…
You would change your name.
That was the issue three brothers from Detroit were faced with in the mid-1970s. And what happened when their lead singer refused plunged them into despair and obscurity.
Thus is the key moment in the documentary recently posted on Netflix, “A Band Called Death,” as the atypical trio had a bona fide offer from Clive Davis but the band’s heart and soul, David Hackney, wouldn’t budge on the name.
He felt that the name went hand-in-hand with the band’s concept.
This is a review not only of the documentary, but also Death’s lone album, as with documentaries of this sort, the music goes hand-in-hand and the responsible reviewer immerses himself in both.
And I really wanted to hate the previously lost Death: “For the Whole World to See” album.
I had just seen the “A Band Called Death” documentary, which had some samples from the album, but not enough to tell if it were good or not, and had seen previous documentaries with the same theme.
Previously, I reviewed the documentary about forgotten band Pentagram (“Last Days Here”), where the band was revived many years later by obscure record collectors. “Searching for Sugarman” had a similar idea. That movie got a lot of press, so I did not review it.
I sought out both the Pentagram and Rodriguez albums after these inspiring documentaries — who doesn’t like the idea of an artist who almost made it decades ago being pulled from obscurity? — and while their albums were very good, they certainly were of their era.
So the documentary “A Band Called Death” seemed to have a similar recipe as those two docs, and I expected the lone, failed album from that group to be decent, but a bit over-hyped. I was completely wrong.
“For the Whole World to See,” available on vinyl LP, CD or probably by download, is fantastic and truly one of a kind. I bought the LP, new, off of eBay.
The documentary tells the story of three African-American musicians who developed a very unique brand of punk at least a couple of years before the punk movement started. If their album were published then, it could be argued that Death invented punk, but it wasn’t.
The album itself — released finally just a couple of years ago — is outstanding and the seven songs on it surely can compete with any seven random songs by the Ramones, the band we all can agree perfected punk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Also a band of brothers, the Ramones and Death seem to be very close together in sound, even though neither group had heard of the other.
In the early 1970s, as Death was forming, there was hard rock and the beginnings of heavy metal, and Death does seem to be influenced by that, and the songs also have an ethereal quality at times, like Hendrix’s posthumous “The Cry of Love” album. An older brother refers to it as “white boy music” in the film.
The fact that Death was in Detroit plays into this. Detroit was the home to America’s most prominent and mainstream recording labels, such as Motown, of course, but there were labels that handled black acts and white acts.
But what about a black band that plays music that is considered white?
Punk surely is a genre that is white, and had its bases in New York and Southern California. Even racist elements sometimes crept in, thus a reactive song by the group The Dead Kennedys, “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”
So being black, let alone not in New York or L.A., doomed Death. They were allowed to record — but when they wouldn’t compromise on the name, they were given their master tapes back, which sat in a box for three decades in an attic.
And regular readers of mine know I really like this genre. I run the 1980s punk/alternative online station 631Radio and do go through a lot of forgotten gems to pick some to add to the playlist along with the songs we all know from that genre and era. I have added a couple of Death songs to the 631Radio playlist, as they deserve to be there.
Watching this film, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if?”
By the late 1970s, there were lots of bands with crazy names. Eventually, a heavy metal band took the more extreme name Megadeath. The band Living Color was an African-American band in that genre who had commercial success. One of Living Color’s members is interviewed in the film.
I would think in a city like New York, if Death hit the hardcore clubs like CBGBs, they would have made a name for themselves and had big time success. Their sound is that strong and unique.
But, his dream deferred, David Hackney went into depression and alcholism while his more compromising brothers went on to be weekend reggae musicians and maintaining menial jobs by day. David would die young, but still had the belief that those master tapes would be heard one day.
So, here’s your chance. Queue up “A Band Called Death” on Netflix and then get a copy of their LP “For the Whole World to See.” And play it LOUD.