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"A Band Called Death" Review

People who know nothing about music think punk started in England with the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Those who know a little about music think it started in New York City with the Ramones and the CBGB's crew. Those who really know music and can get past the media's insistence that nothing of merit comes from anywhere between the coasts know that punk's roots started in Michigan with The Stooges and the MC5. However, there was another band that could've laid claim to Founder status...if only anyone had heard of them before 2008 and that is the subject of A Band Called Death.

The trailer below gives the Reader's Digest version of the story: The Hackney brothers - David (guitar), Bobby (drums) and Dannis (bass) - were three black guys growing up in Motown-era Detroit who, inspired by The Who and Alice Cooper, shifted from R&B to what would be considered now to be proto-punk/garage rock. Dubbed Death by David, they literally picked a recording company by throwing a dart at the Yellow Pages and cut a 7-song album that was shopped and rejected by every label, partially because of their raw sound, but mostly because of their gloomy-sounding name. Clive Davis was very interested in taking on the band, but they'd have to change the name. David refused to compromise and that was pretty much that for the band.

The irony is that the name Death wasn't meant to be a downer and when they tried rebranding themselves as The 4th Movement with an overtly Christian theme (so that's where ICP got it from!), they were panned for being a good rock band, but could they keep the preaching to themselves? The brothers moved to Vermont, though David moved back to Detroit and basically drank and smoked himself to death (no pun) from lung cancer in 2000 at age 48. The remaining brothers had been touring as a reggae band and started families and their days as Death remained in their distant past until a copy of their single landed in the hands of Dirtbombs drummer and rock writer Ben Blackwell, who set off a chain of events leading to the release in 2009 of their album on Drag City Records. The part where Bobby's son relates hearing his father's voice on a record being played by a collector pal is a hoot. It also shows that it only takes one person to change fortunes as if Blackwell had just listened to it, but not told anyone, we never would've known about them. (It reminds me of how Clerks and Kevin Smith owe their fame to one man who caught a screening at a NY film festival and recommended it to Sundance's programmers.)

If there is a problem with the story of A Band Called Death it's that as interesting as the long, twisted road to notoriety for the band may be, they weren't influential to anyone because no one saw them to be influenced. The all-black hardcore punk band Bad Brains sounds similar, but they appear to have formed their sound themselves. Unlike Rodriguez, subject of the Oscar-winning doc Searching For Sugar Man (and another Detroit who had to wait 30+ years for fame to knock), who was a huge seller in South Africa (not that he knew about it), Death only became a footnote to music history by a fluke.

While the surviving brothers say they credit David for being true to the Bible verse admonition, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" it's hard to see the upside of throwing away a record deal from Clive Davis over a name that was, pardon the pun, commercial death.

Finally, the makers commit a sin way too many other documentaries do in failing to inform us what year things are happening or how old people are. While band dates are fairly well presented, the ages of the band members aren't. 

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.


Unknown said...

There was no Dennis. It was Dannis. And it was David, not "Dennis" who refused to change the name. And the movie was a 10!

Dirk Belligerent said...

Thanks for catching the errors. We'll disagree about the score. :)

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