“keep on knocking” – death (2009)

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This year marks a whole decade since the release of …For the Whole World to See by Death, a protopunk band out of Detroit made up of African American musicians.  The album blew me away the first time I heard it.  It was the most exciting thing I had heard in a long time.  Everything about Death was just so fascinating.  From the band’s own journey to the story of the album’s delay and eventual release, it was so mindboggling how such an amazing band never got their due for the longest time. Though the actual anniversary of the album’s release was two months ago, I had some other things going on and knew I would get to it soon.  I knew I would eventually cover it.

I had first heard of Death and their album while working for a National Public Radio affiliate in Bowling Green, KY.  I did board operations every Wednesday and Saturday night, and I would hear shows like various news and arts show during that time.  I cannot remember what show was playing at the time, but it was this environment where I first heard of Death.  It was during a feature on this program that they covered the story behind Death and played cuts from the album.

So, why is their story so important?  These were three black guys from Detroit (Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan) who started off as a funk band, but changed to rock after seeing The Who perform.  They eventually developed a harder edge and performed music that was a precursor to punk.  In 1975, they started working on their first studio album.  However, Columbia Records didn’t like the name of their band and requested they change it.  The members of Death wouldn’t do it and that is when their studio sessions ended.  The album would eventually be released, with only seven of the original twelve songs planned, in 2009 to critical praise and providing a document to a missing piece of Detroit’s music history.

I was stunned when I first hear Death, and I was shocked that I was hearing about it from NPR.  Before being hired to do board operations, I had never listened to NPR.  At that time, most of my personal life was dedicated to college radio and everything that revolves around a culture of kids on ego trips trying to force their music on everyone else.

I told everyone at my college radio station about Death, but not one seemed to care.  First, if I heard it on NPR, then it must’ve not been cool at all. Second, our station was going through a transition.  The station had been run in a way that many felt was stagnant and didn’t reflect a “progressive sound” culture that we championed.  At that time, the station’s direction reflected the taste and preferences of the student who was hired to be the station manager that year.  The decrease in the station’s quality was even noticed by the university newspaper who ran an article noting the criticisms the station was facing.

As much as the station manager tried to course correct after the article was published, it was the second semester already.  The manager was on his way out since he was graduating that spring, and the younger staff were eager to get new leadership and get back on target towards providing the community with a truly progressive alternative to commercial radio.

I was in my junior year and applied to be the station manager for my senior year.  I knew our station’s vision was off track and I developed plans to get everything back in alignment.  However, I was unable to do carry out my plans.  Due to internal station politics, I was declined for the position.  Plus, I was talking about music I was hearing on NPR and that was just decidedly uncool.  So, Death didn’t make it on the college radio station airwaves when …For the Whole World to See was released in 2009.  My plans to feature interesting music with interesting stories was scrapped and the station adopted the late-aughts hipster sound that was popular with the younger members.  Out with the old, in with the new. I didn’t do much with the station during my senior year.

However, Death did just fine on their own after …For the Whole World to See was released.  A few years after I moved to Chicago, I saw the documentary A Band Called Death at the Music Box Theatre and it was cool to see this incredible band get the attention they deserved after all these years.

The first song I had heard on that NPR feature was the album’s opening track “Keep on Knocking.”  The track open with these guitar power chords and then goes into high gear with pure punk passion.  Raw and angsty, but still tight and controlled, Death comes across as a cohesive entity right out of the gate.  Truly impressive.

If Death was allowed to finish the record, who knows what other great music they could make.  And their story is one of many where a talented, creative band is denied a chance to shine because of some stuff suit in an office.  Gatekeepers, whether they are a record executive or students in a college radio station, can often be blinded by their own interests and prejudices.  It is a lesson everyone needs to learn, one where we consider things outside of ourselves and expose yourself to something new and raw even if unproven.  You just might be surprised.

 

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