Death’s Door 

Proto-punk band Death brings its feel-good story to headline Fall Line Fest.

click to enlarge The early ‘70s Detroit band Death found a career a few years ago after the rerelease of its early work and a popular indie documentary about the band. Seen here are drummer Dannis Hackney, guitarist Bobbie Duncan, who replaced David Hackney, and bassist Bobby Hackney.

Samdarko Eltosam

The early ‘70s Detroit band Death found a career a few years ago after the rerelease of its early work and a popular indie documentary about the band. Seen here are drummer Dannis Hackney, guitarist Bobbie Duncan, who replaced David Hackney, and bassist Bobby Hackney.

In the beginning, there was Death.

Or more precisely, a band called Death, three brothers from Detroit who made hardcore music before it had that name or became a movement.

It was nearly impossible to find an outlet for their cutting-edge sound back then, even without the difficult moniker. They wouldn't find one for more than 30 years.

The Hackney brothers — David, who died of lung cancer in 2002, Dannis and Bobby — were black teenagers way ahead of their time. Eventually the rest of the world caught up. The brothers' story is the subject of a 2012 documentary, "A Band Called Death," which drew positive reviews and new fans to the group.

Before their resurgence, the remaining members of Death played reggae music in a group called Lambsbread. Since then, Dannis and Bobby, joined by good friend Bobbie Duncan, have brought Death back to life and are making up for lost time. 

"We've been playing all over the world so far," Dannis Hackney says from their home base in Detroit, adding that the group has shared stages with George Clinton, Metallica and Living Colour. "We've been having a lot of fun."

It wasn't as much fun trying to sell Death in the 1970s. Most labels weren't interested in the new sound and were turned off by the name. Legendary music industry executive Clive Davis offered the band a record deal, with the caveat that it change the name. The brothers, led by David Hackney's vision, refused to budge, languishing in obscurity for years. Now the name kind of has a ring to it, and it's working. 

"Those marketing challenges were back in the '70s, you know," Bobby says. "People seem to love the name today."

Since the movie, the group has released three albums to follow up its proto-punk delayed debut, "For the World to See." All of them feature music from the vault of Death, the safe place where the Hackney brothers stashed their musical legacy after their failed attempt to introduce Death to the masses.

Later this year, the band will release "New," its first studio recording since 1976, a mix of songs then and now.

"It's the songs from the Death archives from Detroit, written during the '70s … four of the songs [were written] currently," Bobby says. "It's sort of a representation of what Death is doing today." 

A video for the first release, "We're Gonna Make It," features early family footage, vocals from their late brother and shows a more subtle side to the band. It might seem this release could mark the end of treasures from the archive, but Bobby hints there may be more.

"There's other stuff that David did, other stuff that we all did," he says, "but for the most part the … album kind of represents the final chapter of all the music of Death from Detroit that we want to release in that format."

On the road, there's one song from the old days that seems to get more of a response than the others. "Politicians in My Eyes," released on the brothers' own label in 1974. The song is a burning indictment of corruption and government indifference set upon a thrashing beat and a haunting melody. 

Two things make the record so relevant after all these years, Dannis says: "We're still at war, and we still got politicians that feed off the people."

The band members' faithful decision to retain their name and find success on their own terms still resonates as well. In today's music industry, artists are less beholden to record labels, but walking away from a deal still isn't easy. 

"We always say stick with what you believe in. In today's market that doesn't always equate to dollars and cents level," Bobby says. "Anytime you can be true to yourself, that's always the artistic final reward.

Years later, the band doesn't regret holding onto Death. They knew what was at stake.

"Like David said, if you give them your name, they're going to come back and ask for other things," Dannis says. "And you'll have to give them." S

Death performs at the National with the Comrades, Close Talker, Diamond Center and the Hold Steady on Friday, Sept. 5, at 9:15 p.m. as part of the Fall Line Fest. Ticket prices vary. For information visit FallLineFest.com.

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