Triumvirate of Trouble: ‘A Band Called Death’ Review

“What do you think a trip is?”…. “The ultimate trip is death.” -David Hackney III

If you ask some, the inception of what we uniformly know as Punk was formed in 1974 at 430 King’s Road in London, England. However, that would send more seasoned music historians into histrionics, asserting that it unequivocally took the stage at 315 Bowery, New York, New York circa 1974. Still, tall tales would send those who drudge deeper into a tailspin- as they know the true primordial ooze from whence this chaotically beautiful and mellifluous movement came from was the 42nd Parallel, which Earth at this latitude is fittingly ROUGHLY the speed of sound.

Come Hilly or High Street, it was Detroit that claimed a band that was never noticed but came out just as august with undiluted anger about changing as did any of their more soon well-known constituents. No, I’m not talking about the MC5 or Iggy Pop. Welcome to not only black excellence but also something that is more punk than being famous, recording in fancy studios, and being what anybody isn’t expecting- the abdication of anything people want you to be. This is not only sticking to your guns but also clicking them, being mind-blowingly cooler when your body of work is exhumed from the grave and the realization that you were fucking amazing is the only sound heard. Welcome to the living history of A Band Called Death (Drafthouse Films).

Directed by documentarians Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett, the film begins with the brothers Hackney, both Dannis (third born/drums) and Bobby Sr., (youngest/singer/bassist), respectively. It’s present time and they are already talking to a friend about how loud and rambunctious their band was and if their brother David Hackney III (second born/lyricist/guitarist) was still with them, he’d be in guffaws right there with them. There were recordings that simply were languishing within the dank storages of an attic. These people not only need to hear their stories but need to hear them.

Thankfully, Brian was able to have the masters turned back to the group (which in this music industry is really a Sisyphean task.)

With such freedom, they printed up a limited 500 45’s of ‘Politicians In My Eyes’ b/w ‘Keep On Knockin’.
They had a few radio stations to spin them infrequently because their name was fucking DEATH… which threw them into DEBT.

For a few weeks, a distant relative named Donald Knight invited them up to Vermont for a few weeks to clear their heads and get things right. New town, new band, right?

Apparently, they had other things to say.. especially because in gothic letters it read Death with a black triangle. Now, this wasn’t a gang, as cops assumed, but rather a band. David wouldn’t change the name. That’s when Dannis and Bobby left, tired of it all.

However, David couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop. He created another band with his brothers under the banner of the Fourth Movement, inspired by spiritualism, and spin it on its head.

The music was praised, but the lyrics were not. Critics hated the turn and thought they should pack it in. Dave thought so as well and move back to Detroit, but his brothers thought otherwise. He did anyway.

Heidi Simpson, her widow of David knew him during that period of being unemployed but playing music constantly. He wasn’t a 9-5’r and certainly wanted his music to be heard, even if was out to the stars… so both brothers created their own version of Death… without a guitar player… their brother.

With the waning hopes that their brother would come back, the band Lamb’s Bread had risen. This was a simple negation of the guitar, only leaving the bass and drums (the rhythm section) and they went to reggae.

All brothers were raised in Motor City, the four brothers (eldest/non-musician) by their loving mother and father. As preacher’s sons, they religiously abided by the Bible and more than the ministry, their patriarch instilled into them to back up your brothers.

This actually still holds to me, as my brother is the only familial connection I have and though I may be myopic in times, I concur. It’s what my grandmother instilled in me and my mother still does. Sometimes, all you have is family, nothing more, but nothing less.

Like all brothers, there would be one that stood out. Not for anything else but rather they were ‘interesting’. In this case, it was David. He was innovative, whether to play pranks or to find out he might have wanted something else.

In David’s case, it might be to go on audio with a telephone and hack it to scare people. This movie doesn’t shy away from it and uses audio. It’s in my estimation, quite brilliant for the time. This is fucking around with people and their sense of norm and this is what punk is based on. Upend what you think is normal by bringing it into the normal, but I digress.

Now we speak to Detroit, Motown, a bustling sound. Something that is nice and melodious… and though the Brothers’ musical sounds were very pretty, once David heard what he wanted to do, he learned that shit! Go to the music shop, buy instruments, and belt out to the records you rocked out to.. but what then?

Apparently, girls knocking on their door inspired them to write one of the coolest songs, “Keep On Knockin'” which is still one of my favorites of this time in terms of rock or punk.. and let’s just say, they turned the block on its heels.

I mean Death’s “Rock And Roll Victim” with drums could rival Husker Du’s ‘Land Speed Record’ for fast drumming… years ahead of its time! Nobody had done anything like that before! Though thy neighbor didn’t enjoy the ruckus, maybe you’re listening too low.

Now we go into the depressing but uplifting point.

Their father had died as a result of a drunken-driving incident (sadly not on his end, as he was en route to save someone). This affected David, their lyricist greatly, but not as an act of obligation but as an act of purpose.

Every punk band needs a drive, or else, where’s the hi-octane in that fucking engine?

This was not communicated more, than in a picture he’d taken in the clouds, forming a triangulation and god looking over them. This now formulated the band named Death. It wasn’t black metal or anything, but rather an existential view of death through David’s oculars.

What is death? Why are we scared of it so much? Can the grief be overcome?

He figured, the Grim Reaper sows for us all, so why be afraid about it? To me, that’s pretty fucking punk. Hence, the name Death was born.

It isn’t that the name was held in high regard off the bat. He had a little blowback from his brothers, but as their patriarch had instilled into them to have each others’ back, they so did. This was around the spring of 1974, so technically, they’d been making ‘rock’ (punk) music before then.

Now how to shop around Death? It might be something you funnel through your friends, but to sell your act to strangers, professionals? First you need a studio and in that (through a literal dart through the Yellow Pages) they found one- in Groovesville Productions.

In there, they found Don Davis, the CEO of said company, but more importantly Brian Spears, who was the producer. Now, Brian was blown away by the frenetic energy of the group, as it was nothing they’d ever heard of, being used to that Motown Sound (which Detroit was famously known for). No. This was different… and they ended up signing with the company, which ran the famous United Sounds Systems Recording Studios.

There, they got to be freer than their only room in a house they shared, which was less room than a garage band. It in this space, they let their freak flag fly and aimed straight for the fences with double-stacked Marshalls, which they didn’t have before. If you don’t know what they are, reach out to your local rock friend.

The thing is, though Brian was impressed with the mixes, Don Davis said no way, no how unless they changed the name. This lead to a plethora of rejections by UK labels, once so forward, they wrote “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more helpful, but I don’t think it would be worthwhile going anywhere else, so I am returning the tape and lyrics to you.”

OUCH.

Scrapes are only blood drawn we can cry about for a second and laugh at for longer, right?

Not so true. The legendary Clive Davis took a liking to the band, but with only one stipulation… change the fucking name of the band.

That was a no-go for David, as this was his project, these were his lyrics, and he ultimately turned down a 20k deal, though his brothers said it would be worth changing over (which would now, counting for inflation would be nearly akin to 100k.) Again, this is when music contracts were a little dicey, so I don’t even know.

Never willing to settle on his own principles, he wanted integrity before money! In David’s words, “If they give them the title to our band, we might as well give them everything else.”

Though the other brothers would’ve changed the name, David was steadfast. This resulted in David getting the masters of their recordings, as they were now released from their contract (in other words, fired).

That is actually a rarified instance.

They pressed 500 45’s, but they couldn’t get them to spin that shit enough because of the name of the band. Death.

In arrears, the band how to divest their instruments in order to make a payment on their dues… but it just so happened Donald Knight, a distant relative offered them a retreat to get their minds clear. So there they went.

In their new environs, separate from the pile on’s, but only peace, they made their house, nay home.

The only thing is that David wanted to introduce a whole new culture to a whole new sound. That didn’t work for a few reasons.

For one, David put up DIY posters with Death with a black triangle on every pole. The townspeople, including the cops, thought that he was starting a gang, though, when accused of such, he was just trying to promote a band… and in defiance of the town, he wouldn’t change the name.

After that debacle, Bobby and Dannis said enough was enough and left the project they helped create.

Little did they know that David had something up his sleeve, called the Fourth Movement, which was a proto-Christian rock/punk band. Does that even exist? Oh wait, MXPX, hold my water and turning it into wine.

The music rags weren’t so favorable on it. They loved the music, just not the lyrics. As an atheist and former Catholic, it can sometimes be a bit corny. I mean you’re quoting a book of fiction. I mean, imagine if someone did a whole album on Finnegan’s Wake. First off, it would be prog-rock, and second off it would make you hate the book as well (unless you were quite drunk).

David balled up this hatred of critics (which you should never read, myself included) and go back to Detroit with his brothers… but Bobby had a wife and a little boy and settled down. Bobby was resistant.

Now Heidi Simpson, who was David’s widow moved from Vermont to Detroit in ’82, but her husband at the time wasn’t working. He was staring at the stars and creating songs. Now, a writer like Dostoyevsky said, and paraphrasing that romanticism is faith in progress. This isn’t that, though as all our hearts may sing. Realism takes place.

Bobby and Dannis created Rock. Fire. Funk. Express. This fits within the sound of a writer, because what is your voice? You have much creative shit in your head, how are you going to find a path?

With the absence of David, Lamb’s Bread gave birth and heated up to reggae and a decent enough following. They put to death, Death.

David possibly didn’t take the lack of his vision but the success of theirs to heart. To sell your soul for not rock and roll.

We now cut to Bobby Hackney Jr., who only knew his father as a reggae musician, and his uncle Dannis taught him to play the drums. As their mother had done. Made music available. But went Bobby, putting his sons, Julian and Urian into other instruments…. until Julian saw him at stage 5 drunk, which is nothing to laugh at.

David filmed his last thing at his brother’s wedding and at that point, he knew he was going to die.

His own son knew what he wanted to do, but couldn’t get out fully what he wanted to. That is what killed him.

As a quick aside, some of these songs play seriously are badass. The drums are quick, the guitar and lyrics and voice with the bass are top-shelf. They are true punk before it was “punk.”

The fact that a vinyl pressing/person was to get in touch with another is epic, but the only thing that trounces the cosmic feat is…

…I don’t want to spoil the ending. It is gorgeous and raucous, poignant and everything that holds a note and quickly fades away in a blast… as all good art should exist.

As a Liner Note: The movie starts out with Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, Alice Cooper, Questlove, Elijah Wood, and Vernon Reid with their plaudits of the band, but I would have loved to have seen more of their interviews on the subject at hand because this band is not on my Top 10… it is on my top 5.

Five ▲ all around.

Robert Kijowski
Robert J. Kijowski is a screenwriter who enjoys a good chuckle and an even better weep when indulging in art both good and even better bad. He enjoys the company of strangers in a theatre but adores the camaraderie of friends watching Netflix. He also loves to talk- a lot. This can be read through his recaps and reviews on the Workprint or heard through his weekly movie podcast, After the Credits. His presence can be felt through Facebook, Spotify or Ouija. Don’t use the latter though- he almost always ghosts people.

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