Friday, August 08, 2014

Revitalized by the Resurrection of Death -- A Pioneering Punk Band, a Great Documentary and the Beauty of Life's Surprises

I am much more a fan of individuality and self-expression than I am conformity and conservatism.

I'm glad I never attended a school that required me to wear a uniform, and uncaring if my penchant for wearing black concert t-shirts well into my 40s gets me pegged as forever unhip (or worse).

But I have never felt inclined to get an earring (or any other piercings), a tattoo or even a haircut--or lack thereof--much different than all my other haircuts.

Aside from t-shirts, I have always been most comfortable in off-brand polos, jeans, khakis and shorts.

So even when music-centric style-distinguishers may have meant something, I never would have been described as New Wave, Metal, Goth, Punk, Grunge, Hip-Hop, Country or anything else, despite liking many of these genres and more.

In the early-90s, I lived in L.A. and worked at an advertising agency with a bunch of rather unique individuals, though none were really defined by their way of dress. 

An artist named Mark Vallen, who was about a decade or so older than me, had previously been a devout follower--and through his gift for illustration, a chronicler--of L.A.'s early punk scene, whose acts included the Germs, X, Fear, Deadbeats, Dickies, Weirdos, Circle Jerks, Black Flag and Perry Farrell, well before his Jane's Addiction days.

You can see many of Mark's punk portraits on his Art-for-a-Change website, which also features a terrific blog combining activism and art, often including powerful & poignant works by Vallen himself.

On his site, Mark writes of having "frequented the legendary Masque, L.A.'s infamous first punk club" (where he saw several of the aforementioned bands) and changing his appearance "almost daily, from mismatched thriftstore clothes and shaved head to black leather motorcycle jacket and modified mohawk haircut."

When I met him at the ad agency, he was significantly more sedate in his dress if not his passions. Already a fan of the "big" punk bands--Ramones, Clash, Sex Pistols--and fascinated by what I knew of the rise of punk and L.A.'s storied place in it, I was gifted a terrific mix tape by Mark (I wish I still had it) and asked him this question:
"Could I have gone to an early L.A. punk club looking essentially as I do now?"
(in 1991-92, as with 2014, meaning with a normal haircut, t-shirt, jeans, no piercings/tattoos)
Mark's answer was: "No."

Perhaps I could have paid my money and gotten in, but there was a strong likelihood that I would have been harassed, outcast, pushed around, beaten up and asked or encouraged to leave.

This didn't completely shock me, but I was, and remain, struck by the dichotomy that "the punks"--one of the most celebrated groups of non-conformists the world has ever seen--would essentially insist on conformity.

I couldn't help think about this story since becoming aware, just this past Wednesday, of the existence--circa 1973-1978--of a band that played music in the vein of the Ramones, Damned, Buzzcocks, Germs, Black Flag and other pioneer punk icons BEFORE any of those bands existed or at least recorded.

Comprised of three brothers from Detroit--David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney--the band was called Death.

As you can see by the accompanying photos, the brothers are African-American and didn't dress "punk." But perhaps that's because they preceded the term. 

Undoubtedly there are many great bands that I am oblivious to--particularly from they heyday of punk, when relatively few bands rose above the din and became known to the mainstream, even in retrospect.

My friend Dave, who went to college in So Cal in the late 70s, just cited some L.A. punk favorites I never knew: Alleycats, Plugz, Agent Orange, Suburban Lawns.

And though the vast musical knowledge of my friend Todd--who leads a band called Hop on Pop, which you can hear on Spotify--prompted me to join a Facebook group called What Are You Listening To?, largely because there's nothing I like more than learning of music I should know, he and other members post about so many artists unknown to me that it's hard to follow up on any.

But Wednesday, one of Todd's posts to What Are You Listening To? said simply this:

That is all.

My attention caught, I noted that Comments cited and proclaimed a documentary titled A Band Called Death, which Todd echoed as being his initiation to the long-forgotten band. 

I started my exploration by looking up Death on and learned that although their first album--...For the Whole World to See--was released in 2009, it consists of 7 songs recorded within a couple years of the band's formation in 1973.

Not finding the album on Spotify, I bought the MP3 version on Amazon.
Hearing the first song, "Keep on Knocking," was one of those "Holy Shit!" moments that, as a music lover, you live for.
Though not precisely, it sounded akin to the Ramones' first album--oft considered the first true punk record--or songs by the Buzzcocks or "New Rose" by the Damned. But seemingly, staggeringly, it pre-dates any of those.

Liking the rest of ...For the Whole World to See--though it includes a couple less thrashy tunes--I found that the A Band Called Death documentary (released in 2012 and more widely in 2013) is available via Netflix instant streaming.

So I watched it.

If you care, you deserve to have the same revelatory experience as I did, so I will reveal only that two of the three Hackney brothers are still alive, that they were well-aware and oft-reminded how abnormal it was for them to play hard-edged rock and not R&B, soul or other "black music" despite living in Motown, that their choice of band name was unpopular and detrimental to their career and that cited influences included the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Alice Cooper and Queen (with other proto-punk Detroit-area acts like The Stooges and MC5 unmentioned but quite possibly apt).

And that Death is now reborn.

Though the documentary directed by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett is really terrific and certainly seems to have amplified the resurrection of Death, as the film depicts it was a series of odd coincidences--and a second generation of Hackney musicians--that brought Death back to life within the past 6 years.

Perhaps I should have heard of ...For the Whole World to See in 2009 when it supposedly got some good reviews, but thanks to Todd, I'm glad I have now. (I won't elaborate here, but for me such catalysts are prime examples of how the Internet and Facebook are supposed to abet one's existence.)

Having played it constantly, I can tell you that many of the tracks are excellent well beyond the novelty of discovery.

"Politicians in Their Eyes," which Death recorded in 1975 and wound up self-publishing as a 45 with "Keep on Knocking" on the B-side, shows that not only was the band stylistically ahead of its time, but that the Hackney brothers were writing strident condemnations of politics, war and other social  injustices well before Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten started doing so.

I've now also bought the second album of old Death songs, 2011's Spiritual / Mental / Physical--it too is good, but in a more-of-what-made-the-first-one-great vein--and I expect I'll soon feel compelled to do likewise with III, released earlier this year.

Though I'll never stop hoping to hear new music that really gets me excited, the truth is that anything old that you don't know can seem entirely new. In that vein, in just a matter of days, the music of Death--plus their story and entire existence--has brought me considerable joy on multiple levels.

Even if this sounds a whole lot like the story of another lost-to-history Detroit musician as told in another 2012 documentary--one that got a lot more attention and an Academy Award--I assure you that though Rodriguez and Searching for Sugar Man are extraordinary and heart-warming in their own right, A Band Called Death is just as incredible. 

And a remarkable reminder that many of the most amazing and rewarding people, places, things, etc., that we can come across are those that don't conform to the expectations of others. Or even ourselves.  

Who knew Death could be so life-affirming?

The following articles on Death may also be of interest, but I suggest seeing the movie first:
New York Times (2009)   |    Movie Review on (not by Roger)   |   Wikipedia

And here's a YouTube audio-only clip of "Keep on Knocking":

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