Wayne Kramer of the MC5 takes issue with the oft-repeated claim that Death was punk before there was punk. In the documentary A Band Called Death—about three black brothers from Detroit who, in 1975, recorded an intensely satisfying rock album that went unheard for 34 years—Kramer says the musicianship of Death “sets them apart from the rest of the punk-rock movement, because the idea [of punk] was you don’t really have to know how to play. I come from the school that says it matters if you know how to play, and clearly Death knew how to play!”
Reached at his home in Vermont, Bobby Hackney Sr., Death’s bassist and lyricist, is clearly pleased when I agree with the venerable Detroit guitarist: Death may have the energy of punk, but it’s better than most punk, musically.
“Aw, thank you, man, I appreciate that. David would love to hear you say that, because that was always his goal,” Hackney says, referring to his brother, Death’s guitarist and driving force, who died in 2000. “Most people just see it as a banging type of music, a young people’s type of music, but if you listen to the intricacies in rock, he always believed that rock music was an equivalent of the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and he always said there are people who understand it, and people who don’t.”
As for punk rock, “We never claimed the punk label,” Hackney says. “Back in Detroit in the days of 1974-75, if you called any one of us a punk, you would either get one of two things: a black eye or a bloody nose!”
At that time, the use of the term punk to describe a style of music wasn’t even current, he continues.
“We were just trying to be like Ted Nugent and Grand Funk and Iggy, man. When [the Stooges’] ‘1969’ came out, everybody thought that was the new sound of rock ’n’ roll. It was just so in-your-face and hard-driving. We were trying to be like those cats, man—the MC5 and all those guys. We didn’t think that we were playing punk music, or something that would be equated to punk.”
But did the brothers see the MC5 and the Stooges and such, back in the day?
“Oh, dude, yeah! That’s how we grew up,” Hackney enthuses. He has a long list of concerts and bands that mattered to him, from Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 at Michigan Palace to the Rolling Stones, with Stevie Wonder opening, on the Exile on Main Street tour. (“For only $8,” he brags.) From early Bob Seger to lesser-known acts like the Rationals, the Hackney brothers grew up steeped in Detroit rock, which is vibrantly evinced on …For the Whole World to See, their debut, which finally saw release in 2009.
Since the comeback, has Death gotten to interact with any of its old heroes? “Oh, definitely. Alice Cooper sent my brother an autographed album. Of course, we’ve met with Wayne Kramer. We almost did a tour with those guys. He did a 50th-anniversary tour, and he wanted us to be involved with that, but the timing wasn’t right for us.”
Given that this tour has been described as “the final curtain”, fans might be worried that, after 10 years, the re-formed Death might be ready to call it quits.
“It’s actually a play on words,” Hackney says, laughing. “You know in the great Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way’ he sings, ‘Now I must face the final curtain?’ That’s exactly what they call death: the final curtain! So that’s one of our many, many names!”
A Band Called Death screens at the Rickshaw Theatre on Tuesday (May 21). Death plays the Rickshaw on Wednesday (May 22).