Alumnus donates record to Smithsonian, reminisces on punk band


Courtesy Robert Manis

Robert Manis, ‘05 audio arts & acoustics alumnus and founder of Moniker Records, helped the ‘70s punk band Death release its best-selling album in 2009. 


A rare, 7-inch record, donated by 2005 audio arts & acoustics alumnus Robert Manis, now hangs in the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

The record features two songs by the ‘70s Detroit rock band Death—“Politicians in my Eyes” and “Keep on Knocking.” Only about 500 records were released by Death in 1976 and even fewer original copies are available today, according to Manis.

After Manis graduated, he started his own Chicago-based record label, Moniker Records, which is still active. Manis said he obtained the record he donated in a trade with a Portland record dealer.

Curator of the Music and Performing Arts exhibit at the museum Dwandalyn Reece said one of the exhibit’s goals is to show that African-American musical history encompasses more than R&B and gospel. Death fit well into that musical history, she added.

“One thing [viewers] will take away is the diversity and involvement of African-Americans in rock ‘n’ roll as it first started out, from [the genre’s] inception, to its evolution to its present day,” Reece said. “It also emphasizes that all performers—all musicians—are influenced by different styles and don’t like to be put in a box.”

It was not until 2009 that Manis succeeded in locating members of Death, who had gone their separate ways, according to Manis. He asked them to release previously recorded tracks and referred them to the record label Drag City, which created the seven-song, 2009 album …For the Whole World to See.

Death did not receive much publicity in the ‘70s, according to Steve Albini, record engineer and owner of Electrical Audio recording studios. It took time for audiences to appreciate the band’s unique style, he added.

“[Death] goes about its business being awesome, whether they have an audience or not, and then it takes some time for the culture to catch up with the leading likes of anything,” Albini said. “That’s why they say an artist is most revered after he dies because that’s when you have the complete body of work.”

The record is now displayed on the top floor of the museum in the “Musical Crossroads” exhibit alongside memorabilia from Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Living Color, all of whom  have influenced African-American music and culture, according to Reece.

“It was such an important piece that it didn’t need to be in a box in my house,” Manis said. “It should be on display because it represents everything about that band and the discovery of the band.”

“[Death] had the master tapes in the attic of their house for 30 years or so,” Manis said. “I’m glad they held onto [them].”

The record sold better than any the band had ever released, with about 12,000 vinyl records purchased to date, according to a Drag City Records representative.

“They are absolutely a unique band in their era,” Albini said. “Their music missed its   audience the first time around and when it was found, it was celebrated and championed. It was a unique thing to have a band like that come out of that community, but it was also a unique thing to have a band so substantial and so interesting come out of anywhere.”