Thursday, January 27, 2011

Terrell's Tuneup: Death Takes an Encore

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 28, 2011



With its new album, Spiritual Mental Physical, the Detroit proto-punk trio known in the mid-’70s as Death has a sequel to its unlikely debut CD, ... For the Whole World to See — which was postponed for about 35 years.

One of the saddest commentaries on the music of the ’70s is that about the only racially integrated bands that anyone remembers are Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention and the Village People.

For all the great sounds that came out of the Me Decade, the ugly truth was that this was a period of segregation. For the most part, white people played “rock” — and awful singer-songwriter dreck — while black people played soul and funk — disco and rap coming later in the decade.

That’s why, in the early ’80s, a band like The BusBoys was refreshing — though it was telling that many considered the group a novelty. As The BusBoys sang in “Did You See Me”: “Bet you never heard music like this by spades.”

But, of course, there were exceptions. One was a band from Detroit called Death. No, you wouldn’t have heard the group on the radio, at least not back then. “We didn’t fit in at all,” bass player and singer Bobby Hackney said in an interview with NPR last year:

 “The rock bands that we identified with ... we didn’t hang out with those guys. We were in the inner city, on the east side, in the black community. Most of the bands were doing stuff like Al Green; Earth, Wind & Fire; The Isley Brothers. Being in the black community and having a rock band, people just looked at us like we was weird. After we got done with a song, instead of cheering and clapping, people would just be looking at us.” 

Death identified with Michigan groups and performers like The Stooges, The MC5, Alice Cooper (before he went on Hollywood Squares), and Bob Seeger’s groups (before he became “classic rock”).

Death, in its original incarnation, consisted of three Hackney brothers — Bobby, drummer Dannis, and the late David, who played guitar — and was called Rock Fire Funk Express (I have to admit, I like that name better). As Bobby tells it, there was a record company that was interested, but “the man with the big cigar” was put off by the morbid name the group went by at the time. The band refused to sell out and change its name again, so the record deal was off. The group broke up in 1977, and the Hackney brothers moved to Vermont.

But just a year ago, Bobby Hackney Jr. discovered dad’s old demo tapes and got the seven known Death demos released as an album called ... For the Whole World to See, on the Chicago independent label Drag City.

It didn’t become a big hit, but it got a great “underground” buzz. NPR did a feature, and Death was reborn with a new guitarist, Bobbie Duncan. The group played at South by Southwest in Austin last year. I was fortunate enough to see Death in New York last summer at a free show called The Detroit Breakdown. With a poster of David Hackney on the stage, the band was loud, proud, and rocking. (For videos of the show, check this out: CLICK HERE.)

My advice to those who haven’t been touched by Death: Before you get this album, definitely pick up the first. Like ... For the Whole World to See, Spiritual Mental Physical consists of demos. But they’re not as listener-ready as the ones on the first album. These sound more like home practice tapes — muddier, tinnier. Also, there are just more than 28 minutes of music here.

There are a few fun tunes. The album starts off strong with “Views,” a crazy rocker with falsetto vocals. Some songs are clearly derivative. “The Masks” plays upon the hook from The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” while “People Look Away” sounds suspiciously close to the teenage wasteland of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.”

There are noodling instrumentals such as “The Change,” as well as three solo spots — “David’s Dream,” “Bobby Bassing It,” and “Dannis on the Motor City Drums.” (Yes, it’s a drum solo. This is from the ’70s, remember.) The group redeems itself with “Can You Give Me a Thrill?” It’s the most Stoogey cut on the album. True, it goes on for nearly six minutes, but what the heck?

I’m pretty sure Drag City has scraped the bottom of the Death vaults by now. So I’m hoping that, for the next album — and I’m hoping there is a next album — the guys do some fresh recordings.

Also recommended:

* Like a Knife Through an Egg by Kilimanjaro Yak Attack. I normally don’t review CDs by kids of my friends or friends of my kids, but I’ve always gotten a real kick out of these young yaks. Even if Oscar Oswald (who sings, plays bass, and writes songs) weren’t the son of my brother in journalism Mark Oswald, I’d still like Yak Attack.


The band’s music is full of noisy punk spirit. But there’s also a clever, quirky undertone. Listening to the rubbery “Knabonga” from the new CD while driving down Cerrillos Road the other night, I almost thought I’d stumbled upon a long-lost song from the early days of The Talking Heads — back before David Byrne started taking himself too seriously.

These guys started out in Santa  Fe, but one of their members now lives in Portland, Oregon, and Oscar’s going to school in Nevada, so they’re scattered throughout the West. I hope they’ll play some gigs here this summer.

Among my favorites here are “Mummy,” which is basically a psychedelic freakout, and “Pocket Calculator,” which has a little Captain Beefheart in it, as well as a little Television.

Then the boys get a little folk-rocky with “Munkar & Nakir.”

I also like the fact that on their MySpace page they described their music as “healing & easy listening.” Yup, this is real “lifestyle” stuff.

(There are songs by Death as well as Kilimanjaro Yak Attack on the latest episode of The Big Enchilada.

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