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Music

The story of Death: The most influential punk band you've probably never heard of

Every so often, a band or musical artist re-emerges from the annals of history and finally gets the praise that they deserve. Be it Nick Drake, John Martyn or even groups such as American Football, music is a strange beast in the sense that if artists are ahead of their time, they can be forgotten, only to be picked up when society has finally moved on to the same point.

Then we have Death, a group who slightly fit into this category, and are now hailed by everyone in the know. However, speaking in terms of their groundbreaking music alone, Death still does not get the plaudits they deserve. The band were punk two years before punk came around, and as one of the first properly ‘underground’ bands, they were highly influential. 

However, the Detroit band would only exist for three years between 1974 and 1977 on their original run, and their efforts would be largely forgotten until the 2000s. As a result, the bands who came after them, such as Ramones and Sex Pistols, were wrongly hailed as the first true punks. 

Although you could argue that New York Dolls were also punk before everyone else, they were lauded on both sides of the Atlantic and there’s a solid claim to be made that musically, they weren’t punk at all. Instead, it was their radical personas that would fit into the category that would be labelled ‘punk’ by the end of the 1970s.

Comprised of brothers Bobby, David and Dannis Hackney, Death first started out as a funk band named Rock Fire Funk Express but, after some consideration, switched to rock after watching The Who live in concert and being galvanised by Alice Cooper records, another of Detroit’s most-well respected sons. 

The band’s late guitarist, David, has been hailed as the one who pushed the trio into adopting their more aggressive style that predated the dawn of punk. It was also David who convinced his brothers to change their name to Death in 1974 after the sudden demise of their father in an accident. Doing what visionaries often do, David wanted to flip the meaning of the word. In 2010, Bobby recalled: “His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell”. 

This was to be the defining moment in the band’s history. It marked them out from their peers in other all-Black bands, and the scene was set for them to tear up the rulebook. Not since Hendrix had a Black musical artist been so pioneering, and so willing to set fire to the established order. 

In 1975, the band recorded seven songs at United Sound Studios in Detroit. Per an account by the band, the president of Columbia Records, Clive Davis, funded the sessions, but persisted in telling the band that they had to change their name to something marketable. 

Iconoclastic to the core, the brothers refused, so Davis retracted his support. As a result, the band only recorded seven out of the 12 songs they planned to. In 1976, they released their now-iconic masterpiece ‘Politicians In My Eyes’, which was backed by ‘Keep on Knocking’ on their label Tryangle Records, and due to financial reasons, this run was of only 500 units. 

When listening to ‘Politicians In My Eyes’, you instantly realise just how ahead of their time they were. Dynamic, with hints of funk, it’s a melodic piece of rock that fuses the work of Love and Jimi Hendrix, to create something that remains refreshing to this day. Lyrically, it’s a middle finger up to the violence obsessed politicians of America. 

In the documentary Punk Before Punk Existed: A Band Called Death, Questlove of The Roots says: “Ramones got all the glory for what this is right here, and this is pretty much the Ramones, but two years earlier”.

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Supporting this idea, Mickey Leigh, brother of Ramones frontman Joey Ramone recalls hearing the band for the first time: “When I heard it, I just couldn’t believe that I’d never heard it before. It was the predecessor of what punk became”.

The band eventually broke up in 1977, and for 30-odd years, they became a true cult band. Copies of the ‘Politicians In My Eyes’ single circulated amongst collectors, as did the story of the band, and famously, they became so sought after that copies of the record were known to fetch $800 due to their rarity. 

Don Schwenk, a friend of the brothers, was commissioned to create the art for the album that never was, and was given a box of singles as thanks. It is he who was the source of the records reaching every corner of the country after the band’s split. 

It was as society moved into the digital age that fuelled talk of Death again. Two of the band’s songs made it onto Chunklet in 2008, and around this time, Bobby’s son, Julian, had moved to California and heard Death’s songs after a recommendation from a roommate. He instantly recognised his father’s voice. 

The news of Death’s rediscovery eventually reached the ears of Drag City Records, who contacted the band about the release of the album. The brothers got on board and sent the label a box of original master tapes. In 2009, the 1975 United Sound sessions were finally released on CD and vinyl under the title …For the Whole World to See

Wanting Death to reach a wider audience, Bobby’s sons, Julian, Urian and Bobby Jr., started a band called Rough Francis, named after a recording their late uncle David had made. They covered Death’s songs after learning them from the handful of MP3s that had made it online. 

Death’s reemergence didn’t stop there either. A March 2009 article in The New York Times by Mike Rubin, covered one of Rough Francis’ shows, and the history of Death, which introduced the band to a wave of new listeners. Mickey Leigh read the story and invited both bands to play the birthday party of Joey Ramone, and so, Death were finally starting to earn some of the plaudits they had long deserved. 

The band reformed in September 2009, with Lambs Bread guitarist Bobbie Duncan taking David’s place. Ever since the band have been active, Spiritual • Mental • Physical was released in 2011, which was followed by III in 2014. The following year, in 2015, they released N.E.W.

In the documentary Punk Before Punk Existed: A Band Called Death, Henry Rollins, the ex-frontman of hardcore legends, Black Flag said: “It’s just one of those great music stories. It’s one of those things that keeps you going to the record store, hoping for another great story like that, it’s why you listen to music”.

One of the greatest bands, with one of the greatest stories in music history, listen to ...For the Whole World to See and prepare to be blown away.