Monday, March 30, 2009

The return of Death

Sean Murphy over at Murphy's Law (also a contributor to PopMatters) brought this band to my attention, and I enthusiastically thank him for it.

If you haven't heard of the band Death, then you aren't alone. The band was short-lived, and mostly overlooked in music history until a profile in the New York Times this past month. The tragedy of this is that they had a sound that came close to being straight-up groundbreaking. Formed in Detroit in the mid-70s, their jam-kicking Rock & Roll was, as the NYT piece points out, "Punk before Punk":

If you listen to this song closely enough, you can hear just how fluid music is as an art-form. It makes you re-think the traditional ancestry of a lot of bands. You can hear as much Sly Stone influence here as you can MC5 and Stooges, as much post-R&B breakdown as Proto-Punk fury. It's easy to hear the influence their sound had not only on Bad Brains, but on countless Post-Punk groups and even on quite a bit of early Hip-Hop.

Ironically, their unclassifiable and unique sound might have been the very reason they ended up thrown into the discount rack of obscurity. Another factor might have been that, in the 1970s, when music was still shaking off years of segregation, and five years before Bad Brains would storm onto the scene, Death was a rare case: an all-Black Rock 'n' Roll band. In a recent piece in Time Out Chicago, bassist Bobby Hackney recounted how hard it was for this band to find its niche, despite everything they had going for them:

"We were this Black band signed to Groovesville, a Black Rhythm 'n' Blues label. They had no idea how to promote, sell or market us... At the time there weren't very many white producers or white record companies willing to take a risk on three Black guys from the inner-city playing Rock 'n' Roll."

Their uncompromising attitude toward their art made them even more hard to pin for the industry. When Arista head Clive Davis was handed their tape, he offered to sign the group as long as they changed that name. David Hackney told him to screw off (like I said, "Punk before Punk").

Death were ambitious. At one point there was talk of creating a full rock opera. But with their careers frustrated, they packed it in. They would eventually move to Vermont and continue making music in the gospel-oriented 4th Movement. David moved back to Detroit in 1982, where he would remain until his own death from lung cancer in 2000.

Death's original album has been out of print for decades. But the masters were recently rediscovered, and Drag City is re-releasing it. It's tragic that David Hackney won't be here to see it. Like so many other groups, Death were before their time, cutting-edge and uncompromising to the point that the bumbling music industry had no idea how to handle them. They had the potential to break a lot of boundaries--both musical and racial. Though their recent attention comes about thirty years too late, it's nonetheless encouraging to see them finally get the credit they deserve.


1 comment:

Binh said...

All I could think of was the Bad Brains when I listened to this. Great find!! I really do wonder how much influence they had at the time. The underground punk/metal scenes in the 80s were dominated by tape-traders (correct me if I'm wrong), the analog version of file sharing.

When I first saw the title of this post, I thought you were referring to the more famous Death, the founders of death metal in Florida, whose music I didn't like until their last 1-2 albums when it really matured melodically. I know you're not into metal, but I would urge you to check out the song "Voice of the Soul" and other stuff off of "The Sound of Perseverance" which was their last album before their guitarist/singer Chuck Schuldiner died of a brain aneurysm.