Never Say Die
Until 2009, theirs looked like it would be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll story never told. It has everything; family, religion, race and even a deathbed prophecy. I’m referring, of course, to the story of Death.
Formed by three brothers in Detroit in the early ‘70s, Death was an all black proto-punk band who, on merit, deserved a place in the cannon next to fellow Michiganders the Stooges and the MC5 but who, due to personal stubbornness and industry shortsightedness, were only “discovered” in 2009. Following the circulation of their only self-pressed single online, the band’s music generated enough buzz to warrant Drag City to release the songs from their debut album, For the Whole World to See. This led to a movie, a reunion of the surviving brothers, Bobby and Dennis and vindicated David Hackney’s prediction that the band would only gain popularity after his passing. Oh, and by the way, the reason the band never landed a recording contract in the ‘70s? David refused to change the group’s name because “Death” was such a central concept to his vision of the band.
For the Whole World to See was rightly regarded as a lost classic and it was followed up in 2011 by another album full of archival recordings, Spiritual Physical Mental which, despite often being demo-quality and being padded by unrealized jams, contained further evidence of the band’s talent. Now Drag City is releasing what it claims is the last of the band’s archival ‘70s material entitled simply III.
Given its backstory, it’s hard to imagine that III will be much more than an exercise in barrel-scraping, wringing out every last cent possible out of Death’s extraordinary history, regardless of the quality. What’s surprising then (especially given the spottiness of Spiritual Physical Mental) is how many great recordings the band still had left in the vault. “North Street” is a nervy, fire-breathing rant about life in the ghetto that would have fit perfectly on For the Whole World to See. Bobby’s lyrics walk the listener through post-riots Detroit—a world where hope is replaced with drugs, teenage girls grow up too fast and the powerful insulate themselves for the reality they created. The sense of anger is underlined by David’s messianic guitar work which spits out fiery licks while the rhythm section maintains the tweaked-out, caffeinated pace of someone who might have to flee for the life at any time. Another highlight, “Restlessness” picks up where “You’re a Prisoner” from their debut left off. As the title suggests, it speaks to the unfulfilled feeling that comes from a life where people have few resources, few options and little hope of things improving.
After giving up on Death, the Hackney brothers moved to Burlington, Vermont in the late ‘70s and formed a Christian psych-rock band called 4th Dimension. Those spiritual inclinations start showing up here on III, most notably on the spaced-out Jesus tribute “Yes He’s Coming”. Although not as galvanizing as their best material, the echoey production (if you can can call it that, given the rough audio quality) and determined hopefulness of the lyrics provide an essential insight into David’s vision for Death, which wasn’t a nihilistic punk band but rather a rock group that explored all aspects of life, including, well, death (which he called “the ultimate trip”.
The group’s spiritual side can also be seen on the lo-fi guitar jam “Free” and the album’s would-be centerpiece “We’re Only People”. The latter is a nearly nine-minute workout that meanders it’s way through it’s first half with slow strummed guitar before bursting into a full-on pop number, the ultimate message of which is essentially “life is short, all we can do is make the most of it.” Although it doesn’t quite land as the grand statement that David might have envisioned, it’s still a solid framework for a song that would have probably only improved with further attention and studio time. The Lord even manages to worm his (or her) way into “Open Road”, a number that sounds like Hendrix trying to write a country song, which turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable combination.
The last album by a band with a story as amazing as Death’s (and it’s hard overstate how impressive it is—any music fan owes it to themselves to see out A Band Called Death) could only end with something prophetic and III doesn’t disappoint. I don’t know if the plan all along was to release “We’re Gonna Make It” as the final song on the final album but if it wasn’t, it should have been. Given everything the band has been through, it’s the kind of song whose performance wouldn’t leave leave a dry eye in the house. Behind an almost sitarish guitar line, triumphant horns and a laid-back groove, Bobby sings about loyalty, perseverance and hope with a radiance that pierces any gloom. Like “Keep on Pushing”, “Lean on Me” and “The Ballad of el Goodo”, “We’re Gonna Make It” is an all-time great comfort anthem. Given David’s prediction that the band would become popular only after his passing, it emotional impact is hard to overstate. If this is indeed Death’s final word (at least from its original lineup) then this is certainly a fine way to close the book on one of rock’s greatest stories.