A Band Called Death


The exact birth of punk rock is an endlessly debated topic. Some say it began in earnest with The Ramones in New York in 1975, others with the punk explosion in the UK in 1976. But what nobody ever thought was that the first salvo of angry young punk rock was actually fired by three brothers in Detroit in 1973.

They were a band called Death.

Proto-punk and Detroit were not strangers at the time – acts like MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges were clattering up a storm, but Death had another thing stacked against them. They were black. And, in Detroit in the 70s, being black meant Motown.

The Hockney brothers – David, Dannis and Bobby – formed a band after their struggling family received an insurance payout. They practiced relentlessly, playing first a brand of funk before guitarist David saw The Who on television and announced they were to be a rock band.

Bobby was the bassist and vocalist, but David was the real force behind the group. He had big dreams and bigger concepts. After their father died, David announced the band was to be called ‘Death’. The others were non-plussed, but went along with it.

Their music was powerful, they seemed bent on success. Even mighty Columbia Records were interested. But there was one problem. That name. That name was impossible to market. If they were to change it, they would be signed and surely success would follow.

They refused to change.

A Band Called Death is a documentary that is less a story of a band and more a story of a family. The brothers Hockney would suffer trials and tribulations, but the bond between them would prove unshakeable.

The movie is primarily a retrospective, with a lot of talking heads and old photographs – although there is an attempt to add life and movement to the archive shots. For example, an image of David with a lit cigarette has a curl of digital smoke rising from it.

But the real story unfolds while the cameras are rolling. The lone single the band recorded starts to circulate as a pair of MP3s, nearly 40 years later, and a new audience finds them. Death were playing 80s US hardcore a good decade before anyone else. Truly a band before their time, they would find time finally caught up with them.

The tale is extraordinary, not least because of the emotions between the brothers. The laconic Dannis, the erudite Bobby and the doomed idealist David demonstrate that one brief flicker of magic can ignite even decades into the future.

Affecting and inspiring, A Band Called Death is a simply terrific doco. The pacing is measured, but deliberate for the emotional payoff in the final section. And it helps that Death is straight up a killer band even if, despite what the interviewees may say, it is not about music. It is about family.

The extras include a plentiful number of deleted scenes that are all quite interesting, but are also not really missed from the main narrative. Also present are a couple of songs played live by the reformed Death, including one at the band’s first gig in 34 years.

A film festival Q&A is the surprise highlight of the extras. Here, audience members share their stories and the impact the film had on them, and, in particular, Bobby Hockney talks about how the finished movie affected him. It is a lovely, softly emotional coda to the film and an excellent choice for inclusion here.

A Band Called Death is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

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