(from left) Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney and Bobbie Duncan
you won't believe what this virtually unknown 1970's punk band is doing now
A Summer 2015 Yukon Prospector Web Extra
Death isn’t making a comeback, they simply never were. It wasn’t until the band was well into their 50s that they started touring internationally. By that time one of the key members— the man with the plan — had died of lung cancer.
Starting this late in life isn’t something many bands get to do. Especially for the type of music Death plays. You don’t see a lot of record companies investing in virtually unknown, near-retirement-age rock stars. The reason guys like Robert Plant and Mick Jagger still tour is because they’ve spent decades building a fan base. Chances are you’ve never heard of Death.
But you should have. The band formed in 1971 Detroit with three brothers: David (guitar), Bobby (bass and vocals) and Dannis Hackney (drums). It’s their original sound which has them touring now because it’s arguably the first instance of “punk” the world never heard.
Dannis, Bobby and Bobbie Duncan (who plays guitar in lieu of the late David) sit around a pop-up plastic table backstage at the Atlin Arts and Music Festival. The stop is part of their forever-ongoing “World Tour”. Looking at the three men, you’d never guess they were all around 60. They have the youthful exuberance of men a third their age, and the energy they have on stage stays with them well after their set. As we talk they bust jokes, and laugh together. They seem genuinely happy to be doing what they are. Even though their younger selves got a bit of a raw deal.
The band actually deny Death’s “protopunk” status. They weren’t consciously part of the movement towards the bare-bones garage rock. All they wanted to do was play “hard-driving Detroit rock and roll” says Bobby.
“We wanted to be like Bob Seger, Grand Funk, Alice Cooper, The Who. Those were the guys we were looking up to,” says Bobby. “Death” was David’s idea.
The name took inspiration from The Doors. When David was selling the idea to his skeptical brothers, he kept asking “what do you think Morrison meant when he said ‘break on through to the other side’” says Bobby. "The Door" as David saw it, was death. Something we all have to go through and shouldn't be afraid of - more of a transition than an ultimate demise.
In 1975 Death recorded seven tracks with funding from Columbia President Clive Davis, says Bobby. However, when they refused to change their name, Davis cut funding.
“A lot of people say ‘well was it because you were three brothers playing rock and roll?’ But that wasn’t it. You had Jimmy Hendrix, the Chambers Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, you had all these great groups back then. It wasn’t really an issue of race as much as it was our name. The name Death,” says Bobby. “And maybe because we played our music a little too fast.”
Dannis says Davis asked them to change their name to “anything else”. But they refused.
“It’s like David said ‘once you give them this, what else are they going to ask for,’” says Dannis.
The next year the ever-prescient David got back the masters they recorded, and the band self-released 500 45s featuring Politicians in my Eyes and Keep on Knocking. These records would eventually take on the aura of mythic artifacts. DJ’s would salivate at turning musical history on its head (a Detroit band with a punk sound in 1975, crazy!) But back then no one would touch them. By 1977 the guys were moving in a different direction musically.
“The next thing we knew we had a knock on the door from the police, and he had all our posters balled up."
The three brothers moved to New England where they tried to keep the Death dream alive. The same resistance in Detroit met them in New England too.
Bobby recounts one story where they were approached by the police in Burlington, Vermont after David put up posters around town with only the band’s name and triangle symbol.
“The next thing we knew we had a knock on the door from the police, and he had all our posters balled up and he said ‘Hey, we don’t start gangs here.’ And we were like ‘wait a minute man! We’re a rock and roll band’” says Bobby. The cops retort was obvious. Bobby says they felt like the three stooges, going all around the world only to wind up with someone telling them the same thing: “Yeah, you oughta change that name.”
When Death didn’t find any traction, David changed the name to The Fourth Movement and they tried putting out rock-gospel albums. But they were just as rejected for those says Bobby.
“That’s when David got fed up,” says Dannis.
In 1982, he moved back to Detroit, without his brothers. Dannis and Bobby had started families and began to settle down, they didn’t want to move. From then it was a two year standoff, with David thinking the others would come back, and they thinking David would come back.
Neither played out, and eventually through their association with the University of Vermont, Dannis and Bobby began playing reggae.
“We met Peter Tosh and he gave us some sound advice. He told us if we’re playing bass and drums we better play reggae music,” says Bobby with a laugh.
They started Lambsbread in 1983, and by 1986 they were one of the most popular bands in New England and Vermont.
“You’ve heard of Phish?” asks Bobby. I had. “One of their first shows they played was with us at a place called Hunts.” For 20+ years they played reggae, bringing on guitarist Bobbie Duncan. Thinking the Death stuff was behind them. In late 2000 they were even debating settling down, and instead of touring across the country just becoming “weekend warriors” says Bobby.
“And then all of a sudden the Death story comes along. And we were being told that people all over the world [are] recognizing our music that we did in Detroit. So what do we do with this?”
It was in 2008. Bobby’s sons had unearthed their father’s music, and began playing it again. Outside the Hackney family, the 45 had assumed its mythological status. An anomaly in the punk timeline that many people believe started with bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Later in 2008, record company Drag City took notice of the Band. They released their 1970’s demo for the first time calling it For the Whole World to See. Since then the guys have been playing all over the world. There was even a documentary released about their story in 2013.
But before that, they had to decide if they wanted to get back into the music. “Bobbie has a good analogy for it. He says it’s like a couple that’s been considering divorce for a long time, and all of a sudden the wife gets pregnant,” says Bobby.
It took them a few months to wrap their heads around the idea of playing as Death again. And they didn’t even know if guitarist Bobbie was up for it. And then one day at practice, “as if god were talking” to them, Bobbie starts laying out Doobie Brothers licks. “And we look at each other and we’re like Yeeeeeeaaaahhh,” says Dannis.
The next practice, Bobby came downstairs without his typical smile, kind of frowning. “And he says ‘I’ve got something I gotta talk to you about’. And I’m like ‘what is is?’ And he keeps saying uhhhhhh I don’t know, I don’t know. Then he tells me what was going on. I’ve been a musician since probably I could walk strait, so I was like ‘lets do it!” says Bobbie.
Bobbie says he was doing cartwheels with the music after he heard a few tracks. (To this I will attest, he shreds it up on stage. A consummate guitarist.) “It’s not like we had to dust off the instruments,” he says, “We just turned off the reggae switch and turned the rock and roll switch on.”
Rock stars never retire man. I’ll probably die up on stage
It was an emotional time getting back into the music for Dannis and Bobby. “It was a heck of a thing to get over those first couple of practices,” says Dannis. Bobby says he had to stop the first practice after hearing Bobbie play when a flood of memories caused a river of emotion.
“The last time I heard that music played was by David and when Bobbie plays those licks and I close my eyes it’s like he’s right in the room with us,” says Bobby.
Yet the guys say it was like jumping on your old bicycle. “It was such a magical time, and it didn’t take us long at all to connect with that whole vibe. What we remembered and the great times we had. Even when we play this music now it takes me back to those wonderful times in the 70’s,” says Bobby.
They’re bringing the rest of the world with them. Bobby says if it takes them the rest of their lives to play everywhere in the world, that’s what they’re going to do. They won’t run out of music anytime soon. The guys say they wrote tons of songs with David when they were first starting out. Even their new album N.E.W is original material.
There’s also a good chance you’ll get to see them live. After Atlin, the band goes on to play a slew of shows, including Riotfest in Chicago. Their music will also be inducted into the Smithsonian and there’s little chance the guys are going to stop touring any time soon - not when they’re finally getting the recognition they deserve.
“Rock stars never retire man. I’ll probably die up on stage,” says Bobby.
Check out the bands documentary “A Band Called Death” to get a better idea of their story.
There’s also a book coming out called Rock and Roll Victims .
On a personal note, even if you take away all the history, they still rock it on stage. They played two shows in Atlin. One at night to a packed crowd of around 1000 people, moshing and jumping around. The other around noon to about 100 people listening intently. Both times the band brought a crazy amount of energy to the stage, and rocked it like they were playing Madison Square Gardens. I’d go see them in concert again any day. All three are excellent musicians, who stay tight and on point. Their love for their music shines in what they’re doing.
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