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The Music Of Death, Alive Again

TERRY GROSS, host:

By now, music fans are used to the regular discovery of vintage unreleased recordings. Nearly all of the good material is by already celebrated performers. But once in a great while, unknown players from the past make an impact on the present. Critic Milo Miles talks about once such release from the proto-punk trio Death.

(Soundbite of song, "Keep on Knocking")

Mr. BOBBY HACKNEY (Singer and Bassist, Death): (Singing) If I can remember it was you didn't want to see my face. If I can remember, it was you who put me in my place…

Mr. MILO MILES (Music Critic): In a pop market where you've got to pick up every niche, there's a relentless parade of long lost masterpieces and forgotten gems. It can be psychedelic, rockabilly, soul, punk or whatever. More and more these are sad disappointments, or at best, trifles for zealous fans of a style who feast on crumbs. Quite a jolt then that the Detroit trio Death has come up with a brief album, "For The Whole World To See," that's the most surprising and satisfying proto-punk discovery since the Monks' "Black Monk Time," back in 1994. After all, the Monks have been a persistent rumor since the 1960's, with pictures of their tonsured heads turning up on occasion. Death are no more than a 1976 single, heard by almost no one. Back then, neither the market nor the audience were ready for the three black Hackney brothers: guitarist David, bassist and singer Bobby and drummer Dennis who are wrapped up in rock and roll.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock-N-Roll Victim")

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

MILES: Why is Death such an anomaly? "For The Whole World To See" consists of a single, plus five recently discovered 1974 demos. And most of the tracks evoke the hard charging racket of the Stooges and the MC5, who are as much a part of the Detroit scene as Motown. Besides, 20 years before Death, in the era of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, rock and roll was too black, no matter who was performing it. After the British invasion however, the image of a rock band changed to unconventional white guys with charming accents. By the end of the '60s, Jimi Hendrix was the only major black performer in rock. And even he caught criticism for not embracing racial revolution.

(Soundbite of song, "You're a Prisoner")

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) (Unintelligible) You're a prisoner.

MILES: Black rock and roll never really went away. There were heavy doses of it in the band Funkadelic and there was the occasional offbeat group like Mother's Finest from Atlanta. It's clear that songwriters Bobby and David Hackney loved the very nature of high energy rock. It was punchy, plain, said what it thought - punky in other words. And though punk now has a connotation of downbeat fury, that was not always so. Like the Ramones, Death were more jokey than angry. Death's big experimental number, "Let The World Turn," even promotes cosmic patience and offers a reminder that early on, party punks could also speak arty punks. (Soundbite of song, "Let The World Turn")

Mr. HACKNEY: (Singing) Let the world turn, let the world turn around. Let the world turn, let the world turn around. On a wild trip, on a wild trip around. Let the world turn, let the world turn around. On a wild trip, on a wild trip around. (unintelligible)

MILES: Even in Detroit, Death never got much radio exposure and the Hackney's never connected with the right music industry people. The brothers went on to play gospel and eventually reggae. David Hackney died in 2000, more convinced than anyone else that Death would get its due. "For The Whole World To See" proves he was right. As rich and provocative as the '70s punk explosion was, it would have been more so, if Death had taken part.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Death's album "For The Whole World To See," on the Drag City Label. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Milo Miles
Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.