by Malcolm Macdonald, September 18, 2013
A year ago this week I wrote about a then obscure independently produced documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, about a Detroit singer/songwriter who disappeared into the dustbin of the American corporate music business in the 1970s. That film followed curious South African music enthusiasts as they tracked down the mysterious guitarist who had been rumored dead for decades, ultimately resurrecting his career. Searching for Sugar Man is one of those every once in awhile, word of mouth success stories. It gained a fairly widespread audience and won the Oscar for best documentary of 2012. Through it all Rodriguez, the songwriter at the movie’s center, whose dreams of musical acclaim had remained deferred for decades, maintained a sense of humility seldom seen when the spotlight, even belatedly, graces someone with fame.
About the same time that Rodriquez was making the rounds of Motor City music clubs, a band that was punk before punk knew its name was practicing in another part of Detroit; on Lillibridge Street to be precise; in a bedroom of the Hackney household to be exact. Back in the sixties, when Detroit was still a vibrant city, three of the four teenaged Hackney brothers endlessly practiced cover versions of their favorite rock albums from the time school let out at 3pm until their mother’s music curfew at 6pm.
By the early seventies their tastes turned from the Beatles to The Who to Alice Cooper and their music became their own, a sound that today would be called intense, early punk but to them was pure rock. David Hackney, the driving force of the brother band, underwent something of a spiritual awakening when a drunk driver disrupted the family forever. David insisted on calling their band Death. That insistence seemingly cost the brothers fame and fortune when one record producer after another, in the United States and the United Kingdom, refused to sign the brothers to a contract unless the name of the band was changed. David Hackney refused at every offer. His siblings, Bobby and Dannis, would have given in, except that they had all been raised by their father’s dictum to “back your brother.” The band called Death retained the name, which in turn meant death in a business too rigid to accept black punkers or an unconventional moniker. The same industry that ignored Rodriquez passed on Death, though a punk band with the morbid name Dead Kennedys gained a measure of recognition just a half decade later.
The Dead Kennedys main lyricist, Jello Biafra, provides a few minutes of commentary in the documentary A Band Called Death. That film was released a few months after Searching for Sugar Man and slipped even further under the mainstream media radar, again, most likely due to its name.
When the band, Death, had gone through several years of frustration in attempting to gain public acceptance, David Hackney told his brothers that he was sure that one day their music would be heard by a wider audience. It took another death in the family and more than three decades, but the prophetic remark came true.
The inner resolve of the Hackney brothers, their parents, and their children proves to be the core of the story in the documentary A Band Called Death. Do not be put off by the title; even those who don’t give a whit about punk rock will be entertained, uplifted and enlightened by these people who lived the creed, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?”