February 25th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Luke McGarry

Looking back, you might say that brothers Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney started as a ‘proto-punk’ band, but really this is pure punk rock made years before anyone else even touched the genre. Within the context of the time and place—east side Detroit in the early 1970s—Death seem absolutely sagelike in their prescience. A documentary and a book are in the works, and tons more reissues to follow their rediscovered, barely released … For All The World to See on Drag City. Bobby and Dannis speak now from a snowed-in recording studio in Vermont about Death’s upcoming visit to L.A., David Bowie, and the day disco came to town. This interview by Kristina Benson.

I was looking at the Death site, and it said that what really intrigued you were bass players that could sing while playing, like Jermaine Jackson and Paul McCartney.
Bobby Hackney (bass, vocals): Paul McCartney, always from early—when we first saw the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” that struck me. The fact that he played—I was so young at the time! It was just an amazing four-stringed instrument. I didn’t even know what the instrument was. I just knew they were guitars! … And Jermaine Jackson was another one. I think that the reason why that connection was, is because I grew up in the black community, the Jackson 5 was a huge thing at the end of ’68 to ’69, and it was the big Afro era. And I was just kind of starting on the path of being a serious musician at the time. We were just kind playing around with every type of music, and it was just kind of cool if you could play the bass and have a big Afro! It did a lot for my teenaged social life!
What’s the best thing having an Afro did for your social life?
BH: In the ’70s, man, it just made you cool! Sly Stone had an Afro, he had the signature Afro, Linc from ‘The Mod Squad’ had a signature Afro, Jimi Hendrix had a signature Afro, so, I mean there was a lot of signature Afros. And of course, with the Jackson 5, they kind of—after that, Afros just exploded. But it just made you look cool, like wearing cool clothes of today! The guy who signed us to Groovesville, Brian Spears, he was a real executive type—Brian had a really big Afro! So I mean, everyone had big Afros back then. It was cool!
I kept reading that there was a lot of resistance to the idea of black guys playing punk, or proto-punk, or whatever you’d call what you guys were doing.
BH: We never called it proto-punk back then. See, Kristina, what you have to understand, is during that time we just called it rock ‘n’ roll. And if you said punk, well, that term hadn’t taken on in music until the late 1970s—and this was between 1973-76—if you called a musician a punk back then, those were fighting words! So I mean, we just called it straight ahead, hard-drivin’, rock ‘n’ roll. And I think the fact that we were getting such resistance— ‘Why don’t you guys stop playing that rock ‘n’ roll, that loud noise, man, and play some Earth Wind and Fire, play some James Brown.’ And so this is what we were surrounded by unless we went out maybe to Ann Arbor or Gross Pointe, where there were other rock bands who were doing our thing and we kind of hung out with them a little bit. In our neighborhood, I mean, yeah. We was kind of weird, you know? But it was music that we chose because we loved it! We loved the whole movement. I think that 1968 had a real big effect on me and my two brothers, you know. Musically. And I think the fact that in 1968, three big events happened in our household, and that was Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated, and then after that a month later, we lost our dad, you know? To a car accident. And then a couple months after that, Bobby Kennedy. I just remember 1968 being this surreal year where like, the country was like on fire but the music was just incredible, just this incredible music and all these incredible happenings, and a lot of it had to do with rock ’n’ roll music. … It was like this whole wave of the young people just trying to be one voice and it was almost as though the rock musicians were the carriers of the message.
What were some of the other bands you’d hang out with?
BH: David saw the MC5 right before the riots broke out and that sort of thing. He hung out with old blues musicians, and you never know who he’d have with him. That’s where most of our exposure came. When we went out to Ann Arbor, we’d go to a club called Uncle Sam, other clubs, take in the scene. Even then, it was kind of weird! We were the only three black guys in the place! This was back in the early ’70s, and you know, it was like white club, black club, that type of thing. But everyone treated us really nice, and when people would ask us, because when we were together some people would ask us if we were a musical group or band—of course, David used to love the shock value of telling people our name. ‘What’s the name of your band?’ and David would look at them and go ‘Death!’ just to get the reaction.
Why didn’t you play very many shows?
BH: We had signed up to Groovesville in 1974, and our manifesto was to concentrate on developing the music, songwriting, making sure we had as many songs as we could. Hindsight, maybe he had intuition or a feeling within that he knew he wouldn’t be here so he spent a lot of time just recording, recording, writing, recording, recording, writing. And I wrote all of the lyrics, and I’d be writing a lot but David was just like a marathon! I’d go to school, he’d be in the corner with his guitar. I’d come home, he’d be in the corner with his
guitar. Late at night, in the corner with his guitar. Always constantly writing music. … The fact of the matter is that we did play a few shows out, but the problem was like those shows were booked in front of entirely rhythm & blues and black audiences. These people looked at us like, ‘What the heck just happened?’
Were there clubs that wouldn’t let you play?
BH: There were clubs that didn’t understand us, didn’t know us. And on top of that, we didn’t have a hit record out. That also—that was the main thing that was our main goal. Back then, we were kind of—I think we almost kind of fell into this ‘Us Against the World’ kind of thing and we were just used to that. And David almost had this attitude, we all did, like, ‘We know something you don’t know.’ And it gave us an edge, and we kind of liked that edge. But we would have loved to have performed, been involved with a lot of shows. Here we were, stuck on the east side in the black community and we just loved rock ‘n’ roll music!
You, or maybe your brother, spoke of disco as an effort to glaze over all of these political issues and be just like, ‘Don’t worry, just party!’
BH: It’s weird, it turns out that 1976 would be our worst year, and almost 34 years later we find out that it could have been our best year for the decisions we made. Because had we not done some of the things we did in 1976 there’s a possibility that the world wouldn’t know about this music. But at the time, 1976 was the most dismal year for us as musicians. Simply because a lot of things had happened, and we were no longer with our production company, who was shopping us to a major label and we decided to put out these records but, see, the thing about it is, when you grew up in Detroit, we saw a lot of our friends and associates that made this kind of happen and got local hits. And you’d give it to the disc jockey and he would play it! … So when we released ‘Politicians in My Eyes’ and ‘Keep on Knocking’ in 1976, we was trying to get airplay but we were getting really sparse airplay, like way in the night, 3 in the morning, one or two times in the day, and that’s all you’d hear it. Of course, David would go to the DJs and hound ’em, like, ‘What’s going on, man, you guys are not playing our music. You say you like it, why won’t you play it?’ And finally one DJ told us what was going on, cuz we didn’t really understand that that was the beginning of the corporate wave that was about to take over radio. He said, ‘We’re no longer picking our music and we don’t have as much control even over the local music,’ and then that’s one thing—they’d just block out local music. … This disco thing was really growing strong and no one could get any airplay. … My brother Dannis just came in!
We were just talking about the disco tsunami and corporate control over the media.
BH: 1976 was definitely a serious recession year in Detroit, and that happened to be the year that we were trying to get our little single played on the radio! And it was also the year that Bowie came to town! This was the biggest announcement to us that disco was moving in, and taking over rock ‘n’ roll. Cuz that’s what everyone was saying in Detroit: ‘Disco’s gonna take over rock ‘n’ roll, disco’s gonna take over rock ‘n’ roll.’ And you’d hear that, you know? And it happened in 1976. David Bowie was coming to town, and we were kind of down and out so we figured it would be a great concert, let’s check it out. And we thought it would be Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and all that great stuff, you know. … And he comes out in his little jacket, his little disco suit, and he’s singing in his little disco suit—and you know that album Young Americans? What had happened, Kristina, David Bowie, of course, not the radio stations—no one played this—none of the radio stations played this. That was the whole promotion. He rented the Michigan Palace as if to say, ‘This is the new me, check it out.’ And it was the weirdest thing, walking out of that theater that evening. We had been to a lot of Detroit concerts. We’ve seen ’em rowdy, appreciative, elated, disappointed. But that was the weirdest vibe cuz you can tell everyone was like, ‘What the hell?’ Cuz at first, they were like, ‘OK, that’s it, David you got us!’ … and after the fifth song we were looking at each other like, ‘He’s for real about this.’ I’ve seen crowds in Detroit throw things, but I mean, it’s David Bowie. There are some people you just don’t throw at. I remember the reaction and that was the announcement to us that disco was going to eat at the fabric of rock ‘n’ roll, which it did. That was the night, in Detroit, that disco truly came to town.
Is that what ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Victim’ is about?
Dannis Hackney (drums): That was actually a song, I think, about us! Because we were the rock ‘n’ roll victims, trapped in our room—listening to rock ‘n’ roll, looking for an outlet!
Your sons are playing music, are they facing similar challenges to the ones that you faced?
BH: Well, my sons are in a band called Rough Francis and they’ve kind of, you know, introduced our music to the public locally. They played it and they heard it and it’s a long story but they were as excited as everyone else when they heard the music.
Do you all ever play together?
DH: Yup! BH: The very first Death show that we did in Detroit we all played on stage together and it was a pretty good show. We did Chicago and Cleveland as well.
You went to an Alice Cooper show with your mom. What was it about that show that made you so excited?
DH: My mom knew a lot of the people that worked at Motown and they used to invite her to the parties they’d hold. And one night, me and my mom was going to one of these parties but we had to go through the arena where Alice Cooper was playing in order to get to where we were going. We were in the middle of the crowd and my mom looks at the stage and says, ‘Who’s that fella?’ I said, ‘Mom, that’s Alice Cooper. He’s one of the biggest rock stars in the world!’ And you know, Alice was up there on the stage and he had his boa constrictor and he was laying all over the stage and my mom said she thought he had a couple of problems. She went to the Motown party but I stayed and watched Alice Cooper, and it was just—the way the drummer was going, and the guitar, and the bass, that music—I was just standing there mesmerized and it just changed me. I went home to tell my brothers about this exciting Alice Cooper concert that I saw, and Bobby—he went out and bought a bunch of Alice Cooper records and we sat up in the room and we grooved on it. I told the guys, ’This is the direction I think we should go.’ And initially I got kinda laughed off until the Who came to town, and when David saw the Who show he came back and since he was the leader of the band, he said, ‘This is the way we’re going; this is the direction the music is going.’ We all agreed, and we started playing rock ‘n’ roll.
And your kids discovered your band at some party in California?
BH: It was my son, Julian, in San Francisco and he was—I dunno what kind of party it was, and he calls me up and said, ‘Dad, do you realize they’re playing your music out here at underground parties and people are going crazy over it?’ I thought he was talking about our reggae stuff, that we were doing with Lambsbread. But he says, ‘No, Dad, you were in a band in Detroit, in the 1970s called Death.’ And boy, did the phone get quiet. Cuz keep in mind this is the first time, in about 30 years, that I’ve heard anyone playing our music and it’s the very first time I’m talking to my son about being in a band in Detroit called Death.
Why hadn’t you ever talked to him about Death?
BH: Those were all recorded on reel to reel … so even with the tapes I had, I didn’t even have a reel to reel machine to play it on! So it wasn’t like, ‘Hey kids, let’s sit around tonight and listen to some Death!’ It wasn’t like a family heirloom. And my kids were into punk and hardcore, a lot of that music. And I used to tell them, ‘This kinda sounds like some of the stuff we used to do back in Detroit.’ And I’d get, ‘Yeah, Dad’—you know. … We never really talked to them about Death, and I think it had to do with all the bitter rejection and all the stuff we tried to do. When we do finally tell the whole story in a book, I think people will understand the gist of the whole story. There’s a lot of good things to come—the documentary and everything—that’s going to tell the 100 percent story.
One of you said that many kids missed the Motown era because their parents didn’t want the devil’s music in the house and all these kids missed the musical movement of the ’60s because they were oppressed by their parents.
BH: Well, that was the way it was back then. All that stuff you see about Elvis, and the devil’s music, and burning the records—that was true. There were a lot of households that, you know, kids were not allowed to listen to popular music. The only place they got it was high school. High school was the place. Your parents could do what they want, but they can’t keep you from going to school! There were a lot of uptight kids who didn’t know, and some of our friends learned about Motown from coming to our house and listening to records after school.
Who did you turn on to soul?
BH: It was really [eldest Hackney brother] Earl who was socializing as a pre-teen and teenager during that time. I used to hear stories from him—one kid’s dad threatened to kick him out of the house cuz he discovered he had some Marvin Gaye records or Motown records. … That’s the way life was back then! This is the same era where Brian Wilson’s father beat him with 2x4s. So see what I’m saying? That’s just the way kids were raised. Back in those days you could get beat by anybody! Your parents, the teacher, the neighbor—and they all thought they were doing your parents a favor! I mean, if you were bad in front of the class, I remember the teacher called us up and you’d hold out your hand, and sometimes you’d get one whack, sometimes five!
Little did they know they were whacking the hands of the future bass player for Death.
BH: You know, it’s funny—we used to think it was only in the black community, but later I realized it was in every community.
When you started the band did you think you’d be huge? In spite of all the obstacles?
BH: I think when we left Detroit as a trio we did. I think that we held on to our dream throughout the time we were here, that me, Dannis and David were here. But I think that there was just so much rejection—we moved here, and we did change the name to the Fourth Movement and put out kind of a gospel rock ‘n’ roll album and there was an article that came out in the biggest campus paper in Vermont, the University of Vermont. It was a split article—it said really good things about our music, but really bad things about our message. And David engineered—well, we all were in. We all kind of directed the ship, but I think that was a really special project for David. Me and Dannis, we can take rejection and it kind of rolls off our backs. David is kind of one of these artistic Beethoven types that— something like that would just drive him over the edge. I think that after so much rejection, David just wanted to go back to Detroit and re-solidify things in Detroit but the problem was that we had begun to raise families here, and for almost three years it was kind of like a stand-off between us. We were here just making music, bass and drums, and we’d always say, ‘We don’t have our guitar player,’ and David would say, ‘Hey man, I don’t have my brothers.’ But time settled things in and we knew he wasn’t coming back, and he knew we wasn’t coming back to Detroit.
Is it true you wouldn’t change the name of the band and it cost you a record deal?
BH: It’s true, in a sense. Don Davis, who owned Groovesville Productions, who also owned our contract, he had pending business with Clive Davis and the Grammy award-winning song ‘You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)’—Don Davis wrote and produced that, and it was on Arista. Later on, Don produced Johnnie Taylor’s mega-smash hit ‘Disco Lady,’ and that was released on Columbia. So he had this whole thing. And we were summoned into the office because Don was carrying our tapes, and someone in Clive Davis’ camp had heard our music and really liked it but didn’t like the name. So we got summoned into Brian Spears’ office in Detroit and Brian said, ‘Don is still in Detroit. Someone in Clive Davis’ camp heard your music, and it’s possible that you may have a deal if you’d be willing to play the game.’ So David, after pausing for a minute, said, ‘Tell Clive Davis to go to hell.’ So that’s the truth of the story. Brian was our real advocate and fan at Groovesville, and he was trying to piggyback on the success of these real big bands and real big albums that Don Davis was working for.
Any regrets about that, at all?
BH: You know, it was funny. At the time we were so enthralled with recording the music, and our expectations were so great, and we were so cocky and so young, and we thought our music was so great—David just knew we’d get another deal. We talked about it a little but never let that define the rest of our career, or our relationship with each other. Out of all those records recorded at United Sound that year, we truly were the forgotten ones. Johnnie Taylor’s record went on to go platinum, and helped to usher in the disco age. Parliament released ‘Mothership,’ and that went platinum. Everyone got released that year but us. We were like the forgotten guys.
How did you feel about all those people having all that success around you?
BH: We were a black rock band on a black rhythm & blues company, so we don’t blame Don Davis for the fact that he decided not to exercise the option on our contract. I mean, he had big business pending with Clive Davis. And he wasn’t really sure about the name anyway, and our concept, so I gotta kind of look at it from his perspective. ‘I got potential million sellers right here, why should I haggle with my serious contacts with a band where I’m not really sure about their name myself?’ So I can see that from his perspective in 1975. We wasn’t never really bitter with Don Davis, or especially with Brian. Right when this discovery came—Brian had faxed us a sheet that he did in 1976 cuz he was trying to get a deal for us in the U.K.; he still believed in us. And he got this letter back from this guy in the U.K. and on the letter it lists all the people that heard the music—Polygram, CBS, Warner Brothers, Elektra, all the labels from London and you know what it said at the bottom? It said, ‘Well Brian, none of these people seem to show much interest in the band, and less interest in the name. If I were you I’d just stop shoppin’ it.’ And we have that! We’re talking about doing a book, and should we do one, there will be a picture of that in there.
There’s a Mary Jane Hooper record, and the back of the record sleeve is a collage of all of her rejection letters from a bunch of record companies.
BH: Sometimes that’s just the way it goes, but the one thing I’m thankful about is that the music got lifted. David was right, he said Death’s music would outlive all the rejection and anything we regretted. The only thing I’m regretting now is that he’s not around to see his prophecy come true.
Are there more Death releases to come, besides the demos?
BH: A lot more. There’s just so much, so much that we did between ’73 and ’76—it’s just incredible. And we can’t wait to come to L.A. It’s going to be awesome.