Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rebirth Of Death

SO DID YOU HEAR THE ONE about Death -- the band who back in 1974 made a punk rock album before they even had a name for it? The N.Y. Times has a terrific chronicle of how that record finally came to be released in 2009, called "This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk." And as of right now the Times Website still has the MP3 up for Politicians in my Eyes, the reissue single from 1976 that is creating a buzz in the music biz more than 30 years later.

Discovering the album all these years later is the rock & roll equivalent of the Dead Letter Office turning up The Great American Novel. Or something like that. (Would you believe a long lost David Hockney canvas found in a New York City dumpster?) You get the idea. Feel free to create your own analogy, I won't be offended, even though it's my blog post. Honest, go ahead...

Unfortunately, David Hackney, the driving force behind Death -- the band, not the state of unbeing -- is not around to revel in his music's much-belated success, having succumbed to cancer in 2000. The band cut a demo tape in 1974, and it's that recording session which makes up "...For the World to See," the album released last month by the Drag City label.
The single Politicians is more melodic metal than punk rock, almost verging on power pop -- as if Green Day grew up two decades earlier, only as three black brothers in a Detroit ghetto listening over and over to their dad's Black Sabbath record collection. That's my lame attempt at a lame Chuck Klosterman-ism, and we all know how useless that can be.

Anyone who saw the Ramones biodoc End of the Century can appreciate the bland, overproduced music climate a hard rock band like Death were up against in the early '70s. Simply put, good rock bands were struggling to be heard in the R&B/disco era, and unless they made AM-friendly product and played the whole happy-face marketing game, they simply were not going to be signed to major labels. And let's face it: an all-black rock trio calling itself Death and featuring songs with politically charged lyrics was probably going to be fighting an uphill battle against the music industry no matter what era they were in. Until punk came along around 1975 and bands started releasing their own singles, there was literally no alternative outlet for oddball outfits like Death and the Ramones:
Death began playing at cabarets and garage parties on Detroit’s predominantly African-American east side, but were met with reactions ranging from confusion to derision. “We were ridiculed because at the time everybody in our community was listening to the Philadelphia sound, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers,” Bobby said. “People thought we were doing some weird stuff. We were pretty aggressive about playing rock ’n’ roll because there were so many voices around us trying to get us to abandon it.”
Too bad they weren't from New York, because I think Death would have fit right in at CBGBs circa '76 alongside bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Dead Boys. Detroit actually has great rock and roll roots, with the Stooges and MC5 and Alice Cooper, the band that inspired Death to play the kind of music they did in the first place. But rock and roll, and punk specifically, is full of just such stories: not quite one-hit wonders but music that still screams to be heard. I remember back in my singles-buying days just picking up 45's based on the band name or the look of the record sleeve. I'm thinking of a tremendous single I used to have by an obscure band from Scotland called The Wardens, another blazing 45 by a band from Texas called Not For Sale, lost songs by forgotten bands that cut a single or two if they were lucky and then faded back into what is commonly known as Real Life. So here's to you, undiscovered groups of bygone ages, here's to you all...And oh how I wish I never sold all my punk 45's for a mere song, pun intended, back in 1997!

P.S. While looking for a shot of the Death album cover, I stumbled on another free MP3: Stark Online (2/20/09) has a track posted called Keep On Knocking. It absolutely blows me out of the water, and I'm on dry land as I write this. If the rest of the album is anything like these two songs, then it really is monumental: as if Jimi Hendrix had cut one last album, backed by The Stooges! Yeah, something like that...

No comments: