Death was a band formed in Detroit, Michigan, in 1971 by brothers Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis (drums) Hackney. The African-American trio started out as an R&B band but switched to rock after seeing an Alice Cooper show. Music critic Peter Margasak retrospectively wrote of their musical direction, “The youngest of the brothers, guitarist David, pushed the group in a hard-rock direction that presaged punk, and while this certainly didn’t help them find a following in the mid-70s, today it makes them look like visionaries.”
The group’s music has been almost completely unheard since the band stopped performing more than three decades ago. But after all the years of silence, Death’s moment has finally arrived. Jack White of the White Stripes, who was raised in Detroit, said in an e-mail message: “The first time the stereo played ‘Politicians in My Eyes,’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I was told the history of the band and what year they recorded this music, it just didn’t make sense. Ahead of punk, and ahead of their time.”
Forgotten except by the most fervent punk rock record collectors — the band’s self-released 1976 single recently traded hands for the equivalent of $800 — Death would likely have remained lost in obscurity if not for the discovery last year of a 1974 demo tape in Bobby Sr.’s attic. Released last month by Drag City Records as “… For the Whole World to See,” Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between the high-energy hard rock of Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk from its breakthrough years of 1976 and ’77. Death’s songs “Politicians in My Eyes,” “Keep On Knocking” and “Freakin Out” are scorching blasts of feral ur-punk, making the brothers unwitting artistic kin to their punk-pioneer contemporaries the Ramones, in New York; Rocket From the Tombs, in Cleveland; and the Saints, in Brisbane, Australia. They also preceded Bad Brains, the most celebrated African-American punk band, by almost five years.