By Geo Ong
Art historians love their lineages. Putting things in their place on the timeline helps to understand evolutions, trends, and progressions, and maybe then we can conjecture generally how things come to be.
In music it’s seemingly crucial. Marketing and commercial reasons aside, popular music seemed to have invented, or at the very least popularised, the term ‘subgenre’ because guess what? There aren’t enough genres to go around. We’ve used them all up a long time ago, and as music continues to reshape, reblend, and reform, we want to be as specific as possible when we are describing what a musical act actually sounds like.
In 1971 a band from Detroit who called themselves Death almost burst onto the scene. As I recounted in the latest edition of the Urchin Mix Tape, they attracted the likes of Clive Davis to record a full-length album, but negotiations broke off when the band refused to change their name at Davis’ request.
And so, Death continued to play small shows and managed to release a 7″ single on their own independent label, Tryangle, before eventually disbanding in 1977 to moving on to other musical projects. It wasn’t until 2009 when a Chicago-based independent label called Drag City compiled the band’s lost recordings and finally released them to the public under the perfectly named title, …For the Whole World to See.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. During their years of activity, Death really could have only been described as a rock band. But with a more legitimate introduction into the timeline of rock music occurring only three years ago, such a description does just about as much as their band name does to clue us in to what they actually sounded like. And so, critics and listeners who were blown away by …For the Whole World to See seemed to reach a consensus that Death should be considered a protopunk band.
Which of course means ‘before punk,’ which is exactly where Death fit in not only in the music timeline but in their musical style. Many popular rock bands during the early seventies, such as Led Zeppelin and the Who, were embracing complexities in their songwriting. Yet other bands during this time, such as the Velvet Underground and the Stooges (also considered protopunk bands), initially played a trademark stripped-down version of rock, which was thus regarded as evolving into punk in the mid- to late-70s.
Punk has since always been defined by its energy, and many now legendary punk acts, such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, are embraced for their so-called amateurism, their DIY aesthetic, and their stripped-down simplicity. But the seven songs that make up …For the Whole World to See don’t quite fit these description. There’s a boundless energy in many tracks, especially ‘Rock-N-Roll Victim’ and ‘You’re a Prisoner’, but no evidence of amateurism throughout the entire record. Tracks like ‘Let the World Turn’ (check the Urchin Mix Tape for a listen) and ‘Where Do We Go From Here???’ suggest that Death was more structurally complex than other protopunk bands as well as the punk bands that have followed. Those two tracks specifically feature changing tempos and a versatility that hints at the band’s overall musicianship. A big reason that …For the Whole World to See took so many people by surprise, aside from coming out of nowhere, was that the band managed to strip down the rock theatrics of lineage without sacrificing their talents.
So what if Death had lived on? How would that have affected the state of punk as we now know it? I suppose we’ll never know.