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November 1, 2013 at 10:30 AM

A band called Death finds new life | Concert preview

Death

Proto-punks Death — from left, Dannis Hackney, Bobbie Duncan and Bobby Hackney — in 2013. Photo by Samdarko Eltosam.

What’s in a name? For Detroit’s Death, everything.

In the early 1970s, singer-guitarist David Hackney and his brothers, bassist Bobby and drummer Dannis, took cues from their rock’n’roll heroes Jimi Hendrix and The Who, but played with fury and speed unheard of at the time — punk, before it existed.

For a trio of African-American kids performing music this loud and fast in the heart of Motown, opportunities didn’t come easy — in any part of town.

“We played some all-black cabarets, but that didn’t work out too well,” Bobby remembers. “We were looked upon as being weird — both by our community, and the rock’n’roll white community — so it was precarious to get a gig in those days.”

Undeterred, the brothers continued sharpening their sound, and labels soon came calling. But there was another problem.

The name.

Death.

“It was radical to call your band that back then,” explains Dannis. “People couldn’t get used to it. They were scared.”

Columbia Records offered them a deal on the condition they change the name, but youngest brother and principal songwriter David steadfastly refused, quashing the contract, and, effectively, the band.

Bobby and Dannis continued to play in gospel and reggae groups, yet couldn’t recapture Death’s explosive spirit. Neither could David who, retiring from professional music, passed away from lung cancer in 2000, at 50.

So, how is it these long-lost proto-punks are playing their first-ever Seattle show Saturday, at Chop Suey? Because of Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino’s 2013 documentary, “A Band Called Death.”

The film articulates the brothers’ unbreakable bond, even in tragedy, and the serendipitous rediscovery of their music by Bobby’s sons, Julian, Urian and Bobby Jr. — then, in turn, a new generation. (Watch the trailer here.)

For fans of 2012’s Oscar-winning “Searching for Sugar Man” — about another under-recognized Motor City native, singer-songwriter Rodriguez — “A.B.C.D.” is a companion of sorts.

“We don’t know Rodriguez,” says Dannis, “but I have a strong feeling my brother David might’ve bumped shoulders with him in Detroit.”

Much like “Sugar Man” shed new light on Rodriguez’s music, “A.B.C.D.” has given Death rebirth. Raucous songs like “Keep on Knockin’” (listen) and “Politicians in My Eyes” (listen) still sound fresh — and now, 40 years later, the next chapter is being written.

With guitarist-vocalist Bobbie Duncan in David’s stead, Death cut a single, “Relief” (listen), in 2012, and recently completed a new 10-song LP, due next year. Both not only prove that the band is more than just a historical footnote, but that it’s very much alive.

“I have to agree with the historians who say Death was ahead of its time,” Bobby says. “David always believed our music would resurface. He was right.”

And they’re still called Death.

Death, Unnatural Helpers, Magic Mouth
9 p.m. Saturday at Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle; $20-25 (206-324-8005 or chopsuey.com)

Comments | More in Rock/Pop | Topics: Concert Preview, Detroit, punk

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