Punk rock was started by a black band.
Ok, maybe not but Detroit’s amazing Death, formed in 1971, were right in there inbetween the Stooges and MC5 and the New York explosion. They recorded about seven amazing songs that you can hear on youtube and then fucked off.
Along with Bad Brains and Pure Hell they are part of a clutch of bands who thankfully retell the story of punk rock from a different perspective.
Because the story of punk is somehow, sadly, white.
It wasn’t meant to be like that. When punk started there were black punks- Don Letts for one- and a clutch of black faces in London and Manchester.
There was the punk reggae party- the great crossover, opening possibilities. Reggae was part of the soundtrack, Bob Marley acknowledged the punks in song and dub was everywhere in punk opening up the compressed sound giving it a sense of space. Tracks from Gen X’s ace ‘Wild Dub’ to the Clash’s fusing of the styles to the Ruts perfect dub punk synthesis to Public Image’s dub fused soundscapes and even the Stranglers ‘Peaches’ acknowledged the form. And that was before we tip a pork pie hat to Two Tone.
But as the years went by punk slowly became the whitest of musics which is not necessarily a problem but a little crossover party flavouring is always healthy!
Somehow, though, just beyond the narrative that we know and love there is a great clutch of black punk bands.
Everyone should know about Bad Brains- four rastas playing fast as fuck hardcore split with reggae. They have become one of the most influential bands in America. Without them- no Minor Threat. No DC hardcore. No New York Hardcore. Maybe no Chili Peppers and by extension no funk metal. The list is endless. They don’t always get the credit but those that know. Know.
There was also Pure Hell- a fantastic rush of sound produced by Sex Pistols Steve Jones in the early eighties, who have recently reformed.
And there was also Death who have been lost in the sands of time.
Death were three brothers – Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis (drums) Hackney who formed the band in Detroit, Michigan, in 1971.
They started out playing R’n’B in the amazing music city of Detroit. The motor city is arguably the best music city in the USA (can you argue against Stooges/MC5/Motown/George Clinton/acid house and even Eminem?).
Seeing an Alice Cooper gig in 1971 they switched to rock. But they went way beyond the comedy schlock of Cooper and played a fast, speed thrills, precursor to punk rock by about five years and hardcore by about ten.
It made success almost impossible in the cozy USA of the seventies. Playing music like this in perhaps the richest mainstream society in history and a music scene where soporific soft rock was the radio staple was never going to work. The white mainstream also wasn’t in a rush to embrace three black kids playing a fierce rock music but in 1975 they got their one break.
Columbia boss Clive Davis funded a demo for the band but asked them to change their name from Death- the band, again presaging punk rock, refused to be pushed around by the corporates and refused.
Since this was 1975 there was no safety net of the underground to fall back into and Death were basically fucked.
The backing was pulled from them and they recorded seven songs instead of the intended twelve which, the following year they self-released on 500 copies of the 7″ single “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knocking,” on their Tryangle label, which eventually became a collectors’ item before being re-released by Drag City in 2009.
A busted flush the brothers moved to Virginia in the eighties and released two albums of gospel rock, David died in 2000 of lung cancer whilst the remaining two brothers formed the reggae band Lambsbread. Their sons recently formed a tribute band called Rough Francis playing Death songs whilst last year a reformed Death played three shows with original members Bobby and Dannis Hackney, and guitarist Bobbie Duncan.
Their music was amazing. They are not here because they are a curio. They stand the test of time and their music is tight, fast and thrilling and the songs are incredible. All connoisseurs of punk rock should check the band out.
Please go and check the youtube clips now!
Really useful insight into Death along with other important black punk bands, John. And I thought it was all about Bad Brains!
I’d like to first thank you John for acknowledging my band’s place in the genre of the primary punk movement, and also correct the fact that we were never produced by Steve Jones. Prior to the formation of the Sex Pistols, we came on to the NYC scene at the end of 1974 taking up residence at the New York Doll’s rehersal loft. When Malcom McLaren and Vivian Westwood assisted in designing their ‘red patent leather’ concept final tour dates. There certainly were venues earlier on in Detroit comprising the Stooges (who were signed due to the MC5), the Vanilla Fudge and the Funkadelics. You had to be raised during the sixties to be an accountable product of punk during the mid-seventies. Thanks again for your insight… ‘Kenney(Stinker)Gordon’
Sorry about Steve Jones error..always thought thatw as true…urban myth!
Pure Hell were also a great band…great story about rehearsing in new York Dolls loft…are you still living in New York? can I film an interview with you when I’m over in June?
Are you playing rebellion festival?
Sure we could make arrangements for an interview John, as i reside outside of Manhattan in New Jersey. I wanted the Rebellion August date (slot) with the New York Dolls, but it seems it’s too late to book for this year.
do you want me to have a word with rebellion?
It would surely help out if you incouraged our interest John. Contact my agent Gina at: therepagency.net with any up-dated information you recieve from Rebellion, and contact me at: email@example.com
If you could both put together a comprehensive ‘Where to start with Black Punk Rock’ list, I’d be grateful.
there will be more…I’m searching…
there were some key black punk rock faces on initial punk rock scenes- a black kid in manchester who is recognised as being the coolest punk in town and perhaps the first- no-one knows what became of him…
I’ve just this minute found the 7-track Death demo, courtesy of Soulseek and it’s astonishing. I thought I knew my punk rock history, but these guys weren’t even on my radar – thanks for the tip off!
amazing group and rock sold proof that the best bands dont always make it!
spread the word!
Just wanted to leave a note to say that I enjoyed this piece on Death very much. The reissued material on Drag City is really brilliant, and definitely lived up to all of the underground talk about Death which I had heard for ages. A monstrously talented band, with a great “fuck off” name, and a cool image. Such a shame to think that they didn’t break through at the time and earn their place in the “official” history of punk rock, but it’s gratifying to know that their music is still finding new listeners in 2010.
Found yr site via 3am Magazine, and will be reading through your older entries now, but I always enjoyed your writing (and music, caught Gold Blade play more than once when I lived in England) so I’ve got you bookmarked, and will be returning.
Thanks for the words mate-
one of the tragedies of rock n roll is all this great stuff that is buried beneath the service
Nice piece John. Couple of points though – Acid House came from Chicago not Detroit, and in 1971 Alice Cooper was some years away from his comedy-schlock phase. The albums ‘Love it to Death’ and ‘Killer’ (for some fans, the band’s pinnacle) were both released that year.
Many thanks ;D)
Thanks Geoff…I do like salt alice Cooper but he is no iggy!
You are right about acid house … But when ive been in Detroit and Chicago I’ve heard so many different stories about who was first that my head spins..
Treat yourself to the Love it to the Death/Killer/School’s Out albums John. You’ll thank me later ;D)
Known Bobby and Dannis for over 25 years and just came from a Lambsbread show. I went to see them during a break to say hello and they told me about DEATH and the popularity they are getting. So I looked it up. WOW!!!!! This band K.A. Never thought these guys had this type of music in them or were pioneers of PUNK. I hope they do a show here in Vermont. I’d love to see them do a PUNK Show
Such a great band..hope I got them some more fans…
Thank you for alerting me to this wonderful, forgotten band.