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Motor City Madness 

How three black brothers weren't allowed to pioneer punk rock


02.18.09


Detroit has always been a music town, but after Berry Gordy packed up Motown and moved the label to L.A. in 1972, black artists in the Motor City lost the attention of record-label executives who were busy furiously signing the region's white bands. By the early 1970s, Detroit's biggest acts—Iggy Pop, MC5, Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad—represented an unbalanced façade concealing the city's teeming black talent. Columbia Records' Clive Davis recognized this disparity and offered a contract to three black brothers who had a loud, fast, anti-authoritarian attitude long before punk rock became a household word. They called their band Death.

David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney had grown up listening to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations; in 1973, they bought instruments, and the garage noise that resulted sounded more like the Stooges than the Supremes. Undaunted, they picked a recording studio at random from the phone book to record a demo. The studio head was impressed enough to send the demo to Davis, who loved what he heard and signed the band to a deal. After seven songs were recorded, however, he demanded the band change their name. They refused.

Death continued to play shows, and with the help of Columbia's advance money even pressed up 500 copies of a 45 rpm single to give away for free around Detroit. And then: nothing. Detroit continued to be a white-boy rock 'n' roll scene throughout the 1970s, and Washington, D.C.'s, Bad Brains would take the throne as America's reigning black punk band—until now. This week, Drag City releases the seven songs Death recorded for Columbia Records 34 years ago as Death . . . For the Whole World to See, causing music historians to rewrite their chapters on black artists in punk rock.

This is the type of good story that's usually accompanied by mediocre music, but the songs that Death recorded are better than even the most rocking Detroit anthems. "Keep on Knocking" sounds like an outtake from Alice Cooper's Love It to Death, and "Rock 'n Roll Victim" nails everything that Destroy All Monsters tried to do years afterward. But it's the nearly six-minute "Politicians in My Eyes" that makes the best case for the band, with hyperchanging rhythms, acerbic lyrics, insane psychedelic guitar sounds and an epic plea for fairness in an unjust world. With its release this week, finally, that plea is answered.






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