What was the very first punk band? Music fans love questions like this. As if we can somehow identify some seminal, ground zero moment when a genre sprung up in a unique, fully realized form like Athena emerging from Zeus’ noggin. But when you start asking those questions you find yourself going back in time further and further. The Sex Pistols? Well, who were their influences? That takes you to the Velvet Underground and Iggy & The Stooges. OK. But who were their influences? Were those groups “punk” too? Do you branch off into the ’60s garage scene? You can go off on all kinds of tangents, and while it’s a fun conversation to have with your friends, especially if you’re drinking and have a record player in the room, it generally doesn’t get you anywhere except hung over in the morning.
But I do know one thing. Death is some early Detroit punk rock. And they formed in 1971. Oh yeah. Did I mention all the members were African American? Bet you didn’t see that coming.
The other day we watched the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death. If you haven’t seen it and are a fan of punk, or even just music in general, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy, because it’s fantastic. It traces the founding of the band Death in 1971 by three of the Hackney brothers, who started off doing some soul songs before one of them had his mind blow by seeing The Who in concert, followed shortly thereafter by Alice Cooper. The Hackney’s then went toward a fast version of rock that sounds pretty damn punk to me (and to a lot of other people). They released one 7″ in 1976 – “Politicians In My Eyes” / “Keep On Knockin,” originals of which have been selling online for $600-800 apiece. So obviously there are some folks out there who think this band is important and are willing to part with some serious money for their 45. Death broke up in 1977 with two of the brothers continuing to play together in gospel and reggae bands, while the third, David, drifted away from the others and unfortunately passed away in 2000. But David always believed that someday someone would come looking for the Death master tapes, and he made sure his brothers had them. And sure enough, he was right. Someone did come looking.
The seven track …For the Whole World to See, released in 2009, consists of remasters of the recordings the band did in the mid 1970s. Their entire recorded output. Seven songs. That’s all they left behind.
And it’s brilliant.
The influence of the early 1970s power rock sound is right there to be heard on the album, with at least a couple of riffs sounding almost exactly like The Who. Unquestionably the best song is their original single, “Politicians In My Eyes,” a relentless (and relentlessly long 5:51) number that just bores into your brain, particularly the second half which is a repetitive instrumental with a few 70s style guitar flourishes. “Keep On Knockin,” the flip side of that original single, sounds exactly like Australian punk rockers Radio Birdman, though the Aussies didn’t release their first recordings until 1977, so chances are that Death hadn’t heard them before (could one of those Death 45s made it to Australia…?). “Let the World Turn” is a slowed down sort of soul rock number, one that showcases their singing talents then intermittently exploding into guitar parts that remind me of something off of Tommy. And if fellow Detroiter Ted Nugent wasn’t an influence on “Rock-N-Roll Victim” then I don’t know who was, because the vocal stylings and guitar licks sound a whole lot like the Motor City Madman.
This isn’t to imply that Death were mere copycats. While you can hear their influences in their songs, they play ’em fast. Certainly faster than most of their contemporaries. Sure they learned from others, but they weren’t some cover band just trying to duplicate someone else’s sound. They were tweaking it and speeding it up, combining things in different ways, and flat out getting after it.
Watch A Band Called Death. If you do, I know you’ll want to go out and buy this record. And it’s a record you should own.