Brothers Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney made punk rock music before punk rock existed — no easy feat, given that they were African-Americans living in East Side Detroit in the early 1970s. Influenced by bands like the MC5, the Who and Alice Cooper, the boys called themselves Deathand practiced in their bedrooms every day after school, churning out feral and ferocious rock & roll music in spite of fairly strong pressure to play funk or R&B.
In 1976, after sessions for an LP fell apart, Death independently released the “Politicians in My Eyes” single — a song that Jack White later would describe as “ahead of punk, and ahead of its time.” The music was so long-lost that some people thought Death had been made up in the first place.
After their recent rediscovery— including, this week, their first L.A. show ever — the story of just how they became lost in the first place becomes clear. Hoping for a local hit, the Hackney brothers had their friends and relatives call their local radio station incessantly to request “Politicians in My Eyes” until the DJ eventually confessed that his new corporate bosses wouldn't let him pick songs to play anymore. That same year, Death's production company gave up on shopping them to major record labels. As Bobby Hackney put it, Death was a black rock band on a black R&B label, trying to get signed as disco was sweeping the country.
Eventually, the group disbanded: Bobby and Dannis moved to Vermont, started a reggae band called Lambsbread and raised families; David stayed in Detroit, succumbing to cancer in 2000. Then one day some 30-odd years later, Bobby's son Julian called him and told him that kids in California were going nuts at underground parties listening to his old band. Call it redemption and resurrection all at once.
Soon after, the never-heard Death tracks were issued as the ripping For the Whole World to See in 2009, and its success prompted the release of Spiritual Mental Physical — demos recorded between 1974 and 1976 — earlier this year. There is a documentary in the works, and plenty more releases to come.
In spite of Death's challenges, Bobby told NPR, David always knew they were on the right track. A year before he died, he said, “Listen, the world's gonna come looking for this music. I know that you will have it.”
Death (with Sic Alps and RTX) performs Sat., Feb. 26, at the Echo.