At the best of times playing music is tough, and something you better damn well have a passion for, because it’s almost impossible to make a living at. Even if you do love it, you’re in for some long nights and rude awakenings. I spent a fair amount of my life driving six, eight, ten hours from one show to the next, playing for a handful of people (once in Columbus, Ohio, our audience consisted of three people, all of them in another band) who couldn’t care less, and walking away with twenty-five bucks and no place to crash aside from the van. And five grumpy dudes that have been on the road for a month all trying to sleep in a weighted-down half-ton Chevy is not nearly as romantic as it sounds.
The point I’m trying to make here is that success in the music business, by whatever standards you measure it, is generally a long con. How many times have you heard the story of some “overnight success” that has been at it hard and heavy for a decade or more? It takes time, perseverance, and most important, a belief that what you’re doing is worthwhile. And sometimes, sometimes that pays off, though most often your band is doomed to obscurity, futility, and disappointment.
This is a huge part of what makes Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s new documentary, “A Band Called Death,” such an inspiring film. The form can be tough, but this has everything you want. There are laughs, tears, and most of all, a success story so unique and interesting that if you tried to pitch it as fiction, no one would believe you. It’s a story of dedication, sheer coincidence, and most of all, total, unwavering faith, sticking to your guns no matter the cost.
Against crushing odds, in Detroit in 1973, three black brothers by the names of Bobby, David, and Dannis Hackney, started what they called a “pure rock and roll” band. Bearing the unlikely moniker Death—a polarizing name amongst friends, family, industry types, and the band itself—they became what may arguably be one of the first punk rock bands ever. Think MC5 meets Bad Brains with more musicality and less rampant homophobia. But that’s not what truly sets the story of Death apart. What makes their road stand out is that essentially no one heard them for more than three decades. For more than 30 years, a box of master tapes languished, forgotten in an attic.
A super tight-knit trio, the Hackney brothers came up playing together in the heart and heyday of Motown. Their first band was a funk outfit, Rock Fire Funk Express, but after the Who came to town, everything else went out the window. It was rock and roll or nothing. They stripped it down and suped it up. However, it wasn’t until after the untimely demise of their father at the hands of a drunk driver, that the Death concept was truly born. Attempting to put a positive spin on the idea of passing, Death was the brainchild of David, the charismatic leader of the group. A three-sided spiritual expression, he propelled the project with the steadfast, uncompromising drive of the truly obsessed.
The bulk of “A Band Called Death” follows the band and brothers as they attempt to navigate the intricacies of the music business. David’s fanatical commitment to the band, as an idea and a name, barred them from most traditional outlets, and held them back from landing a record deal. Over time Bobby and Dannis begin to lose their faith—in the band and their brother—totally willing to change the name, something David absolutely refused, and over the years, they moved on to other avenues and venues. But David never waivered. The first portion of “A Band Called Death” is, more than anything else, a portrait of David as a dedicated dreamer. His brothers, and everyone else from their mother to family friends, paint him as a funny, maddening, and magnetic personality. Even in the midst of an increasing downward spiral into alcoholism and implied mental issues, he remained strong, committed to Death. At one point he gave his brother the Death master tapes and said, “One day the world is going to come looking for these.” No one believed him, but he was right, though he wouldn’t live to see that day.
After years of obscurity—obscurity is putting it lightly—and after having pushed the band aside for more pressing real life concerns, a funny thing happened. People started paying attention to Death. Through an underground network of record stores, websites, and neurotic collectors—a tale of obsession in its own right—people started tracking down copies of the one extant Death single, a 45 that was, at this point, as old or older than many of the people hunting for it. Copies went for up to $800 on eBay, and DJs began spinning tracks at secretive parties and distributing MP3s amongst themselves via blogs and mixes. It was at one of these parties where Bobby and Dannis’s kids stumbled across the musical black sheep in their family.
As chronicled by “A Band Called Death,” the rest of the story is still being written. The band, with a replacement for David, who passed away from lung cancer in 2000, is on the road right now. Their full-length record is finally available for public consumption, and with the release of the film, word is only spreading. “A Band Called Death” has been making the festival rounds this year—I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival—it is now widely available from various streaming video on demand services, and Drafthouse Films is giving it a theatrical release beginning later this month. Check it out if you get a chance, even if you don’t give a shit about punk rock or music, it’s a moving story of dedication, perseverance, and faith, and a damn fine time to boot.