Death Before Punk

Punk was definitely born in Detroit with 3 bands that all took a very daring step towards uncharted territories. The Stooges, the MC5 and another obscure, almost totally overlooked band from Detroit called DEATH. You might think it’s not a very original name but back in 1971 when the trio of brothers Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dennis (drums) Hackney started out and that David pushed this rather funk formation towards a hard-rock direction that presaged punk, their name coupled with this new orientation, if it makes them appear like visionaries today certainly didn’t help them find a following in the mid-70s. Never-the-less in 1975 at Detroit’s United Sound Studios with engineer Jim Vitti, they recorded seven songs written by David and Bobby. According to the Hackney family, open-minded Columbia Records president Clive Davis funded the recording sessions, but implored the band to change its name to something more commercially palatable than Death. When the Hackneys refused, Davis ceased his support. The band only recorded seven songs instead of the planned dozen.

The Hackney brothers, the founding members of protopunk band Death

In 1964, the three young Hackney brothers (David, Bobby and Dennis) were sat down by their father to witnesss The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The following day, David found a discarded guitar in an alley and set about learning to play. Brothers Bobby and Dennis soon followed suit and they began playing music together.

David and Bobby Hackney recording at Detroit’s United Sound Studios, 1975

The brothers practiced and recorded early demos in a room in the family home and performed their earliest gigs from their garage.  Originally a funk band calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express, guitarist David convinced his brothers to change the name of the band to Death. After their dad died in an accident, he tried to change the meaning of the word: “His concept was spinning death from the negative to the positive. It was a hard sell,” Bobby Hackney recalled in 2010. Seeing a concert by The Who and Alice Cooper play was an inspiration to a more aggressive, hard-rock style. Music critic Peter Margasak retrospectively wrote that “They are seen in many groups as one of the first punk bands in the world.’ The band broke up by 1977 but in 1976, they self-released (on their label Tryangle) a single taken from the sessions: “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking,” in a run of just 500 copies. 

The Hackney brothers ended the band in 1977. David died of lung cancer in 2000 but the sons of Bobby Hackney (Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr.) started a band called Rough Francis in 2008, covering the songs of Death after discovering the old recordings online were chased by collectors and critics and perceived as an important part in the history of punk-rock. In 2009, Drag City Records released all seven Death songs from their 1975 United Sound sessions under the title …For the Whole World to See. In September 2009, a reformed Death played three shows with original members Bobby and Dennis Hackney, with Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan taking the place of the late David Hackney. During a 2010 performance at the Boomslang Festival in Lexington, Kentucky the band announced that Drag City would release a new album with demos and rough cuts that predate the 1975 sessions. The album Spiritual • Mental • Physical was released in January 2011.

Bobby Hackney (Jr.), lead vocals for Rough Francis

In 2014, Death released their third studio album III, and in 2015 their most recent record, entitled N.E.W. was released ans as for Rough Francis they also released an album called Maximum Soul Power.

An independent documentary film about the band titled A Band Called Death, directed by Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino, was released in 2012.

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4 thoughts on “Death Before Punk

    1. Indeed!! And that was BEFORE the news spread out in the general public!! They are probably worth a lot more now!! Doesn’t this documentary reminds you a little of ”Searching for Sugar Man”. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?? It’s about Sixto Rodriguez who also happens to be a guy from Detroit btw… Ha!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I would tell you more but I will wait till after you’ve seen it. Best Doctumentary at the 2013 Oscars. Definitely a must but I will tell tell you more after you’ve seen it because I don’t wanna spoil anything…


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