Bobby Hackney, lead vocalist and bassist of the protopunk band Death, said that his band’s live shows, one of which they’re playing tonight at Black Cat in Washington, D.C., “are rock n’ roll.”
“If you like rock n’ roll, if you like fun, then you’ll like a Death show,” he said. The group, which consists of Bobby, his brother Dannis Hackney on drums and guitarist Bobbie Duncan, is currently touring in support of their new album N.E.W., which was released in late April with TryAngle Records.
The record consists of several new songs and songs that the group wrote back in the 1970s, when they were first founded by Bobby, Dannis and their brother David Hackney, who passed away in 2000 of lung cancer.
When they were founded, Death was on the cutting edge of rock music, kicking out songs from their Detroit home like “Politicians in My Eyes,” that have since been credited as a progenitor of what came to be known as punk, though that may be a bit reductionist.
Death arose out of what Bobby Hackney called a “melting pot” of music. Their primordial soup included, Dannis said, “heavy rock n’ roll, funk rock because Funkadelic was in town and you’re not gonna get better funk rock than that, Motown on one side of town, Detroit Rock City on the other side of town, the blues guys.”
Bobby Hackney continued that their parents handed down music like Chuck Berry, Etta James, Willie Dixon and other Chess Records artists, that his brother Earl introduced Motown to their house, David brought in James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Dannis threw some Alice Cooper into the mix and that every Friday he would buy records “like crazy.”
All of those influences and more almost weren’t heard in Death’s early songs. As the band, and a 2012 documentary about the band called “And Band Called Death,” tells it, Death nearly got signed to Columbia Records in the mid-70s when legendary record executive Clive Davis sent word that they had to change their name or they wouldn’t be signed.
Bobby, Dannis and David, who acted as the leader of the group at the time, refused and their collection of early songs, which was later titled …For the Whole World to See, was shelved until 2008. That’s when Bobby’s sons, Julian, Urian and Bobby, Jr., started covering Death’s songs as the band Rough Francis.
Then, in 2009, Drag City Records released the previously shelved collection of songs on vinyl and CD and breathed new life into the band. A lot of press covering the resurrection of Death, even the News-Press, used the word rediscovery when referring to how people found the group after 2008. Bobby Hackney sees it differently.
“Death is a story that started and was interrupted and never got a chance to finish, and it took over 35 years to really begin,” he said. “It’s really a discovery….Our music remained buried to the public for all that time. When people discovered it in 2008, it was like the whole world was discovering this at the same time.”
Since then the group has been touring, riding that wave of discovery and have put together a collection of songs that they said they feel great about, though they left interpretation of the title of their N.E.W. record up to the listeners.
“We’ll let everybody figure that out for themselves,” Duncan said. Bobby Hackney chimed in, “It’s rock n’ roll, man! Whatever N.E.W. means to you, you make up your own acronym. And that’s what it is.”
• For more information about Death, visit deathfromdetroit.com.