As usual I really enjoy Steven Hyden’s writing- his latest is a take on the state of rock documentaries. He gets to the bottom of something I’ve noticed recently- lots of movies about bands I had never heard of or cared about.
And what’s funny is that I still don’t really care about those bands. I sat through Anvil! The Story of Anvil. I was amused. I watched Last Days Here. I was disturbed. I will probably end up watching A Band Called Death when it streams on Netflix- it inevitably will- and I will probably enjoy it. I still won’t give a shit about any of these bands.
Steve calls these rockumentaries “Sugar Man movies”:
I’m referring of course to 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man, the Academy Award–winning film about “lost” ’70s folk singer Sixto Rodriguez.
The search for the next Sugar Man continues with A Band Called Death, which premieres May 24 on VOD and arrives in theaters the following month. A Band Called Death isn’t about this band, but rather a group that was formed in the early ’70s by three brothers from Detroit — David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney — who played shouty, vaguely political punk-rock songs and never succeeded in launching a music career despite years of trying. (Supposedly, Clive Davis would’ve signed Death had it agreed to change its name.) It wasn’t until the Chicago-based indie label Drag City released a spirited collection of Death demos called … For the Whole World to See in 2009 that the group’s music was heard by the outside world. Not that it was heard by much of the outside world; other than a New York Times profile in which Jack White said the group was “ahead of their time,” Death’s fame is modest even in the low-stakes realm of indie rock.
I first happened upon them on the Wikipedia page about punk rock:
In 1974, as well, the Detroit band Death—made up of three African-American brothers—recorded “scorching blasts of feral ur-punk,” but couldn’t arrange a release deal.
I thought, huh. How had I not heard of this band? Surely they must be somebody if they’re included in a paragraph with names like Devo, Suicide and the Modern Lovers. My guess? Whoever was working on A Band Called Death put it in there, because they’re just not that well known. That’s not to say they’re terrible:
On the contrary, I kind of like them. Their story might be interesting, but they’re not noteworthy.
This goes back to something I’ve been saying for a while all the greats have been discovered. The Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Ramones- those were all bands that laid the template for what punk rock would be. Make an Iggy Pop documentary. Or a Johnny Thunders documentary. Get the stories of the big names out there. Enough raiding the vaults, the vaults weren’t that full to begin with.
But I want another Rattle and Hum. I still believe that pop music can be an entry point for making sense of the world we live in, and the Sugar Man documentaries aren’t giving us the contextual framework to do this. Instead, they’re reiterating, over and over again, the opposite message: Every band is an island unto itself, with no meaning or relevance beyond a pristine vinyl collection. I don’t think that’s true. Musicians are still big; it’s the pictures that got small.
I completely agree here. OK, I’ve never seen Rattle and Hum and I don’t intend to. But I agree with his main point- let’s make rock and roll mean something.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and I have to revise my theory that rock is dead. It’s not dead, it’s just not relevant. We’re at a point in time when there are basically two ways of making music- play it in a small band, or make it on a machine. I’m a fan of both. Both require some skills- computer skills or manual dexterity and innate rhythm. There’s always going to be people good at one or the other but not both who want to make music. Maybe it won’t always be rock in the current sense, but country music has shown it can incorporate a variety of styles and still continue to entertain. How we make it relevant again is a different question, one I have no idea how to answer.