In the 1970s, the music scenes were dominated by hard rock, punk, funk and disco. Those who were cool listened to Led Zeppelin, the Who and Queen; those who wanted to dance listened to Blondie, Chic and the Bee Gees; and those who felt left out listened to the Clash, the Ramones and the Runaways. In the middle of all this in 1974, was a band who called themselves Death and wrote, performed and recorded music in all of these genres and (some would argue) coined the ‘sound’ of punk music before it was popular. Quite a big claim for a band probably raising some question marks in people’s heads right now. Well, that’s because no one had really even heard of them until four years ago. Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s documentary A Band Called Death recalls the amazing story behind this rediscovered group.
In 1964, like most future musicians, the Hackney brothers watched the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, which inspired oldest brother David to pick up a guitar the next day. With younger brothers Bobby and Dannis, the Hackneys decided to try a hand at making music themselves. In an era where it was still hard for different races to play in certain music movements, the three black relatives first began playing Motown/soul tunes, then funk songs as a band called Rock Fire Funk Express, before finally setting on proto-punk under the name Death. The ear-catching name alone would be the biggest reason why the band never found fortune and fame. With an eerie band name, lyrics that included political and spiritual themes, in an all-black punk band, it became hard to find a record company who wanted to sign them a deal. When they finally found a studio, they only ended up recording half of the planned songs for their debut album because they still refused to change their name, and the producers didn’t want to be associated with such a bleak name. Death would release one single with a B-side before disbanding in 1977.
Covino and Howlett’s film documents the family and band’s history with personal interviews with Bobby and Dannis, as well as others as part of the ride, to recall their memories of the Hackley brothers’ music careers. The most interesting and unbelievable segments of the feature are how David gave all his copies of their one single Politicians in My Eyes and other recordings to Bobby only months before he would die of cancer in 2000. For another decade, a couple of hundred records would sit unknown in Bobby’s basement, before slow word-of-mouth was getting around the punk crowd about a band from the mid-‘70s that was making punk music before it became commercial. It would be an old original copy of their single posted on eBay for $800 that would actually get sold, leading to Bobby’s son discovering that his father and uncles were in a punk band he had no idea about. Soon afterward, this once obscure band became an overnight story. Family, friends and punk fanatics would get Death’s remaining members to reunite and finally release their debut album.
In the same vein as Anvil: The Story of Anvil five years earlier, A Band Called Death is bound to find popularity as a well-made documentary of a not-so-successful band in the rock music community. The very beginning of Death even includes clips of famous musicians and other celebrities speaking their opinions and memories of discovering the band, including Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Jack White and Elijah Wood. Cooper was actually the influence David Hackney discovered to experiment with a harder rock sound. Though the viewers get the impression that we will see more of these commentators again after the opening credits, they don’t return later on in the film. Thus making them feel out of place and wasted with their contributions. The interviews with the Hackney family and collaborators throughout the years do offer some good insight, and nearly all of them have memorable and amusing presences on screen – particularly Bobby, whose recounts of this piece of history are rather humorous.
The last quarter of the film includes live footage of Death reuniting on stage for the first time in over three decades minus David, and is very touching and bittersweet. Though some sequences could have advantaged a few narrative and editing additions, A Band Called Death remains one of the more fascinating and intriguing music documentaries of the year so far.