Death Was Here

Before there was punk, there were three black brothers in Detroit making noise in a band called Death.

It’s a tenuous time for white privilege in the United States. Black people in the U.S., quite frankly, busted ass over the course of hundreds of years to go from being literal property to owning property and being able to (kind of?) vote and use the same public and private buildings, services, and- Lord have mercy- water fountains as white people (among a host of other things that will take up roughly 30 posts if not more; don’t get me going on environmental justice and food deserts). In 2014, bleeding heart liberal white people like myself were reminded by the police perpetrated murder of black teenager Michel Brown of just how far we hadn’t and haven’t come. Two years  after the murder of Michael Brown, white liberals and many, if not most, people of color and poor people were all delivered another swift kick to the balls when reality star and really shit businessman Donald Trump was elected “democratically” to lead the U.S.

As science has proven, we are all victims of implicit bias. You can safely say we are all a bit “racist, sexist, and whatever-ist” despite what the Atlantic says. We are taking mental shortcuts (and that’s how stereotypes happen, friends). However, the U.S. has gone straight up tribal in terms of -isms. While this has been occurring, there has been a breakdown within the reigning (and only viable because of our stupid electoral system) liberal party in the U.S. The Democratic congresspeople sit on their thumbs or singular giant thumb (ouch) as the conservatives and other fringe actors run away with intolerance.  Friends, even in the 1940s, the U.S. and other Allied countries had this figured out with the denazification of Germany and Austria: even if we have free speech here, when we are tolerant of messages of hate, hate will take advantage of our tolerance. It’s like an abusive relationship. The longer you stay in it, the more likely you are to be stuck with it and accept it as normal.

Why do white people have an axe to grind? I can’t speak for all white people because I do not understand it completely. I do know a lot of it stems from competition and feelings of inferiority as well as misconceptions. I’ve heard more than one person in real life (mainly white men, but the occasional white woman which is always truly disappointing) express negative sentiments about interracial dating– something I will never understand.

And why not be jealous? My implicit bias is that black people in the U.S. are fucking good at everything that I personally enjoy (so maybe I feel less jealous and more in awe). Music? Sports? The Presidency? The arts?! Activism?! But we can appreciate that and not act like every time a white person does something it is the greatest thing ever done because a black person has mostly likely been doing it for longer and better minus colonizing places though does DuSable did found Chicago (and then walked away). Yes, many white people at the top have been living a lie.

Punk rock is no exception to something black people did both first and well. Before anyone else was doing punk– a band called Death was doing punk. 

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My quick time saving stereotype of old punk rock is sinewy white guys. Many of them are dead from heroine, vomiting in their own mouths, or some other untimely death. The ones that are still kicking resemble beef jerky.

NOT SO FAST (from “Detroit Proto-Punk Band Death Comes Alive With New Political Anthem That ‘Transcends Time”):

It was 1971 in downtown Detroit, a few good years before the dawn of punk, and three young African American brothers — David Hackney (guitars, vocals), Bobby Hackney (bass, vocals), and Dennis Hackney (drums) — were escaping the tension and instability of the era by playing their loud, angular music in an upstairs bedroom from 3 to 6 p.m. every day while their parents waited patiently for practice time to end. They started out calling themselves Rock Fire Funk Express, but after they saw the Who in concert, they changed their name to Death and turbo-charged their songs.

Maybe Death weren’t full-on punk in the vein of the Ramones, the Dead Boys, or the Sex Pistols, but they were fast and furious, combining the revolutionary spirit of MC5 and the Stooges with the musicality of funk acts like Parliament and classic rockers like Bob Seeger and Alice Cooper. And their proto-punk lyrics addressed the motives of politicians, the horrors of war, and the hardships they faced trying to get noticed. Songs like “Politicians in my Eyes,” with its half-talked, half-screamed vocals, rolling basslines, and abrupt guitar stabs (before the melodic chorus), and “Freakin Out,” propelled by a galvanic blues riff, more jagged guitar work, and speedy, confrontational vocals, were especially aggressive for the mid-‘70s.

Raised in a funk town, Death made Detroit a punk town too. Death’s humble beginnings went largely unnoticed. Clive Davis helped fund a few recordings but dropped Death after they refused to change their bad ass name (mistake, Clive). Death subsequently broke up in 1977 and went about their separate ways, still pursuing individual music projects. In 2000, they lost their brother and bandmate, David.

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In 2009, Drag City, the Jesus of music labels, released Death songs from 1975 under the album title “…For The Whole World To See”. A lot more of the world got to know Death in the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death.

Although Death missed several years of fame and playing time, the timing of their exposure could not be more perfect. A band of black guys who wrote, preformed, and sang rebellious anti-government punk songs during a time when the ruling party is very clearly anti-POC, anti-working and middle class, anti-equal rights, anti-poor people, anti-environment? We need Death more than ever.

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Death is still performing with two of the original members, brother Bobby and Dennis. In 2014, Death released their third studio album III, and in 2015 their most recent record, entitled N.E.W. was released.

Please enjoy my favorite Death song, “Freakin’ Out”.

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Author: Keelin Billue

Chicago-based millennial who would annoy her loved ones to death if she didn't have a writing outlet.

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