White Whale Vinyl: Detroit Proto-Punk Trio Death's Pricey Debut | Revolver

White Whale Vinyl: Detroit Proto-Punk Trio Death's Pricey Debut

Forgotten self-released 1976 single "Politicians in My Eyes" / "Keep on Knockin" now fetches upwards of $1,000

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In 1976, all-black rock bands were in short supply. All-black punk rock bands? Basically nonexistent. Then again, punk was a brand-new concept at the time. The first Ramones album came out in April of '76 — a full year and a half before the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks dropped like an atom bomb — so the phenomenon wasn't even close to a phenomenon yet. But up in Detroit, three brothers — Bobby, David and Dannis Hackney — were playing an early version of punk without even realizing it.

The Hackney brothers started out in the early 70s as a funk band called Rock Fire Funk Express before seeing an Alice Cooper show (or a Who show, or both) in 1973 and switching to hard rock. They changed their name to Death and began playing Detroit's black clubs to bewildered audiences. "We were ridiculed because at the time everybody in our community was listening to the Philadelphia sound, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers," Bobby told The New York Times in 2009. "People thought we were doing some weird stuff. We were pretty aggressive about playing rock & roll because there were so many voices around us trying to get us to abandon it."

Still, they managed to pique the curiosity of Columbia Records president Clive Davis, who expressed interest in working with the young trio in '74 — provided they change the band name. When they refused, the Hackney brothers were left with a reel-to-reel of seven songs they'd recorded that year — when David was 21, Dannis was 19 and Bobby, 17, was still in high school.


Death released two of those songs — the anti-Vietnam War screed "Politicians in My Eyes" and the anthemic "Keep on Knockin" — as a single in 1976. They pressed 500 copies on their own Tryangle Records, sending some to local radio stations. Predictably, the stations weren't interested. The music was just too far ahead of its time.

Fast forward to 2008, when Bobby's son Julian hears "Politicians in My Eyes" at a party in San Francisco and immediately recognizes his father's voice. Another son, Bobby Jr., discovers that the single is a certified white whale, fetching as much as $800 from diehard collectors. The punchline? Bobby Sr. hadn't even told his kids about Death. But he still had the master tapes tucked away in his attic.

A full-on Death revival snowballed from there. Three of Bobby's sons — Julian, Bobby Jr. and Urian (who would go on to play drums in The Armed and fill in with Converge) — formed the band Rough Francis to play their father's and uncles' music. Drag City Records released the original Death recordings in 2009 under the title …For the Whole World to See. That led to the reformation of the band, with guitarist Bobbie Duncan filling in for David Hackney, who passed in 2000. In 2013, the critically acclaimed documentary A Band Called Death shared their story with the world, which eventually led to brand-new Death recordings in 2015.

That original Death single, though? Expect to pay at least $1,000 today — if you can find it. As of this writing, the highest recorded sale on Discogs for an original pressing of "Politicians in My Eyes" was $1,275 in October of 2019.