Before There Was Punk… There was DEATH

DEATHFONTTo the naked ear, it sounds like any Ramones song: signature guitar riff, no-frills bass tablature, unwavering drumbeat. Even the vocals are similar, albeit these are distinctly empowering, without the aura of an aggressive Jerry Lewis. The similarities end here. This is an all-black proto-punk band indigenous to Detroit, Michigan. This is the fire of Motown reinterpreted as something more confrontational, more unorthodox. This is a band called Death.

Death was comprised of the three Hackney brothers: Bobby, Dannis, and David; bass, drums, and guitar. A blitzkrieg of utter noise, they were punk three years before the Ramones were punk. They were punk while the Ramones were still just punks sniffing glue in some basement in Queens. However, Death was omitted from the punk narrative entirely. Until just recently, that is. Their tapes sat collecting dust in their parents’ attic, despite the fact that they preached the gospel of punk rock. Despite the fact that they exploited the feedback from the telephone line to simulate an alien invasion in one of their songs. Death was expunged from the punk feature. While this wasn’t a calculated measure, it remains an injustice. Punk was supposed to be an asylum for outcasts, an outlet for aggression, and in this case it wasn’t. Prejudice bread in the mainstream poisoned its waters. By the same token, punk in itself was heralded as an insurance risk, thus marketing an all-black pro to-punk band proved nearly impossible. There was innovation and there was liability. Unfortunately Death was deemed the latter.

The name of the band, “Death,” is punk if I’ve ever heard it. Regardless of opinion, it provoked a reaction. It seized the notion of fatalism and asserted dominance. The name is essential to the concept, and so even on the cusp of fame it remained a nonnegotiable. In fact, Clive Davis of Columbia records had offered the band a recording contract on the condition that the name change. The Hackneys refused and ultimately sacrificed notoriety for dignity. A true punk would always prefer to be a cult classic rather than a commercial success. Death embodies the initial philosophy, wherein making noise was important, not who heard it. — “Politicians In My Eyes” (Death) — “Politicians In My Eyes” (Death) — “Keep On Knocking” (Death)




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