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Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early '70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hoped of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death's music - and band name - too intimidating, and the group were never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made it way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossible ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (hell...the first punk band!), and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers. Written by
In recent years there seems to have been a cycle of music documentaries about musicians of whom success has eluded. In Anvil: the Story of Anvil we have a band who have had extremely limited success over a very long period, in Searching for Sugarman we have an artist who had extremely minor success and then disappeared only to be rediscovered a quarter of a century later to great acclaim and in 20 Feet from Stardom we have the story of singers whose work we hear everywhere but of whom remain unfairly obscure. A Band Called Death contains elements of all of these documentaries, except in this one the band didn't even release an album until 35 years after their initial demo.
Death were a Detroit proto-punk band. Not only that but they were an all-black proto-punk band, which makes them very unique. There were very few black musicians operating in this area of music back in the 70's. Its details like this that makes their story all the more unusual. Having heard their music, I have to say it was pretty good. Forget proto-punk, this stuff sounded more like post-punk. Its combination of aggression with tight highly skilled musicianship was certainly ahead of its time and sounds more like the more expansive alternative rock that followed in the wake of the punk years. I suppose, looking back on it, being so ahead of their time was one of the problems the band had in getting a record deal. Likewise, their name was a major handicap. Band leader David Hackney conceived of the name and insisted on it being retained at all costs. This of course led to the group losing the one record contract they were offered. It is testament to David's principles but it does seem like a self-defeating stance, as it's the music that counts most, the name is so much less important and we are left wondering what could have been. Of course, a name like 'Death' and music such as theirs is entirely in-step with today's contemporary alternative rock, which is why they were rediscovered to such fanfare. It's great to see them finally have their time in the sun.
The two surviving brothers are genuinely good blokes and we learn most of the story of the band from them. Their brother David died some time round about the year 2000 of lung cancer, so there is a bittersweet nature to the band's late acceptance and success. David was the main visionary of the band. He was a dreamer. It is sad that he never saw the band achieve its long-overdue success but until his dying day he always was convinced that one day people would come looking for their music. And he was proved correct. The film perhaps falls a bit short in detailing the Detroit rock scene of the time. It almost paints a picture where Death were the lone purveyors of this kind of confrontational rock music. This makes them seem more unique but it would have been good if the documentary at least acknowledged fellow Detroit pioneers such as The Stooges and The MC5. It would have put the band and Detroit itself into a bit more historical context. Also, it would have been interesting to know if they had a local following at the time and played any gigs. But, despite these minor issues, the film is still very successful because these guys were genuinely good and it's not a rose tinted spectacle affair. The film also functions as a mechanism for their music to reach an even wider audience and this in itself is a good enough reason for its existence. But the main thing is that now Death have been added to the rock family tree as an important precursor to punk and alternative rock. Even if, in the final analysis, none of that changes the fact that 'Death' is still a terrible name for a band
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