Monday, December 13th, 2010 | musiX
To this day, there’s something about Detroit that still captures the imagination. Once a shining beacon of American industrialization, the Motor City also gave the world Motown in addition to countless blues and jazz artists. Of course, throughout the ’60s and ’70s Detroit became an epicenter for all things rock ‘n’ roll—Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Creem Magazine, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper—and it could be said Detroit’s gritty skyline also spawned punk rock in the form of The Stooges and MC5.
Then there’s a little band called Death, made up of three brothers from Detroit who caught a whiff of rock ‘n’ roll and never turned back. They never really got their due, either—not until some 35 years later. Last year Drag City released …For the Whole World to See, a collection of songs recorded in 1974, not long after Dannis, Bobby and David Hackney decided to stop playing R&B and change their name from the Rock Fire Funk Express to the simple, effective, ominous Death (not to be confused with the Florida metal band). Detroit’s Death played jittery punk rock with a sinewy rhythm section—as the New York Times would later put it: “Punk before punk was punk.” It didn’t last long, though. The members balked when it was suggested they change their name to something more agreeable. After self-releasing 500 copies of the single “Politicians In My Eyes,” the LP was shelved, and that was that.
Needless to say music publications got all hot and bothered last year upon the release of …For the Whole World to See, and rightfully so. But Death’s story doesn’t end there. It was recently announced that Drag City would be releasing more lost material under the title Spiritual, Mental, Physical (out January 25), which includes songs that preceded the 1974 sessions. The collection feels immensely intimate—almost as if you’re sitting in on one of the band’s rehearsals. “The Masks” and “Can You Give Me a Thrill???” are full on—vocals are barked, guitars throttle, and Dannis Hackney’s drums alone could rattle the skin off your skull.
Spiritual, Mental, Physical isn’t what I’d call consistent; the record loses some of its clang and bang toward the back half. But who cares? I sleep better at night knowing that three black kids from Detroit—who called themselves Death—were making this kind of racket around the same time John Denver was singing “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” And with the auto industry crumbling and Detroit’s population having plummeted by almost half since the 1960s, Death’s music might be even more revelatory in 2010.
“Can You Give Me a Thrill???” – Death