Sometimes the near-miss stories are more interesting than the big successes: Death was a Detroit ’70s rock band whose music fit right in with the city’s bands from that era. How they didn’t get their shot, and how their music was rediscovered thirty years later, is chronicled in the new documentary A Band Called Death (playing in limited theatrical runs and available streaming and on demand in a whole lot of ways detailed below).
It’s a mystery why the Michigan scene of the ’60s & ’70s doesn’t get as hailed as one of the great moments in rock history. Even if you leave out proto-punk rock icons the Stooges and the MC5, you’re left with an impressive roster of hard rock bands that sported a punk attitude: Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, The Amboy Dukes (featuring a draft-dodging Ted Nugent), the Bob Seger System, Grand Funk Railroad and Alice Cooper. Throw in the sorta-successful Frijid Pink, SRC and The Frost and you’ve got the makings of a great outdoor rock festival.
Death’s music was the kind of punk/hard rock hybrid that would’ve allowed them to fit in on a bill with any of those other bands. There was a catch: not many African-American kids were playing hard rock in 1974 and record companies most definitely weren’t trying to figure out how to appeal to that market.
Led by guitarist David Hackney and featuring his brothers Bobby and Dannis on bass and drums, Death managed to get a production deal with local R&B powerhouse Groovesville Productions, which led to high-quality recording sessions at Detroit’s United Sounds studio. Groovesville shopped the band’s tape to major record companies and they may or may not have been close to an offer from Clive Davis at Columbia Records.
The band was formed after the Hackneys’ father passed away and the Death name was in part a tribute to his memory. That name also made it hard to get gigs and turned off more than one potential record company. The band didn’t get a deal, but they managed to self-release one 45 before drifting apart and forming other bands.
The movie tells the story of how a few record collectors managed to track down the surviving members of Death through their kids, how the 1974 recordings finally got a release and how the band at last gets a measure of acclaim for their work.
One of the movie’s greatest strengths is that both the band and the filmmakers understand that their story is not unique: there are dozens (if not hundreds) of bands from that era who never managed to break through and had to find a way to carry on after their dreams didn’t come true. This movie can (and should) be taken as a tribute to every 60-year-old guy whose band never managed to catch a break.
Death “Keep on Knocking” (B-side of 1976 single)
Most of the surviving players are interviewed for the movie. The brothers and other family members take every bit of attention as vindication of David’s original vision. Groovesville exec Brian Spears is especially happy to talk about why he signed the band and label head (and R&B legend) Don Davis still doesn’t get Brian’s enthusiasm for the group.
If the trailer and song videos make you curious, there are a lot of ways to see the movie. Released by Drafthouse Films, the new distribution company run by Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Theaters, the release of A Band Called Death is a great example of the ways filmmakers are trying to rethink the distribution model. If you like to go to the movie theater, it’s playing in at least 30 cities over the next two months.
If you don’t live in one of those cities or don’t want to leave the house, you can purchase a digital copy for $9.99 here. You can rent it on demand from most big cable companies (Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Dish or Time Warner) or buy it from iTunes or rent or buy from Amazon Instant Video. You can even rent it on YouTube. If you need a physical copy and you’re willing to wait a few weeks, it’ll be out next month on DVD or Blu-ray. Unless you’re waiting for a guarantee that you’ll be able to pick it up from Redbox, Drafthouse has got you covered.