By Alex Biles, University of Michigan
To stereotype punk culture is oxymoronic. But considering the big names often associated with its early days, one might be surprised at the fact that among the genre’s pioneering visionaries stood the little-known Hackney brothers, a threesome of African-American teenagers and Detroit natives, recognized collectively as Death. As early as 1974, Death recorded a number of two-chord aural attacks predating better-known acts like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, or the Clash.
The anti-establishmentarianism that would characterize the music of these later punk bands was a staple of Death’s work. “Politicians in my Eyes” is a three-man militia, scrutinizing the Vietnam War and civil servants who “could care less about you, they could care less about me!” The sparse guitar and militant vocals induce a Public Enemy-strain of political consciousness unlike any release in 1974. “Freakin’ Out” is another gem. It manages to maintain of sense of schizophrenia while blasting a brand of boisterous and noisy punk abetted by excellent percussion. All this while Zack de la Rocha was listening to nursery rhymes.
The 1974 recording sessions were funded by Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records. Davis and Death would beef over the band’s austere choice for a name; a decision the band stringently defended at the expense of major label backing. Indefinitely shelved, the band’s recordings — let alone their existence — would soon become an afterthought. Although 500 pressings of the Columbia recording sessions were self-released on 7-inch vinyl in 1976, the band’s music seldom reached ears outside a small circle within the punk rock realm.
It would take more than three decades to see justice served for Death’s creation, when the independent label Drag City took it upon themselves to re-release the legendary recordings. With the formal release of 1974’s …For the Whole World to See in 2009, the band landed some press, generating some buzz, and garnering praise from ?uestlove to Jack White. The latter would exclaim, “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When I was told the history of the band and what year they recorded this music, it just didn’t make sense. Ahead of punk, and ahead of their time.”
This year saw the release of a second compilation of the band’s recordings, entitled Spiritual – Mental – Physical. Although Death would break up in 1977, their influence in early punk circles — coupled with the criminal under-appreciation of the band — is nothing short of extraordinary. The ways by which certain creative geniuses pass under our noses has always amazed me. Thanks to improved technology and a growing spotlight on the band, we are now able to take in their innovative work and ultimately wonder what could have been.