In the 1970s, they were in a rock band, along with their other brother, David Hackney. That band, simply called Death, recorded a handful of demos, blew an opportunity at the big time and broke up. After moving from their hometown of Detroit to Vermont a few years later, Bobby and Dannis started playing reggae, which allowed them to tour, release albums and enjoy a modicum of success as musicians. David, meanwhile, never stopped believing the music of Death would eventually see the light of day. Shortly before succumbing to lung cancer in 2000, he gave the master tapes to Bobby, insisting the world would come looking for them. Bobby shuttered the tapes away—not even his three sons knew about them.
“They saw us as reggae musicians, they didn’t see us as anything else,” says drummer Dannis. “They were looking up to us. He was the cool dad and I was the cool uncle, so we kind of rolled with that. We didn’t want to bring them the old, disappointing Death stories.”
History, though, has a way of wriggling free from the strictest confines. Copies of Death’s lone official release—an ultra-rare 45-rpm single—made it into the hands of record collectors, and then online. In 2009, the Chicago label Drag City issued the seven songs the band managed to record in its lifetime, under the title For All the World to See. For rock historians, it was as if archaeologists had uncovered another Lucy. With Bobby’s elastic snarl decrying corrupt politicians and mindless conformists over frenzied rhythms more harried than the wildest garage rock of the era, critics heard an undiscovered through line linking fellow Motor City madmen like the MC5 to the fury later kicked up by the Ramones and the Clash. It was a “holy shit” moment: Three black siblings from inner-city Detroit had kind of, sort of invented punk rock.
Naturally, that came as news to the band.
“When we did this music in the ’70s, if you called somebody a ‘punk,’ you got a bloody nose,” says singer-bassist Bobby. “When the punk movement came about, we said some of those bands’ chord structures reminded us of what we did in Detroit, but we never really looked at it like this because we never considered us a punk band. We were just hard-driving Detroit rock ’n’ roll.”
However history wants to contextualize it, Death isn’t just a record-geek curio, but a truly kick-ass rock band that always deserved wider recognition. It almost got there the first time around. Clive Davis allegedly dangled a contract in front of them, with one condition: change the name. David, the guitarist and lead songwriter, refused. He came up with the “Death” moniker after their father died in a car accident. It wasn’t for blunt shock value: Deeply spiritual, David referred to death as “the ultimate trip,” a step closer to God. Without the name, the band meant nothing.
At the time, his brothers bristled at David’s decision to turn down the deal, and the group began unraveling. In retrospect, they’ve come to see his hard-nosed defiance as just another way the band was ahead of its time.
“Dannis and I joke now that it took us all these years to realize our brother, David, represented what the whole punk movement was about,” Bobby says. “He was definitely in that vein. He was off-beat and off-center, and full of aggression and determination and resolve about our music.”
He may have been the only one. As the recent documentary A Band Called Death makes clear, once Bobby and Dannis started their reggae band, Lambsbread, they filed Death away as a youthful failure, and even their bandmates—including Bobbie Duncan, who replaces David on guitar for Death’s reunion gigs—had no idea about their past.
Now that the secret’s out, the surviving Hackneys have re-embraced Death, touring and writing new music, largely as a tribute to their late brother. Ask what it’s like playing without David, though, and they’ll quickly correct you: He is still with them. Because if the past few years have taught the brothers anything, it’s that death is never the end.
“David may not be with us in the flesh,” Bobby says, “but as far as all the music and all the inspiration, he’s strong in that.”
SEE IT: Death plays Branx, 320 SE 2nd Ave., with P.R.O.B.L.E.M.S. and Vultures in the Sky, on Sunday, Nov. 3. 7 pm. $17. All ages.