In the early '70s, three African-American blood brothers from Detroit formed an R&B band. But on witnessing the Stooges live, they abruptly fused their soul sides with punk bombast. They called themselves Death, and were all prepped to sign with Columbia until a label executive suggested they change their name to something more “marketable.” In ultimate punk-rock fashion, Death dismissed the major label and self-released its lone album, For the Whole World to See. Now, after years of the album being stashed in a Detroit attic, Drag City has dusted it off for reissue.
There's a built-in ahead-of-its-time quality to For the Whole World to See. Album opener “Keep on Knockin'” — with its quick-and-choppy melody — serves as a template for Death's marriage of punk, arena-rock, and soul. Pulling off such a unity is a bold musical move, but these dudes pushed the envelope further by tackling the slipperiest lyrical subject of them all: earnest political views (“Politicians in My Eyes”). On top of that, they spliced in some pre-Ozzy AOR vocal experimentation (“You're a Prisoner”).
Ultimately, Death was the unabashed sum of its influences (Stooges, MC5). Then again, so was Radio Birdman. And what made Radio Birdman's “unearthing” so exciting in 1999 is what makes Death's so refreshing in 2009. It's music by a band whose faith in rock was reinvigorated by punk. The fact that Death's members were black is just an interesting aside. The fact that those members quit punk to reform as a Vermont gospel rock group? Well, that's punk as fuck.