Black musicians did a lot of great things in Detroit in the '60s and '70s. Rock and roll -- much less anything that would later be called punk -- wasn't always one of them. At SXSW this year, though, a band was on display that defies that notion: Death, a fraternal trio and a rare group that can justly support the claim "best band you've never heard."
Death was born in the east Detroit home of the Hackney family. Brothers Dannis, Bobby and David, like so many boomer-era musicians, started playing in the early 1970s as the Rock Fire Funk Express. But after witnessing concerts by the Who and fellow Detroiter Alice Cooper, the brothers threw their lot with their city's other musical heroes, punk-rock icons like the MC5 and Iggy Pop. The Hackney brothers then began writing taut, propulsive rock 'n' roll -- truly great stuff -- which, until a slightly miraculous rediscovery a few years ago, was heard by practically no one.
The story of the band's derailed promise and eventual obscurity is told ably in a documentary screening at SXSW, "A Band Called Death." Blessed with a rich tale, director-producer Jeff Howlett basically leans back and lets the golden plot points unfold one after another.
Opening with gushing praise from the likes of Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra and -- was that Elijah Wood?! -- "A Band Called Death" charts the emergence of this family band and the, for the times, unusual shift from R&B to rock and roll.
"Then the Who came to town," Dannis Hackney says, pausing to emphasize some unspoken gravitas of that moment, "and when I saw Alice Cooper, all bets were off. I said, 'If we ain't playing this, then we ain't gonna be having no fun.'"
Singer David Hackney, however, sought to express through the band's new music his own complex cosmology, which included some positive notions about the rebirth and transformation potential in death. Thus, he insisted on the name.
That made Death pretty much dead on arrival.
The band's first producer in Detroit, former Stax musician Don Davis, recalls in the film telling the band: "Have you lost your mind? Nobody is going to buy a song from a group called D-E-A-T-H," spelling out what apparently was still an uncomfortable moniker.
The trio's music caught the ear of hitmaker Clive Davis, who was ready to sign the band to Arista -- as long as they changed the name. David refused to budge, insisting (with definitely punkish integrity) that the sacrifice would be a slippery slope. Bobby Hackney, in an earlier interview, recalled, "He said, 'If they make us change our name, then every little thing they see in us they're gonna wanna change -- the music, the style, the concept. Once we change that name, we belong to them. Once we give in to that, Death is, well, dead.'"
Credibility intact, Death still died. They did, however, manage to secure the master recordings of what was to be the debut Death album. Attempts to release songs independently failed, and the brothers relocated to Vermont and formed a reggae band. David Hackney died in 2000, after insisting that his brothers hold on to those masters, saying, "One day the world's gonna come looking for this."
Amazingly, that's exactly what happened.
Biafra, a rabid record collector, bought a box of singles several years ago: Death's lone indie 45, "Politicians in My Eyes." He mentioned it in an interview. The writer posted the single online as an mp3. Word began spreading of its awesomeness.
Then the rediscovery came full circle. Bobby Hackney Jr. -- clearly still dazed and amazed by this as he relates the story in the film -- hears the song, likes it, and has no idea it's his dad until he goes as far as to Google some background. He calls home: "Dad, why didn't you tell me??!!"
This is 2008, and the following year momentum has built enough that Chicago-based label Drag City assists the Hackney brothers in restoring those old masters and finally releasing the debut Death album, titled "...For All the World to See." Another compilation of early demos followed.
This week at SXSW, in addition to the documentary screenings, two bands played showcases: Death, featuring surviving brothers Dannis and Bobby with two extra players, and Rough Francis, a deadly new generation featuring Bobby Hackney Jr., Julian Hackney and Urian Hackney.
Even better: Death will live again on a new record, titled "Relief," in the works now.