Published September 03. 2013 4:00AM Updated September 06. 2013 12:40PM
As unfair and clumsy as it often is, we do need an accepted vocabulary to talk about pop music.
And in searching for a shorthand to fasten the reborn rock trio Death to a particular genre, the music press has reached a reasonable consensus on "proto-punk," describing a sound that would herald the arrival of the Ramones and The Clash.
But the Detroit band, which recorded its debut album in 1974, which went unreleased for 34 years, not only presaged punk, but predated a time when punk was a term of approbation or even convenience.
"You didn't call someone punk," bassist Bobby Hackney said in an interview last week. "Those were fighting words."
It's just one of the many parts about the story of Death, who headline the I AM Festival this Saturday in downtown New London, that make it one of the more unlikely musical tales in American music history.
As was detailed in filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino's 2012 documentary "A Band Called Death," Death is not the case of an overlooked group whose out-of-step sound garnered a loyal following and who would later be deemed influential, in the manner of say, Big Star or the Velvet Underground.
Considering the band's only original release was 500 copies of a single, the exhilarating, blow-up garage of "Politicians in My Eyes," that was quickly forgotten, the band wasn't visible enough to influence anybody. Death's songs were rediscovered in the past few years by record collectors who hunted down "Politicians In My Eyes" and zipped them around the Internet as MP3s.
Death formed in the early 1970s in Detroit, when the three rock-loving Hackney brothers, Bobby on bass, Dannis, the drummer and David, the guitarist and main songwriter, began rehearsals in an upstairs bedroom in their childhood home.
And they were fortunate to be in the Motor City at a particularly rich time in the city's musical history.
"You couldn't help but be influenced," Bobby Hackney said. "The mid-'70s in Detroit was full of music, there was Motown, but there were the Amboy Dukes, Bob Segar, Mitch Ryder, Grand Funk and Alice Cooper."
Hackney also said the band owed plenty to The Who, whose sonic energy on "Live At Leeds," is evident on Death's lone LP "For All The World," which was recorded in 1974 and released on Drag City Records in 2009.
"For All The World" was rejected by record companies not because of the music, but because the band refused to change it's name to make it more palatable.
But being a black rock band in Detroit was a hard sell and the band didn't play out very much; when they did, it was in rather strange venues.
"I remember we played a Masonic Temple on Monday night," Bobby Hackney recalled, laughing. "You could hear a pin drop."
Like other Motor City bands, Death followed the "Detroit model" of using recorded material as the initial way to greater exposure, rather than unrelenting touring.
In 1977, punk's annus mirabilis, the brothers moved to Burlington, Vt., stopped making music as Death and formed a gospel rock group called the 4th Movement. David Hackney eventually moved back to Detroit. He died there of lung cancer in 2000.
Bobby and Dannis formed a reggae band called Lambsbread, which they have played in for nearly 25 years.
When interest in the band started to swell in the late 2000s, the Hackneys, along with guitarist Bobbie Duncan, were invited to play a show in New York on the late Joey Ramone's birthday. That led to a tour, the release of early demos on Drag City, and a new single titled "Relief." A new album is in the works.
This summer, the band, who have never played Connecticut, has been hitting the festival circuit, including the Afro-Punk Festival in New York and now the I AM Festival, along with co-headliners Cymbals Eat Guitars and Mark Mulcahy.
I AM co-organizers Rich Martin and Sean Murray said they thought audiences in and around New London would respond well to Death.
"They are a very New London band to book," Murray said, hinting that fans of The Reducers would probably take a shine to Death. "They are an undiscovered band, rooted in punk."
Martin said there are a lot of parallels between the music that Death plays and "New London's rock story," alluding to the city's love of raw punk rock.
"It's a good fit," he said.
Martin said Death's appearance is also a stamp of recognition for the I AM Festival, which is now in its seventh year.
"It's really a jewel in the crown for I AM," he said.