Never argue with a serious music collector about when the first true rock 'n' roll record arrived. Opinions on the subject are held with the sort of conviction normally reserved for life-defining questions of politics, religion and football. The fact that there's no single correct answer to the question doesn't matter a bit. But few bother to argue about the first punk rock record. And it's not because the movement was incidental — all great rock 'n' roll of any style from the last 35 years owes a debt to punk, if only because it hit the musical reset button on a global scale when it was needed most in the mid-1970s.
New York City's Ramones and London's Sex Pistols debuted on record in 1976 and 1977 respectively, and in the blink of an eye punks were rocking everywhere from Austin, Texas to Akron, Ohio, to Manchester, England. But what if another band, called Death — consisting of three African-American brothers from Detroit, Mich. — actually recorded the first punk record in 1974 but few outside their neighborhood heard it at the time?
That is the astonishing and true story told by director Jeff Howlett's documentary A Band Called Death. As teenagers in the early '70s, the Hackney brothers — David, Dannis and Bobby — launched their first band with the endearing and self-explanatory name Rock Fire Funk Express. Brooding and visionary singer/guitarist David's ideas began to change after witnessing performances by The Who and Alice Cooper. David insisted on calling the brothers' new band Death even though it caused the music industry to reject them — Columbia Records mogul Clive Davis offered them a contract, but only if they agreed to change the name. David refused and the band sank into obscurity. The naming issue was just one example of David's uncompromising, do-it-yourself ethos, which perfectly matched the band's raw and aggressive sound. But as punk rockers, Death was two or three life-altering years ahead of its time.
A Band Called Death's first half is an unadulterated pleasure. Howlett blends the band's recordings with vintage photos and video, plus new interviews with the surviving brothers, their compatriots and fans to bring Death back to life. The second half bogs down in sentiment and personal tragedy, but surprises lie in store. The film evolves into a moving study in the power of family and the value of sticking to your guns.
Surprisingly, A Band Called Death leaves obvious questions unanswered. Were the brothers aware of the similarly inspired music that came along in their wake? And why were the brothers' offspring, who wind up playing a central role in the full story of the band, never told about their parents little-known but undeniable early achievements? The answers probably lie among the rubble of dashed hopes and dreams deferred. Which only makes the late recognition represented by this film that much sweeter. — KEN KORMAN