Around a year ago, rare copies of Death 7-inch vinyl records began selling for unbelievable prices on the internet to music collectors who recognized the group as the pre-punk innovator that it was. One fan passed his excitement and the band’s songs on to Chicago-based Drag City Records, who went on to release the first-ever Death album, 38 years after the group began.
The Hackneys grew up in Detroit as the city was becoming famous for its Motown sound, and started in 1971 as a funk/rhythm-and-blues group. David steered the brothers toward another style coming out of Detroit, the noisy garage-rock sound being produced by the likes of the MC5 and The Stooges. That flew in the face of what was expected of young black musicians in Motown. For a more detailed background, find and see the movie 'A Band Called Death'. It's awesome.
Hey guys. Introduce yourselves, please.
Bobby H: I'm Bobby Hackney, I'm the bassist and vocalist with the band Death.
Dennis H: I'm Dennis Hackney, I'm the drummer.
Bobbie D: I'm Bobbie Duncan, I'm the guitarist.
The press release for this record says you've come full-circle, but it seems more triangular. There are three clear moments in Death's history; when the band formed, when the 7" was discovered, and then now. Is it really going in a circle? Have you come round to the beginning again, because you're a band again, playing these songs?
BH: It's full-circle, but it's also triangular. We really concentrate on that triangle, because with the band, that was David's concept. As much as we used to hear all his concepts about the triangle, we can really feel it now. Because it's all in place. When someone leaves you, you always feel like they're above you. You never see anybody look down to talk to a person that's left. They always look up. So David is at the top of that triangle, and here we are, down here, doin' our thing. Basically what you said is the spirit of Death. It's a spiritual, mental, physical trip, man.
At the beginning of Death, you were making this ferocious, angry, raw, protest music. What were you angry about? You were talented musicians living in Detroit at the end of the '60s! It must have been amazing there, at that time.
D: We were angry about trying to maintain the identity that we wanted. We were angry because people around us didn't accept it. We were angry because we tried to do things that other rock bands did, but it didn't work out for us. We'd try to book ourselves in a club and either we was too fast, too unknown, or in a few cases too black. What you see now is just a continuation of what we wanted to do. If Dave had not been taken away, what you see would be a completion of what he wanted to do. Just continuing on from when the music got picked up, discovered.
How much did David's death affect where you are now? If you didn't have David's legacy to think about, would we be having this conversation?
BH: We were basically musicians from the time that we decided to play instruments, in 1969. We set out on a mission to play music. Our mission was to play music for life with each other. When that didn't work out, me and Dennis carried on in the hope that David would re-join us in some shape, form or fashion one day. We went through a lot of pain, watching his demise, but now it goes back to the full-circle thing. Because it feels like he's here with us just now. He just transcends the whole situation here. His spirit is our spirit, and vice-versa. When the music was discovered and people were asking if we could play Death music again, at the time we had been playing reggae music for over twenty years! We didn't know ourselves whether we could play Death again! One of the things that helped us get back into that focus was that me and Dennis would spend days on end talking about the things we had planned in that room in Detroit, and the things that we wanted to do. We realised that we may have an opportunity to do them. That was a real inspiration to get back into the music. That's what makes it so much fun. We left a lot of fun on the table in Detroit, man. It's beautiful to be able to pick it back up.
It was written somewhere that you "changed your name to 4th Movement", but surely 4th Movement was a different band? You didn't change the name of the band, did you?
BH: Hahaha! You gotta understand, we were Death from 1973 all the way to 1980. It was around that time that we had been through so much rejection, that David finally came up with another name for the band. We had moved to Vermont, we'd tried to introduce the town to Death, and they thought we were bringing a gang from Detroit. It was after so much rejection, and under David's guidance, that we became 4th Movement. He actually did a funny twist on that, because the triangle he had, there were four dots on it and the fourth one represented the guiding spirit. So he said "OK, we're not gonna be Death, but this is how we're gonna hold onto Death. We're gonna be called the 4th Movement." Because that's what death is - the fourth movement. You have a spiritual, mental, physical life; then you go to the fourth movement.
An extension of Death.
BH: An extension of Death! Exactly. David put a lot of elements of what we talked about with Death into that name, into the 4th Movement. That's one of the reasons we embraced it so much. We still went through a lot of rejection as 4th Movement, because it was a gospel-oriented rock n' roll band. Everybody loved the music, but they just couldn't get around the words. We were the 4th Movement, but we were still rough and rugged, you know? Doin' our Death stuff on the side! Haha!
How big a thing was it to start operating under a different name, after so long? Was it like conceding? Or was it bringing an end to Death?
BH: It wasn't that we wanted to change the name for that reason. The great thing about Death, and all these groups that we were in, was that we loved each other, and we loved playing music with each other. We loved creating. We really wanted to be big, and we really believed that we would be heard one day, but it was really about the art. Especially with David. David was always confident, David was "This is gonna happen, man. This is gonna happen". You couldn't shake him. A bad gig wouldn't shake him, losing a contract wouldn't shake him, he was always adamant about the fact that "It's not us that's crazy, it's them".
Did the changes in the music you were making reflect changes in the music you were listening to at the time? You always say you were turned on to heavy music by Alice Cooper, and there's definitely the Stooges and the MC5 in there too, but were you listening to other stuff when 4th Movement came about?
BH: Yeah. We were always writing about the things that we felt. Rock n' roll was the voice, man. And it still is, if radio and the public let it be. You can still hear that voice. It's like a watchtower cry. You know? War is not right, we live in a corrupt system - and it's not just one system, it's the world system. When there's a man in the street, sleeping in front of a mansion, it's that contrast that makes rock n' roll the voice of any generation. That's what we were into. If anybody knows rock history, it's America. There were two years that were very pivotal - 1967 and 1968. In 1967 you had magical things that happened at a concert for the first time; you had Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin on the same stage, you know?! It was a big festival (the Monterey Pop Festival), and nobody had ever seen a festival like that before in music. And that inspired the next festival, which was the biggest one, that was Woodstock. With Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish, Richie Havens, The Who and Hendrix and everybody! But the whole message was peace and love, the whole message was "power to the people!" We were against the war in Vietnam, man. Nobody wanted to get drafted and yet we had a president in the White House who was adamant about continuing a failure of a war. You see that all around the world today. Rock n' roll has always been that cry. I mean, we loved The Beatles when they first came out, the first three or four years when they were soft and cuddly and everything, the bubblegum time. But man, when those guys came out with Sgt. Pepper in 1967 and when John Lennon was the real watchtower voice, he was demonstrating to the world that something wasn't right. That's what we tuned into, that's what affected us. And it was just a great music to dance around to, to jump to! Rock n' roll, man!
DH: All the way from back then, to groups like Pussy Riot. You talk about a "watchtower voice", those are watchtower voices. Those girls are on the front line. They take the crap that we talk about. In America and Europe, we enjoy a certain amount of freedom. We can say what we want and we can do what we want but over they they can't say what they want. They can't even play rock n' roll. I want to give a shout out to those girls, I want to tell them to keep on keepin' on, and I hope you can make it to America one day.
When people like Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins started talking about how good you guys are, did it make you re-evaluate the music you made in the past?
BH: It made me fall off my chair! That's a whole generation for me, because my sons grew up listening to those dudes. That was the music all the skateboarders would listen to. Bobbie was turning me on to Henry Rollins, Bad Brains, Gorilla Biscuits... Groups like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag. People say we "pre-dated the punk sound", but we didn't. You see, in 1974 the word "punk" wasn't even phrased yet. It was rock n' roll. In Detroit, if you called someone a punk, you got either one of two things - a bloody nose or a black eye. We just called it hard-drivin' Detroit rock n' roll. We did hear a lot of those bands that came along as part of the punk era, and some of that stuff reminded us of some of the stuff we did in Detroit, you know?
When US punk started to change and evolve, around 1980, were you aware? Did you care? Things moved away from spiky hair and spitting...
BH: We were doing reggae music, but through my son and his friends, through the skateboard fraternity, we were hearing a lot of that music. Things were getting faster, and the lyrics were changing. We used to say to our sons, "You know, me and your dad were in a rock n' roll band in Detroit", and they would go "Yeah dad, whatever", because they had never heard the Death stuff.
Did you ever point out that you were playing that music long before those guys?
BH: I never said "long before", I'd just kinda say "This reminds me of a band me and your uncles were in, in Detroit". They would just look at me, because all they had heard was the reggae stuff. Haha!
So from the 7" getting passed to Drag City, how long was it before you started to notice things changing?
DH: That was quite a transition, man. The west coast record collectors and the underground DJs was what made us take notice. We'd get calls about what we used to do, about the old recordings, and we'd just pass it off, like "Yeah, it's just some collector looking for a record". Then we got the news from Bobby's son Julian that these guys were actually playing the records at parties and stuff, it kind of took us by surprise. That's when the whole scenario changed, when his son realised that we were in a good rock n' roll band! Hahaha! That kinda brings up your cool-level with your kids! We were definitely enjoying a new level of cool. We never told them about the bad things, just the good things!
How come there's such little footage of you guys from way back?
BH: I wish we had more live footage, man. We just didn't get much of a chance to play live that much. Or at all. David tried to book us at some shows, but this time he booked us at an all-black cabaret, at a Masonic temple. Hahaha! They were working people, factory workers, and they want to hear stuff like Al Green and Aretha Franklin and B.B. King, they want to hear blues and stuff. This was a packed house, and it was bring-your-own-bottle. So we're up playing the blues, and then we go into our Death stuff, and after every song you could hear a pin drop. We'd be playing rock n' roll, then go into this crescendo, end the song like BANG, then it would be silent. You could hear the mice running around. Hahaha! I wish we had footage of us playing, but back in the 70s nobody was recording anything unless you had a big production going on or something like that. It was hard for us to get a gig that we wanted. One of the rock clubs did give us a show, but it was on a Monday night, outside of Detroit, in Ann Arbor. There were only two couples on the floor dancing. They were older couples, but at least they were dancing! The promoter said to us at the end of the night that we were a good band, but we had to change the name. We heard that a lot!
DH: It wasn't a name you wanted to put on a marquee.
It's the best name ever.
BH: We waited a whole generation to hear that! Hahaha! Every time somebody would ask for the name of the band, it was like David just could not wait for this opportunity. He would just put this face on and say "DEATH". Just to see the reaction. People on the phone would think we were making a prank call.
It says a lot that you guys stuck with the name, and struggled with it, rather than just listening to the first person that told you to change it. I doubt that would happen nowadays. Do you think there's ever going to be a musical revolution again?
BH: Radio kind of blocked out everybody. That was one of our frustrations when we were putting those records out. Up until a few years before, you would be able to go up with the acetate, straight from the record pressing plant, go right to the disc jockey, and they'd play it. That's how a lot of hits were born in Detroit. By the time we put out our little single, the radio stations were going really corporate and disco was taking over. A lot of rock acts defected to disco! It was a weird time, the mid-seventies. So as long as people embrace it. I think with the technology, it's not something anybody would be able to stop. It's going to be interesting to see what happens. I was watching television the other day and they were advertising the new YouTube single! And the adverts used to say "Get it at Sears! Get it at Walmart! Get it here! Get it there! Get it wherever!" Now it just says "Download it from iTunes". And these are just the big companies. I sure hope there is a musical revolution. And I hope it's good!
Am I right that you guys are making new music again?
BD: As a matter of fact we are. We released a single by the name of Relief, and that's on the album which is dropping later this year. There's also a Death archive album out now, called the III, the third installment.
BH: There's some new stuff on there as well as a flavour of what we did in the past. It's gonna be a great year for music for Death, man! We're just continuing on what Death set out to do. Real rock n' roll! It's been so long now, we don't care about being accepted, we can do what we want! Rock n' roll, alright?! Hahaha!