Detroit proto-punk

I was surprised to pick up the Times this morning and see this piece on Death, a Detroit punk band from the early 1970s, a band that was, as the headline so aptly put it, “punk before punk was punk.” Also, these guys were black, in a music scene dominated by Motown on one hand and white rockers like Alice Cooper and Bob Seger on the other. They didn’t fit in, and their record company–which apparently had no idea what to do with them–dropped them after they refused to change their name. They recorded an album but never released it; soon enough, they upped and left Detroit for Vermont, where they became a reggae band. Yeah, truth is stranger than fiction.

I first came across these guys last year on an mp3 blog, a couple songs posted as a stopgap before the full release came out. One of those songs, “Politicians in my eyes,” just blew the doors off: though recorded in 1974, it’s got the buzzsaw guitar work, abrupt tempo changes, and hyper-fast vocals that everybody first heard in Bad Brains five years later. You can hear the anger of those times in the music–the race riots, the war in Vietnam, the general, unshakable feeling that it’s all going to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it. All of that’s in this song. Now that the whole album’s out, you can hear it for yourself. Everybody knows that the MC5 and the Stooges are the godfathers of punk, but these guys deserve a place in the pantheon, too, as the bridge to what followed. So now, more than three decades on, Death gets its due.