This post has been updated. See note below for details.
Bassist and singer Bobby Hackney Sr. gawked wide-eyed at the framed photos of Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Fatty Arbuckle and other stars from the early days of Hollywood, which lined the walls of the theater where he and his bandmates were going to be performing in a few hours.
“I wish my wife could be here,” Hackney, 57, said last Friday as he snapped iPhone photos of the vintage pictures for her. “She loves silent movies.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Death band: An article in the July 6 Calendar section about the Detroit punk band Death identified a reggae band subsequently formed by two of the members of Death as Lamb’s Breath. That group’s name is Lambsbread. —
Hardly the heartwarming scene you’d expect for the lead singer of a band called Death, now being toasted as an overlooked innovator, probably the first black punk band in history and one of the earliest punk outfits of any kind.
The group, which includes Hackney’s brother Dannis, 59, on drums and their longtime friend Bobbie Duncan, 54, on lead guitar, is the subject of an unlikely pop music fairy tale, one not lacking in tragic undercurrents. That tale is explored in the new documentary “A Band Called Death,” which traces the band’s beginnings in Detroit in the early 1970s to its recent reincarnation.
“We’d been living this incredible story,” Bobby said, “but we had no idea how incredible it was.”
The film opened Friday for what was slated as a one-week run at the Cinefamily Theater (formerly the Silent Movie Theater) on Fairfax in midtown L.A., an event that inspired the band to fly in to give a handful of live performances. Because of the enthusiastic response, the engagement has been extended through July 10, and matinee screenings have been added this weekend at the Laemmle Monica 4 in Santa Monica and the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse theater.
The new attention Death has drawn as a result of the film, which was sparked in part by the band’s discovery by obsessive record collectors, seems as much a part of the Hollywood dream factory as the faces of the stars that caught Bobby Hackney’s eye.
That was hardly the case four decades ago. Although inundated by the sounds of Motown R&B and soul music in the Motor City, brothers Bobby, Dannis and guitarist David Hackney were drawn more to rock ever since their father plopped the family in front of their TV set in 1964 to watch the Beatles debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“Not long after that, David found an old guitar in the trash and that was the start of it,” Dannis said after taking up a seat on a leather sofa next to his brother and Duncan, who were flanked by “A Band Called Death” filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino.
Also influenced by the Who, the Doors and other rock titans of the time, the Hackney brothers “sped up the tempo and the intensity,” and developed a sound and contentious attitude that was a few years ahead of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and other early punk bands.
“If I could play chords like [the Who’s] Peter Townshend and play lead like Jimi Hendrix,” David Hackney says in the film, “that would be the ideal guitar player.”
As the documentary explains, the brothers’ choice of the name Death in 1970 was the kiss of death. The band pressed 500 copies of a single — a rave-up rocker “Keep On Knockin’ ” and the politically charged “Politicians in My Eyes” — but executives at radio stations and record companies couldn’t get past the band name.
The group even attracted the attention of music mogul Clive Davis, who offered the Hackneys a deal if they’d come up with another name. But David Hackney, who had concocted the name after their father died tragically in 1968, was adamant about holding onto that identity.
Lacking momentum of any kind in Detroit, the Hackneys moved to New England, where the drive to establish Death waned. David moved back to Detroit, while Bobby and Dannis stayed behind and started a reggae group with guitarist Duncan called Lamb’s Breath. David descended into a downward spiral that ended with his death in 2000. Before he died, he delivered all the Death master tapes to Bobby for safekeeping, in anticipation of the day when he adamantly believed “the world will come looking for this music.”
Flash-forward to 2008 when some music geeks took notice of a copy of Death’s single listed for $800 on EBay. A search for the band’s members and any other music they made was on. In 2009 the independent Drag City Records label located master tapes of nearly an album’s worth of Death songs, which it issued for the first time as "… For the Whole World to See.”
There are several parallels between “A Band Called Death,” and last year’s film festival hit “Searching for Sugar Man,” the equally offbeat tale of a talented but long-forgotten Detroit musician who unexpectedly finds fame and a whole new audience decades later.
For Howlett, it was a project too good to pass up. He’d known Bobby Hackney Sr. as a friend and fellow musician for 20 years but had no idea about his musical life before Lamb’s Breath. After Bobby and Dannis’ sons discovered Death, they decided to put a band together and give that music new life.
Howlett recalls Bobby Hackney Sr. inviting him to a gig to watch his son perform his music, which Howlett assumed was the reggae of Lamb’s Breath. When the group launched into supercharged punk songs, “I couldn’t believe it,” Howlett said.
In addition to the documentary’s run at Cinefamily, it’s also now available on iTunes and Video on Demand services. They’ve lined up distribution in the U.S, Australia and New Zealand, and are working on finding a European distributor. (The documentary comes to DVD in mid-August.)
As for the band itself, Death is feeling good about the future. Having seen its original recordings finally rise to the surface and the creation of the documentary, the band is looking forward. In addition to reviving its original songs, Death has dusted off a notebook full of lyrics the members wrote some 40 years ago and are writing new music to some of them as well as all-new material.
“We’ve got the old-new songs, the new-old songs, and the new-new songs,” Dannis said with a hearty laugh that’s heard often in the film.
“Every single day,” Bobby said, “it seems there’s somebody who has just heard the music. That’s why we say, ‘Every day is an amazing day for Death.’ ”