Detroit's Death Revive Themselves With N.E.W. Lease on Life
Bobby Hackney, Bobbie Duncan, and Dannis Hackney of Death
Photo by Samdarko Elotsam
"Every day is a good day for Death," Bobby Hackney states firmly. And Death, 40 years after its inception, is finally having its day in the sun. "We suffered through so much rejection in the Seventies; we thought this music would never be heard."
Hackney, a Detroit native, founded the unlikely proto-punk trio with two of his brothers, guitarist David and drummer Dannis, spewing catchy, raucous politically charged punky heaviness in the era and locale of Motown long before the word punk was a thing. As documented in the compelling 2012 documentary A Band Called Death, "record companies found Death's music — and band name — too intimidating." Death died in 1977; its members went on to play reggae and gospel music in a band called Lambsbread. Then, more than 30 years after the band's demise, Death's 1974 demos were rediscovered and put out by Drag City in 2009.
Death re-formed without spiritual bandleader David, who died before he saw his early vision re-realized. The group's recent ascent is as grassroots as the band's initial formation: "In 2009 was the first time we played New York as Death — actually, our very first outing since the discovery of the Death story," recalls Bobby. "It was a concert very near and dear to our hearts. We were invited down by Mickey Leigh, the brother of Joey Ramone. We did the Birthday Bash benefit for lymphoma. We were very proud."
When they began gigging pre-documentary, curious fans would encounter the band, look them up real quick, and then get hooked on the music after hearing of their origins. What they found were the Hackney brothers — with the addition of guitarist Bobbie Duncan — playing music that was as fresh, raw, tight and exciting as it was on their best-known song, "Politicians in My Eyes," off 1974's For the Whole World to See. The album was meant to be a twelve-song debut, but after seven songs at the legendary Detroit Studio United Sound Systems, business deals soured — including one with Arista Records' Clive Davis — and the trio ended up only with the tunes already cut.
N.E.W. is the new Death album that follows, decades later, that debut. Yet N.E.W. isn't exactly new: Death enjoy wordplay — their own label back in the day was called Tryangle, for the three of them and, of course, maybe trying new angles — while N.E.W. is a make-your-own acronym. It's the first studio album since 1976, but it comprises those "lost" songs un-recorded from the first record, seamlessly meshed with new material. It began with "newest" member Duncan: "We did a really awesome show in Chicago, and the audience response left an impression on me. We're all songwriters, and sometimes you wait for those moments and then you try to capture them," he explains. "So I captured that energy and transmuted it into a song, and it was originally called '11/19/2010' — that was the date we recorded it in our studio, as a sketch. I had partial lyrics, then we finished it together and called it 'Relief.' " The N.E.W. track list breaks down to seven old songs and four new ones, but as Dannis notes, "it's a blend. But the old stuff isn't really old, because nobody heard it before. So it's new to you!"
Death's wordplay also serves to make N.E.W. a bit of a concept record, if only in the song titles. Looking down the tunes, beginning with "Relief" and ending with "Change," "the titles are a whole synopsis of the album," Bobby explains, gleefully reciting: "It's 'Playtime,' but we're 'At the Station' where we must ask ourselves, 'Who Am I?' and say, 'You Are What You Think.' " The penultimate song is "Resurrection," which Bobbie penned with his bandmates in mind. "Working with these guys who made history...they're back, and it's a resurrection. Really, they were never gone, just doing different beats. I thought it was a fitting song for the group."
Acclaim and kudos, late as they are, are welcome; no looking back in anger, say Death. "We're grateful to the historians who say our band predated bands like the Ramones and Bad Brains by years. But when we were making this music in 1975, the term 'punk' hadn't even been coined as a musical phrase," Bobby notes. "If you called somebody a punk in Detroit in 1975, you got one of two things: a black eye or a bloody nose. So we were just playing hard-driving Detroit rock 'n' roll. We wanted to be like Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, all those great bands we looked up to at the time."
Adds Dannis, "We didn't have a manager, a booking agent; we were just beating the pavement on the east side of Detroit, after all was said and done, trying to sell a few records. That was the reality of our situation at the time."
The N.E.W. and next reality is already in sight, as the group explains with excited laughter. "At the end of June, we're going back down to Detroit to record at the legendary United Sound, and laying down tracks for a week." The studio — John Lee Hooker recorded "Boogie Chillen' " there; the Rolling Stones and Funkadelic were also early clients — was slated for destruction, but has been saved. "We're honored to go back to work with the original engineer, Jim Viti." And in keeping with their roots, Bobby notes, while technology has progressed, "at United Sound, thanks to our pal George Clinton, a full 24-track, two-inch analog reel tape was installed, along with ProTools."
So, Death march on. They think of late brother David, who died in 2000 of lung cancer, "only every day," and feel he's definitely "there" for and with the band. "We were just talking about him today with a situation that we're in. You know, we know how he'd make certain decisions," explains Bobby. "He's always with us....When certain things happen, we call them 'David moments.' "
David is with his brothers on their journey, a trip that Bobby sees "not like a sprint, it's more like a marathon." And despite the years of playing gospel and reggae, none of the fire and punk of the groundbreaking Death sound has diminished.
"I don't think you ever lose the fire," Dannis observes. "Reggae is mellower, slowed down a bit, but before that, even our gospel-rock, to me, sounded like Death music with spiritual lyrics. We went from that to the reggae, and from the reggae back to Death," he concludes. "And I don't think we lost any steps in between."
Death play the Studio at Webster Hall on May 30 with Obnox opening. For ticket information, click here.
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