In the second half of the twentieth century, music rooted in the sounds of punk rock became a source of inspiration for American youth. The music gave a generation disenfranchised by a country struggling to handle the pressures of both being a world power and the aftermath of the Vietnam War a sense of stability and comfort unachievable through other media.
These feelings of alienation were no different in Detroit, a city with a seemingly unique, but actually very widespread “set of political and social conditions that made it ripe for the negotiation of race, sexuality, and gender within punk." Typical to many other American cities in the 1960s and early 1970s, Detroit was not lacking in its share of racial, sexual, or gender segregation, leaving many people with a desire to speak out and make an impact within their community.
Image via Daily Vinyl.
The late 1960s in Detroit saw oppression of its African-American population by a predominantly white. One prominent example of this violence came the middle of the night of July 23, 1967, when Detroit police arrested eighty-five people for “illegal drinking.” This mass arrest sparked what would ultimately turn into a race riot that resulted in the deaths of forty-one individuals.
It should, therefore, be no surprise that three African-American brothers began to play music in their garage, writing songs acknowledging the many problems of the city. Songs with titles like "You’re a Prisoner" and "Where Do We Go From Here???". This band, comprised of Bobby, David, and Dennis Hackney, was simply called Death. By 1974, Death went on to develop and pioneer the fast-paced, politically charged music that would later be popularized and declared to have been created by The Ramones as a genre called punk.
The band Death. Image via Vancouver Sun/Wikimedia Commons.
At the time that Death was writing music, many studio executives considered signing the band to a recording contract, but were hesitant to take the risk. They claimed that the band’s sound would catch listeners off guard, and that they were not worth the money or the possibility of failure: "If you were a black musician in Detroit at the time, you were expected to be Motown or R&B. Not rock, and certainly not a pioneering iteration of rock." Even when punk began to become popular, they also stood on their own as many of the bands surfacing around the nation were made up of white individuals from the city.
To this end, Death did not see much success in Detroit's punk rock scene in the 1970s. However, ironically, the band did find success when most of their material was re-released in 2009. When one thinks of 1970s punk rock, they usually consider the “big three” bands: The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash. The Ramones released their self-titled debut in the spring of 1976, a record that launched the band into stardom with quick hitting – often less than three minute – anthems like “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Judy is a Punk.”
What many people are unaware of, however, is that two years before the release of The Ramones’ debut, just over six hundred miles away in Detroit, Death had already solidified the punk sound and attitude with the underground release of their debut single "Politicians in My Eyes" in 1974. An almost six-minute epic, the single brings together the sounds of fast-paced punk and R&B music with lyrics expressing the political and social messages for which many punk bands are now known. For example, the chorus of "Politicians in My Eyes" reads, “The number one biggest game/It's when they gain the most fame/It's like a race to the top/Because they wanna be boss/They don't care who they step on/As long as they get along/Politicians in my eyes."
More than thirty years after being penned by the Hackney brothers, the lyrics of "Politicians in My Eyes" still stand true for today’s Detroit. Its continued corruption can be seen in the investigation and conviction of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his government for “wide-ranging racketeering conspiracy that included extortion, bribery, and fraud” in 2008. With issues so incredibly detrimental and recent, it is clear that the issue of government corruption in Detroit still remains very prominent and has yet to be resolved.
Throughout his term, Kilpatrick was discovered to have been reallocating the city’s funds into his own personal account to be used for parties and vacations for his family, a sure indication that government corruption in Detroit is far from gone. While there no (well-known) punk band in Detroit has yet called out Kilpatrick’s corruption in new songs, "Politicians in My Eyes" can serve as that anthem.
Feature image via YouTube.