This is something really special. Few, if any, releases this year will have as intriguing a background as this. It’s tempting to call this release from Drag City a reissue, but given that it’s never seen the light of day before now, it would be a bit of a misnomer. Instead, the label have unearthed buried treasure, an artefact from the fascinating and chaotic mid-70s American rock scene. Death formed in their native Detroit in 1971, and whilst they started out as a funk band, they soon switched to become a rock power trio. The “totally rock n’ roll, totally black hippies” (as founder Bobby Hackney would later describe them) consisted of three brothers – David Hackney on guitars, Bobby on bass and vocals, and Dannis on drums. The songs on what would become …For The Whole World To See were written in late 1974. In 1975, the band entered the studio and recorded the seven songs here, but things did not turn out as planned. Confident and headstrong, the band fell foul of producer Don Davis by refusing to change their name. The recording of the remainder of the album was abandoned, the work so far existing only as master tapes, and the band moved away from Detroit and from rock altogether, instead veering towards reggae.
All this history means that hearing the album is a timewarp-like experience. Each of these songs bleeds the raw power but also invention of the 70s, bringing to mind the names of all kinds of bands that influenced the Hackneys (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, MC5…) but what is really fascinating is how vibrant, well-produced and accessible these seven songs sound. There’s a degree of scepticism inherent in listening to something like this – you find yourself thinking about what fun it would be to fake a story like this, to create this lost proto-punk band from 1975 and get a few blokes into the studio to fake their half-formed album. Really though, it’s best to just let all that slide and enjoy this musical document.
Stripped-down, aggressive, but often expansive and veering on the psychedelic, …For The Whole World To See frequently relies heavily on its rhythm section. Often, everything will silence except the bass which will rumble along alone for a moment, then accentuated by Dannis’ impeccable, incisive drums. This technique, and a quiet-loud dynamic, characterise several of the songs. “Let the World Turn” alternates between slow, woozy psych-out sections and furious full-on proto-punk ones across its nearly six-minute span, with Bobby sounding spookily like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull at times, which is at least in keeping with the song’s prog-influenced feel. It even includes a drum solo! Opener ‘Keep on Knockin’ and ‘Rock N Roll Victim’ are awesomely entertaining rushes of hard rock – on the latter, the scuttling cymbal-heavy drums provide a vehicle for the vocals – “you’re a rock n’ roll victim and I know this is true / ’cause I’m a rock n’ roll victim too”. It’s an adrenaline-pumping ride, the way rock should be. Elsewhere, ‘Politicians In My Eyes’ reflects a political streak, comprising a scathing lyrical assault on self-interested politicians.
Whilst arguably the album can be divided into the songs that are truly great and those that are merely good (like ‘You’re A Prisoner’), taken as a whole it’s an immensely engaging experience, especially given its origins. In a fractionally different world, every one of these songs would be a staple of classic rock radio, respected pillars of the rock establishment. As it is, these are obscurities – but they are wonderful ones which must feel thankful for, given how they might never have seen the light of day. A lot has changed in the 34 years since the album was meant to be released, but songs like these still rock.