Right now, independent music documentaries are on the upswing. Though they’ve been around forever, there’s something of a renaissance in the works. First there was Some Kind of Monster, the unravelling of Metallica and funded by the band themselves. Soon Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the tale of the Canadian hard rock band that was supposed to make it big but missed the boat screened to popular acclaim at film festivals worldwide. Searching For Sugarman pushed the genre ahead a little further in its quest to locate a once-famous musician.
Since then, filmmakers worldwide have scoured the earth for a tale worthy of ninety minutes on screen. There’s some great stuff out there (and some not so great) but a lot of it concerns general rigmarole and massive what-ifs that are too vague for any certainty: what if this band made it big? What if this singer didn’t go insane and ruin their chances? It’s entertaining material, sure, but that’s all one can say about a lot of it.
This is what makes A Band Called Death so great. Directed by Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino and produced by Kevin Smith alumni Scott Mosier there are no over-reaching what ifs, just one huge question mark of why not. And it’s one of the most essential viewings of the year.
Three young black American men, the Hackney brothers Bobby, David and Dannis, spent their teenage days in the early 70s jamming in a tiny room at the top of the stairs in their Detroit home, annoying their parents and neighbours. Living in a poor suburb they started out playing rhythm and blues then went to an Alice Cooper concert and realised what they should be doing with their lives: playing rock and roll. Quickly they changed their approach to music and with a renewed passion they formed the proto-punk/garage rock band Death.
They realised they were onto something special and forwarded their demos to a local record distributor who then forwarded it to numerous studios, singing their praises in search for a deal. Nowadays we wouldn’t even blink at such a band name and perhaps the record just didn’t get into the right persons hands but from there the demo faltered and didn’t go any further on account of the conservative views of the day. And, of course, three black kids playing white music would have certainly created a few roadblocks.
This is one of the more frustrating moments of the film. A death metal band named Death released their debut in 1987, titled it Scream Bloody Gore and it went on to eventually sell a couple of million. In the 80s there were bands called Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks and D.O.A. Of course, this was a new era and a lot of these bands were in the right scenes, not stuck in a religious upbringing in Michigan. One only wonders what could have happened if the boys, frustrated with rejection from all the labels over their name, packed up and moved east to New York? There’s a very good chance they had no idea about the scenes burgeoning elsewhere during this period and with constant no’s they finally did pack it in, only to form the polar opposite—a Christian band. Then the reggae band Lambsbread, still in operation today.
The reason why the Hackney brothers weren’t willing to compromise on such an alienating name is so heart breaking it is a shame such events have occurred, spiralling out to deeply impact on otherwise unrelated issues. (In a nutshell, it is a tribute to their late father, named so by David who was incredibly spiritual.) But the film isn’t taken over by Christian overtones—it all forms a desire to be true to ones self, just as the hundreds of thousands of punk bands since have adopted the DIY ethic. It’s the mantra of every artist ever: never sell out. It rings true to a lot of underground bands, similarity striking with the legend surrounding Sleep’s almost-never-released record Jerusalem, an album that consists of one hour-long slow stoner jam, something the record company didn’t quite expect after throwing money at them. (This documentary can easily be found on YouTube.)
Death’s rebirth, predicted by the somewhat prescient David Hackney, is told here in stunning glory, beginning with the girlfriend of one of Bobby’s sons raving about a record being spun at a party “by some band named Death” and him calling his father to ask “were you ever in some band in the 70s?” after doing some rough googling. The band had become legends in the underground tape-trading network, thirty years later, and they had no idea.
If there’s an ending, it’s that these three black American teens finally had the record no one wanted in 1974 released worldwide in 2009 to mass critical acclaim. These three kids who would have stuck out badly at an all-white Alice Cooper concert have finally been given the credit they deserve, pre-dating what we know as punk two years earlier. It’s safe to assume these guys would have never taken over the world but they could have enjoyed a long, influential career like all the other dinosaur bands of the time. Though the finale does seem like an obvious conclusion to the previous two acts in this eye-opening story, its simplicity is one of the more shattering paybacks of recent years, made clear when Bobby and Dannis watch their sons playing the music that should have taken them on a completely different path.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
A Band Called Death will be released locally via Madman Australia soon (date TBA). Currently it is screening in VOD.