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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers A Band Called Death, which available on Amazon through a whole bunch of different subscription add-ons.
Whelp, after almost two years and nearly ninety entries, the Watch the Tunes Column is coming to an end, at least in its current form anyway. Sometime early next year I’ll be back with a more digest-focused series that will drop every few months or so, which you should definitely be on the lookout for. It’s been a blast re/discovering and highlighting great films for you guys week in and week out, and I mean I got shouted out by the Insane Clown Posse because of some nonsense they let me write here (Whoop whoop!). But all good things must pass as they say and I’ll still be around talking up worthwhile documentaries, just not nearly as often is all. We still have one last entry to get through, though, so I thought I’d pick something that would be a fitting capper for this current version of Watch the Tunes. That film? A Band Called Death, which profiles Detroit's criminally passed over proto-punkers called... er... Death.
Interestingly enough, the most recent films I’ve seen that were set in Detroit are ones that happen to involve death and lots of it, most notably the creepy supernatural horror film It Follows and Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive. The latter of which did an excellent job interweaving the music history of the city into current state of disrepair, setting a whole sequence in front of Jack White’s childhood home. It’s well known that the Motor City has produced dozens of legendary musicians including Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, but there’s so much more to the city than Motown. This is also the city that gave the world the MC5 and Alice Cooper after all, long before automotive plants pulled out and triggered an unstoppable slide towards the city’s current state of dilapidation. Explore the intersection of those two region-specific veins of punk and soul deeply enough and you’ll find Death, whose story is one of those rare tales that reaffirms the infectious joy that is felt especially deeply by obsessive record collectors.
At its core, the story of the band is one of familial support and stubborn commitment. Featuring brothers Bobby, David , and Dannis Hackney (vocals, guitar, drums, respectively), the family’s creed seems to boil down simply to “Back up your brother.” Even when it means cancelling a record deal over someone asking you to change the name of the band? You backup your brother. Which, maybe I’ve just been desensitized by punk and metal over the decades, but the name Death is framed as a sticking point way more often than I would have expected. Black dudes making really angular funk-touched punk rock strikes me as about as difficult to package in 1975 as a band calling itself Death, but that’s an easier story to sell I suppose? An Ambassador Bridge too far? Any which way you slice it though, regardless of the name of the band or how hard they struggled to get signed by a label, “Politicians In My Eyes” flat out slays, indisputably so.
It’s crazy to think that this band started with such simple aspirations, to put out music that they liked (after seeing an Alice Cooper show, one brother says “If we ain't playing music like this then I ain't gonna be havin no fun”), and were heard by next to no one in their lifetime but somehow they presaged so much of what was to come. Back when CBGB was attempting to focus on country bluegrass and blues, Death was pressing up 500 copies of that first 7”. Frustratingly, a lot of those went to radio stations who never even played them or failed to play them enough to make a dent. It’s not entirely likely that the DC hardcore scene got strong enough scent of what Detroit was cookin to kick start Bad Brains, but I guess you never know. The one thing that’s for certain is that original copies are worth about a thousand dollars if you happen to find one in the wild.
The most fascinating thing for me about Death is that they’re the sort of band that simply doesn’t exist anymore because the industry has changed so much. They were a group of ragamuffin musicians looking for any gig (in the days right before disco DJs replaced lounge acts) and, once they had turfed out as a proto-punk trio they dressed themselves up as a couple of other equally unexpected genres in order to stay afloat. It’s a fact that Death’s seven song debut made a big splash in 2009 when it was finally resurrected by Drag City Records (home of Joanna Newsom, Royal Trux, and all things Will Oldham), but in between those two career mile markers they dropped two self-released albums of fuzzed out psychedelic gospel rock as The 4th Movement and later toured as a rastafied reggae band. Their career arc, up to the reissue, is such a throwback to how things were done but no longer are. Hell, even bringing up the way that they were rediscovered, partially thanks to the now-antiquated medium of “mp3 blog”, makes me feel like an old man. Indeed, there was a time not too long ago when one well-positioned post of a low bitrate song file to a site like say Chunklet could put you over the top and help your 35 year old album finally see the light of day.
There are going to be more great stories like this, of musicians on the fringes of the industry finally seeing the light of day and getting their due (Numero’s new Jackie Shane reissue is a great example), but this was an especially heartwarming example that feels like the belated success simply could not have happened to better folks. A Band Called Death is more than a film here, but also a fitting representation of the sort of films we aspired to highlight and will continue to do so down the line in the next permutation of Watch the Tunes. Thanks to everyone for reading and I’ll see you all in 2018! For real tho, someone needs to reissue those 4th Movement albums please.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.