The Uncompromising, and Unsuccessful, Band Called Death

“Sometimes, your convictions are just wrong,” is the theme, the moral, and the import of a movie called: A Band Called Death. This line is so integral to this movie that it would have been a pertinent, provocative subtitle for the movie.

This movie tells the story of how a man of strong, artistic convictions –and the rest of the loyal band mates, that backed his conviction in public– decided to tell one of the most powerful men in the music industry to go to hell … and how that decision ended up destroying what could’ve been a career in music.

A Band Called Death
A Band Called Death

I realize that I’m not in the business, and I don’t know what sells, but this theme seems so integral to the movie that the producers should’ve considered for the byline to distinguish it from the movies of the week, documentaries, and docudramas that focus on the theme of how a man of artistic integrity fought against the man, the industry, and the corporate execs “that don’t know music” and won. 

Such feel good stories are legion in our culture, because they appeal to the very American “underdog” mentality, and they allow us to dream of a day when we, too, stand up to the man, tell him to go to hell, and win out with our visions of uncompromising, artistic purity. These are very romantic stories that involve little guys proving that their instincts were right in the end and the man’s (Clive Davis in this case) were wrong.

A Band Called Death is not one of these stories.

These romanticized stories are told so often, most often in America it seems, that some of us make the mistake of believing that they are common in an artistic industry like the music business. They’re not, and some part of us knows this, but those same parts of us wish they were true more often, and that’s what makes them so compelling.

What is more common, as illustrated in the movie A Band Called Death, is that the music industry executive, and the man in general, knows more about the industry than the uncompromising, twenty-something artists.

“Nothing against (the corporate, industry honchos),” you often hear the good-natured, ‘no hard feelings’ little-guys-turned-stars suggest. “They know the music industry, but they just did’t understand our music, and our fans, and they couldn’t see what we were trying to do. They were more interested in the cookie cutter band that do things in a more normal, more popular manner to appeal to Middle America. We held true to our convictions, and the rest is history, our history, baby.”

This history, in this case the history of modern music, would be written without a band called Death in it, because they refused to compromise, a decision that left them in the large slush pile of the uncompromising.

Clive Davis heard the band called Death, and he enjoyed their music so much that he decided to sign them. Even though their music, punk music, was outside his particular area of expertise, he decided to give them a chance. He decided to pay for them to have the studio time necessary to record an album, he offered them a recording contract that amounted to them receiving $20,000 a piece, big money in 1971, and a man like Clive Davis doesn’t make such offerings without first knowing how tempestuous musicians can be. He didn’t want to change their act, and he believed in them and what they intended to do, but he did have one misgiving: the name of the band.

The other members of the band called Death were not married to the name. They appeared to like the name, but their convictions did not extend to the point that if a man like Clive Davis informed them that he did not like the name they would not change it. Guitarist, and founder of the band, David Hackney, was another matter. The name of the band, and his whole reason for forming the band. The name was based on the death of Hackney’s father, and David developed themes and created designs built around the name. He even went so far as to have T-shirts made. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to change the name of the band no matter what. At one point, Hackney even went so far in the presumed, yet not detailed negotiations, as to tell someone involved in the negotiations to tell one of the most powerful men in the music business, Clive Davis, “To go to Hell!”

Before any reader leaps to their feet in applause, they should consider the fact that Clive Davis had enough experience in the industry, and in the market, to know that some artistic convictions just will not work. Before anyone raises their fist in solidarity of Hackney’s provocative rebellion, they should consider that anyone who worked with talent for as long as Davis had, understood artistic temperament, and that artistic variation was his life’s blood. They should also consider the fact that the man worked with a wide array of artists including: Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, Barry Manilow, Carlos Santana, and Aretha Franklin. A man who has worked with such a wide array of talent doesn’t do so with an uncompromising ego. We can guess that he was forced to indulge artistic temperaments throughout his career, and that he may even have encouraged obnoxious rebellion to his requests, but that he learned, somewhere along the way, that the road to success occurs at a crossroads between artistic idealism and the realities of the industry.

Davis, like any talent executive, knew talent when he spotted it. He knew that all talent can be tweaked, but that there are some vital ingredients to all artists that makes them unique. He knew that if one tweaked that natural talent too much, they could end up losing the unique quality that made them the exceptional talents that he had decided to sign. A man like Davis couldn’t have achieved half of what he did in the music business, if he wasn’t able to recognize when to tweak and when not to tweak.

As a man that existed in the industry decades before a band called Death, Davis encountered all sorts of artistic convictions in the music business too, and one has to imagine that his well-honed instincts told him that some of them don’t work. One has to imagine that he stood aside while some of these artists pursued their artistic, idealistic ideas, and he was even surprised when some of them worked. One has to believe he allowed his artists to pursue some loony ideas, as long as those ideas would be supported by investors, and the other segments of the industry. One has to imagine that he also learned that he shouldn’t nix or approve such ideas on his own, and that he made some mistakes along the way with regard to his own instincts prior to spotting a band called Death, until it dawned on him that he would need a team of advisers to provide a check on his decision making process. One has to imagine that Davis didn’t like the idea of the name Death for a band, but he was willing to put it to his investors and advisers, and that they nixed the idea too. It’s great for an outlandish artist to be different, and somewhat loony, in other words, but there are lines in the sand drawn by segments of industry, that know their customers’ lines in the sand, and that those lines were far different in 1971 than they are today.

Clive Davis was later proven correct when the members of Death attempted to release a single without him, and they were greeted with rejection every step of the way. The members of the band told the documentarians of A Band Called Death that the rejection they faced had little to do with the music, or their overall talent. The rejection, they said, had everything to do with that moment when they were forced to reveal the name of their band to the various outlets they pursued. One of the band members claimed that after a time, he would cringe when the name of band would arise. He stated that he had nothing against the name, and he knew Hackney’s drive to maintain the name, but the band member experienced negative reactions to the name so many times that he would cringe when it came up. 

After enduring years of such rejection, Hackney finally relented. He changed the name of the band to The 4th Movement, and the band changed their form of music from punk rock to gospel. After this proved unsuccessful, the other band members formed a reggae band called Lambsbread. The band called Death would eventually receive some of the notoriety they felt they deserved, thirty-five years later, and eight years after David Hackney’s death. 

As with every other musical act in existence, it’s possible that Death may have never achieved fame, but the prospect of having the Clive Davis name behind them, his pocketbook, and his promotions team must have caused some internal squabbles and sleepless nights among the Death members. When the final realization struck that their window had indeed closed, one can only cringe when we think about how close they were. That cringe becomes almost painful when we try to imagine what David Hackney must have went through when it finally became clear to him that his righteous, rebellious conviction was wrong, and it wasn’t just Clive Davis who disagreed with him. Everyone did, and it cost him what could’ve been. By the time he finally realized the errors of his way, it was too late. His window of opportunity closed.   

It’s easy for those of us watching the movie A Band Called Death to criticize David Hackney, in hindsight. It’s easy for us to cringe when we learn that the members of his band told him, in private, that his decision to stick with the name of the band was beyond foolish. Hackney believed in his band, however, and he believed that the name Death, and the theme that spawned from it, was the comprehensive idea behind the band gelling so well together. The idea of listening to Clive Davis, however, selecting a different name, and moving onto a career with a different name, may have felt “plastic” to the 1971 Hackney.

We can also assume that the impulse to tell Clive Davis to go to hell felt so right to Hackney, in the moment, based in part on the age he lived in. In the 50’s, music execs controlled the music world, and the stars did everything their handlers told them, because they felt fortunate to be in the position they were in. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the climate began to change, and more bands began carving out their own niches, telling those in authority positions to go to hell and succeeding after doing so. Hackney may have considered the idea that he would, one day, be rubbing elbows with Pete Townshend, Alice Cooper, and all the other top stars of the day, and he may have thought that the act of telling Clive Davis to go to hell would be a point of appreciation among them. We can assume, Hackney loved all the same stories we’ve all heard of rock and roll stars believing in what they did so much that they were willing to tell those who opened doors for them to go to hell, and that romanticized notion may have driven Hackney to do it. We can also assume, he didn’t consider how many of these stories were myths created by the band, or even the record executives, to bolster the renegade, rock and roll image that fans almost require of their rock and roll heroes.

The theme, and moral, of the story of The Band Called Death is that some of the times, some of your uncompromising convictions are wrong, ill-advised, and just plain dumb. Some of the times, the man knows more about the matter at hand than we do, and as much as it makes us feel like a tool to do so, some of the times it’s better to listen to him. Some of the times, the difference between landing in the slush pile and success involves making some compromises, even when it breaks our heart to do so.

In truth, we don’t know how many of our favorite rock stars made compromises to get to the top, as it does nothing for them, or their industry guys, to reveal such information to us. We just know the myth of their uncompromising rise to the top, and their uncompromising attitude, and we love those myths, and a part of us wishes that we were lucky enough to be in the position of a David Hackney, so that we could tell a Clive Davis to go hell, and join him in the slush pile of all of the uncompromising artists that were never appreciated in their lifetime.


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