New life for a band called Death
By Herb Boyd
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Watching and experiencing the life and music of “A Band Called Death,” a documentary now at the Cinema Village in New York City, it’s hard not to think of “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Both documentaries track the incredible journeys of Detroit musicians who years after their first appearances with little or no recognition are suddenly the center of acclaim that eluded them in the past.
“Searching for Sugar Man,” starring Mexican American Rodriguez, a guitarist/composer, won an Oscar last year in the documentary category and provided the artist with sold-out tours over the last several years.
“A Band Called Death,” about three African American brothers whose leader spurned any attempts to change the band’s name, is currently enjoying a similar resurrection with an added boost from the offspring siblings of one of the brothers.
While Rodriguez’s re-emergence came as a result of his popularity in South Africa where his rock ‘n’ roll music was adopted by the anti-apartheid activists and used to fuel their struggle, Death’s present renown has largely grown from devoted fans and advocates who have promoted them as forerunners to the punk music expressed notably by the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and others.
Ironically, I knew both Rodriguez and David Hackney, the uncompromising leader of Death, when they were burgeoning musicians in Detroit. I often spent time with Rodriguez when he frequented Monteith College at Wayne State University where I taught. In those days, he was an itinerant, gypsy-like performer who lent his singing and playing to a variety of political causes or casual moments in my office. Later, he would earn a degree from the college.
I was the arts and entertainment editor at the Detroit Metro Times when David stopped by my office one day with a demo with the hopes of having it reviewed. I am still trying to remember the content of that discussion and if I assigned someone to review it or if I did it myself. Now that I’ve seen the documentary, I have all the motivation needed to return to those halcyon days.
Certainly, taking in 90 minutes of “A Band Called Death” may not be a trip to bountiful but older Detroiters, particularly those who were immersed in the sounds of the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and even Mitch Ryder will feel a rush of nostalgia.
And a very close listen to Death, who could have earned a contract with United Sound, a company owned by music mogul Don Davis, if they would have consented to change the name of the band, I am reminded of a sound and energy somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and the MC5.
The documentary, directed by Mark Christopher Covina and Jeff Howlett, relies mainly on interviews they conducted with Dannis and Bobby Hackney, the drummer and bassist, respectively.
They had very little archival footage to work with — and probably a limited budget — so they did what they could with stills, at least in the first two-thirds of the film. What saved the project were Bobby Hackney’s three sons, who upon discovering the band’s legacy set about to restore and extend it with a band called Rough Francis.
David, in securing the master tapes from Davis, told his brothers that one day their music would be heard by a larger audience.
Fortunately, the brothers held onto the property and after collectors became aware of the presumed seminal role of the band in punk music, the road to new-found fame was underway.
To recreate the band’s sound, guitarist Bobby Duncan was engaged to fill in for David who died of lung cancer in 2000. One of the film’s most moving scenes is when the brothers are emotionally wrought after hearing how precisely Duncan has captured their brother’s style. It’s a teary moment, and it’s not the only one in this warm, heartfelt documentary.
There’s much talk — and plenty of reports — about the “death” of Detroit, but if the economic front is dismal, the attention the city is getting from its cultural past, especially musically, is something to celebrate and possibly translate into a fresh breeze of renewal.
With all the celebration given to “Searching for Sugar Man” and “A Band Called Death,” you wonder what other forgotten, buried gems can be unearthed in a city on the verge of total collapse. All I can say is: You dig!?
“A Band Called Death” is currently playing at Birmingham 8 in the metro Detroit area.