Chicago’s Drag City is carving out quite an interesting niche as eclectic purveyors of obscure reissues. After dusting off ’70s folkie Gary Higgins and early ’80s punk JT IV (John Timmis IV), the label drops Death at our doorstep. The African-American, somewhat proto-punk rock trio from Detroit, not to be conflated with the ’80s speed-metal band. Luckily for Drag City, Death’s genesis story shills itself.
In 1971, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, three brothers from Detroit, clued into the Stooges and Led Zeppelin and decided to circumvent the funk/soul they’d been experimenting with at home. In 1974, they cut a rock ‘n’ roll demo with Jim Vitti, primarily known for his engineering work with Funkadelic/Parliament, and started stirring up radio play with a single, “Politicians in My Eyes” backed with “Keep on Knocking." The siblings eventually snagged the ear of Clive Davis, president of Columbia at the time, but he told the band they’d have to make an amendment to their badass sobbriquet: Death.
The trio graciously rejected the censored proffer and vanished into Detroit rock history. After shaping a fleeting Christian rock group called the 4th Movement, they soon took up day jobs, and their abandoned single went on to become a record collector’s wet dream, selling for as high as a grand. After a 33-year-old build-up, these seven head-nodding tunes on For the Whole World to See are more than fitting capstones to the Death saga.
Opener “Keep on Knocking” was the B-side to the group’s lone single, but on the LP it easily surpasses its A-side. Its crunchy rock salvo shines under David’s lean guitar leads. The quick tempo of brother Dannis’s kit propels singer/bassist Bobby’s kiss-off barbs cast at an ex: "If I can remember it was you didn’t want to see my face/ If I can remember who put me in my place/ Well I got news for you/ That’s not the way some play."
When the trio catapults into the revved up “Rock-N-Roll Victim” the four-to-floor pace is unrelenting as Bobby singing slides from yelps to shrieks: "You’re a rock ‘n’ roll victim/ And I know it’s the truth/ ’Cuz I’m a rock ‘n’ roll victim, too." The track is standard hard rock but the joyous hand claps serves it well. Later on, “Let the World Turn” opens like a hazy Love jam, replete with Bobby’s multi-tracked vocals echoing over a explorative funk beat. It ends in an attack of garage axes. "Freakin’ Out" and "Where Do We Go From Here" are less proggy. They blast like typical punk rockers. Death’s love of the Stooges is clearest on both.
And so it goes. For the Whole World to See is not the true revelation the label wants you to think it is but it has some catchy melodies and delivers them at breakneck speeds. The lyrics are typical rockisms and even when the group gets all political on us, like on the A-side to Death’s original single (“Politicians in My Eyes”), the brothers’ public railing is palatable. These seven tracks serve more as a zeitgeist for the ’70s, an era that thrived on genre liquidity. Likewise, this pleasant reissue is at its best when cherry-picking its influences en masse.