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Documentary reveals the story of the first black punk band

By Courtney Devores
Correspondent

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  • Want to go?

    Documentary “A Band Called Death” has Charlotte premiere.

    WHEN: 6:45 p.m. Saturday.

    WHERE: Actor’s Theatre, 650 E. Stonewall St.

    TICKETS: $5. Free to Charlotte Film Society Members.

    DETAILS: Available on disc Aug. 20; http://abandcalleddeath.com.



Before he died from lung cancer in 2000, musician David Hackney gave his younger brother Bobby the master recordings from a never-released album the brothers had made decades before under the band name Death. He told him, “One day the world will come looking for this music.”

Less than a decade later, the world did.

Bloggers and record collectors uncovered the only official release Death made – a 1974 45 single that sold for $800 on eBay. The surviving Hackney brothers had not shared the existence of the tapes or the story of their band, which once declined a deal with Clive Davis (he wanted to change the band’s name), with their children. It wasn’t until Bobby Hackney’s son Julian recognized his father’s voice singing “Politicians in My Eyes” online that the story came to light.

Charlotte’s Jeff Howlett and co-director Mark Christopher Covino created a documentary about the discovery of the Hackneys’ 1970s band – the first punk rock group (pre-dating the Ramones). It will be screened Saturday at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Howlett knew reggae musicians Dannis and Bobby Hackney for years. He’d met the Vermont-based brothers – Dannis, the drummer, and Bobby, the singer and bass player – when Howlett’s band played a music festival Bobby organized.

After discovering Death’s recordings in their parents’ attic, Bobby Hackney’s sons – Julian, Bobby Jr., and Urian – began covering their music as Rough Francis. They took the name from David Hackney’s final music project. They invited Howlett to a show in 2008.

“I was expecting reggae music, and I went and was completely blown away. It was like the Stooges and MC5 meets Bad Brains meets the Who,” Howlett recalls.

Howlett, 43, who moved to Charlotte two years ago, toyed with the idea of making a music video for Rough Francis, but after reading about the Hackneys in The New York Times, he recruited Covino to turn Death’s story into a feature-length documentary. Covino was apprehensive until he heard the band.

Covino’s reaction isn’t unusual after hearing Death’s ahead-of-its-time music. Musicians Henry Rollins, Questlove, Alice Cooper and Jello Biafra all attest to the magic of Death’s music in the film.

Director Kevin Smith’s sometime producing partner Scott Mosier signed on to produce, and found funding just as Howlett was ready to put the project on the back burner.

“I had just told Mark, ‘This is going to be a ‘Hoop Dreams’ project. We’re going to be 10 years into it. I am so broke right now. We’re going to have to put it on hold because we can’t go on the road any more.’ It was that evening we got an email that said, ‘Hey, this is Scott Mosier. How can I help you guys?’ ” Howlett says.

Through producer Kevin Mann and Matthew Perniciaro’s Haven Entertainment the film found a backer in “Entourage” actor Jerry Ferrara.

“They showed Jerry one of the rough cuts we had and he immediately wrote a check to help fund the project. We couldn’t finish it any other way,” says Howlett.

He’ll do a Q&A following the screening of “A Band Called Death” Aug. 17 at Actor’s Theatre, part of the Charlotte Film Society’s Film Lab.

“A Band Called Death” is not just a story about a band that never made it. It’s about two generations of brothers who were bonded by music.

It’s a love story to David Hackney’s vision. And because of his refusal to alter his vision and change the band’s name, it’s also a film about an unwillingness to compromise your art and the consequences.

Independent label Drag City released Death’s original masters as the album, “For the Whole World To See” in 2009, and the Hackneys recruited guitarist Bobbie Duncan from their reggae band, Lambsbread, to play David’s parts in a revival. Death and Rough Francis have toured together.

“Even today they get emotional,” Howlett says. “Every time they see it, it brings everything back. It’s like David’s right there with them. To me as a filmmaker, it says we’re telling something compelling and special to that family.”

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