op-ed: (not just) white boy music — the very punk rock history of bad brains, fishbone and living colour
By Sound Check
August 16, 2016
The announcement that members of Bad Brains, Fishbone and Living Colour, three bands that defined my life as a rock and roll fan in the 1980s, would be performing together in a super-jam at this year’s AFROPUNK Festival, instantly took me back to the days when these groups were staples of the (Black) punk rock scene. This was a big deal. While most commercial Black artists of the time were limiting themselves to soul, funk or rap, these bands set their own courses and battled the naysayers. I was a “weirdo” Harlem kid who’d spent the ‘70s kickin’ out ”white boy” jams (Zeppelin, Queen, Kiss), before being turned-on by the strange (spitting, stage-diving) spectacle of the Sex Pistols via television news. So I was more than ready to see artists of color contribute to the changing musical landscape.
I ventured Downtown to then-popular NYC clubs like The Ritz, CBGB’s and Lone Star Café, where Bad Brains, Fishbone and Living Colour all played early gigs in front of mixed-race audiences more than ready to be enraptured by the emotion, energy, and defiant anger of this music. Each band possessing a charismatic lead vocalist unafraid of rejection, flinging themselves into the crowd, screeching beautifully while fronting his band’s controlled chaos. Amid the electric roar of guitars and the deep pockets of the drum and bass, the audience usually wound up as sweaty as the band.
Later, there’d be reviews in alternative papers or magazines, but nothing compared to the initial word-of-mouth excitement, first-hand tales of what we were witnessing. These shows marked the beginning of what would become the AFROPUNK community, a few hundred likeminded folks attending performances, growing steadily into a movement. It was reclamation. As Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid told Spin journalist John Leland in 1986, “Rock is everyone’s music, but the origins of the music is Black and there’s no way you can get around that.”
By Michael A. Gonzales*, AFROPUNK contributor
Here’s quick history lesson: Black rock and roll was there since the beginning — before, even. Alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, there was Ike Turner’s frantic “Rocket 88,” cited by many as first the genuine rock ‘n’ roll tune, Little Richard’s riotous “Tutti Fruitti,” Big Mama Thornton’s lascivious “Hound Dog,” Chuck Berry’s guitar-driven “Maybellene,” to name just a few classic songs by pioneering “colored” artists who cemented rock’s foundation. White artists quickly covered many of these songs, and the watered-down versions often outsold the originals.
Bad Brains, picture credit: Lucian Perkins
The following decade, across the Atlantic, young British musicians like John Lennon and Paul McCartney (The Beatles), Mick Jigger and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Eric Clapton (Cream), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and many others, would dig into American blackness, explore the essence as they listened to the scratchy recordings of blues-men like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, appropriating and amplifying the dusty-groove findings into their own music. The loudness of these second-hand “blues” spread a cultural amnesia, and rock metamorphosed into the dreaded “white-boy” music.
As the bands got bigger, and serious magazines (Rolling Stone, Creem) were launched to document the musical culture, rock’s historical black roots were buried in books and documentaries. (Thank God for the footage of Jimi Hendrix playing at Monterey and Woodstock; watching it on PBS changed my life). Then, in the early 1980s, a few men of color began stepping forward to reclaim their stake in the sound.
First, there were the Bus Boys, fronted by brothers Brian (keyboards, vocals) and Kevin O’Neal (bass, vocals), who found some critical success by playing a mixture of Devo/B52s-style new wave and straight-up rock and roll. Their witty songs were sometimes inappropriate but always bitingly funny, tackling familiar topics such as the “KKK” and “Minimum Wage”. “I like to challenge the American conscience a bit,” Brian told Jet magazine in 1981. They made it to Saturday Night Live and appeared in Eddie Murphy’s debut film, 48 Hours, singing their signature song, “The Boys are Back in Town”. Yet, for all the Bus Boys talent and bravado, their act was safe and polished. I craved rawness.
And at that moment, a Washington, D.C. crew calling themselves Bad Brains was dreaming up this very punk I needed. They were former jazz-fusion players who switched musical gears after overdosing on the Sex Pistols, and renaming themselves after a Ramones song. The late writer/DJ Tom Terrell, who’d seen them many times in the early days, once told me that, “Before the Bad Brains no other band had been able to combine white noise with black spiritualism and make music sound so powerful.”
Bad Brains, picture credit: Lucian Perkins
H.R. (vocals), Darryl Jenifer (bass), Dr. Know (guitar) and Earl Hudson (drums) performed regularly at the now-legendary 9:30 Club, developing songs that would later appear on their self-titled cassette-only debut. Critic Greg Tate reviewed the cassette in The Village Voice under the title “Hardcore of Darkness,” a piece that served as my introduction to the group. Tate described their crazed sound as “lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer…like making love to a buzzsaw, baby.” Bad Brains were an ear-bleeding, rhythmic revolution, texturing punk with reggae and dub, fearless both on stage and in the studio.” On thrashing tracks called “Pay To Cum” and “Big Take Over,” Tate heard Bad Brains not as black noise, but as recording angels and prophets of a new age.
Sri Lankan musician/writer Skiz Fernando was a Baltimore high-school sophomore when he chanced upon the cassette at the local record store. “When I saw that yellow and red cover with a lightning bolt striking the White House, I just bought it,” he recalls. “I knew they were a punk band by their name, but I had no idea they were black until I saw their picture in the liner-notes.” Venturing to Bad Brains shows in D.C., Skiz was hyped by more than just the “hard, fast and aggressive” sound. “At the time I was one of the few people of color on that scene, which made me a little self-conscious, but with the arrival of the Bad Brains, I felt less so.”
The energy of Bad Brains shows was bracing, extraordinary. For proof, check out Live at CBGB 1982, compiled from performances recorded at the legendary punk club around Christmas. Bodies are flying, the band is shredding, and H.R. is blissfully in control.
In the essential text American Hardcore: A Tribal History, writer Steven Blush called Bad Brain’s debut, “the most important Hardcore recording ever.” In the thirty-four years following its release, there would be more masterpieces (especially, 1986’s I Against I), bad deals, break-ups, splinters, and reformations in the name of Jah. The Bad Brains never went pop, but they changed the world.
The release of the Bad Brains’ cassette in 1982 had a galvanizing effect on black rockers from coast to coast, inspiring Los Angeles homie Angelo Moore and Brooklyn boy Vernon Reid to re-focus their own groups — Fishbone and Living Colour, respectively — and bravely follow the D.C. quartet’s giant steps.
“Originally I was a hip-hop kid with a jheri-curl and a green metallic suit,” Moore told me a few years back. “I was a pop locker who had appeared in the movie Breakin’. When I first heard the Bad Brains, I thought, ‘Those white boys are bad.’ But, when I discovered that they were black, my world just stopped.” Then Angelo’s world started anew, his thoughts turning to the group Moore (vocals, saxophones) was launching with Chris Dowd (keys, trombone, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Walter Kibby II (vocals, trumpet), and John Norwood Fisher (bass), and where they were headed musically. Fusing hardcore/punk, funk and their own brand of West Coast ska, Fishbone signed with Columbia Records in 1983.
Two years later, I was shopping at Sounds Records, a long-gone East Village landmark, when I was enticed by the stunning John Scarpati photo that served as the cover for Fishbone’s self-titled EP. It was the perfect image for a group Billboard was describing as, “the most anarchic band currently holding a recording contract,” and for a record that featured an upbeat single about the end of the world (“Party at Ground Zero”) and a slice of surreal stankiness (“V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F. (Voyage to the Land of the Freeze Dried Godzilla Fart)”). Fishbone would do well in The Village Voice’s respected music critics’ poll, Pazz & Jop, and pave the way for LA’s other punk-funkateers, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addictions.
However, for all their greatness on record, the fullest Fishbone experience was seeing them live, where they were even wilder, loose and unpredictable. A memory: It’s a late night in 1986, at the Ritz (now Webster Hall), and I am standing in front of the stage soaking in their passion, rage and obvious drunkenness (according to my brother, who was a bouncer at the venue, Fishbone had gotten to the there hours early and spent their pre-show time on the tour bus eating sardines in yellow mustard sauce and chugging bottles of bum wine called Thunderbird). The show was among the best I’d ever seen. The saxophones, trumpets and a trombone were a major part of their sound, with musicians thrashing about the stage, treating the performance like a last party before the world went “BOOM.” Yet no matter how crude and rude their antics, there was little doubt Fishbone they took themselves seriously as artists. In 2015, recalling working with them throughout the ‘90s, the singer Joi Gilliam said, “They were underground and cultish, but Fishbone is also the stuff of legends.”
A few months before that Fishbone performance at the Ritz, I had a chance meeting with guitarist Vernon Reid at Sounds. Although I knew of his work with a diverse crowd of NYC avant-garde jazzbos and no-wave noise-niks, that day Reid schooled me on the loose arts group he’d started with Tate and others, called the Black Rock Coalition (BRC). Part of the BRC’s mission was to help black musical acts working outside mainstream R&B get gigs. Yet their workshops and outings also served to create a community of black “weirdos” who were into playing the “white-boy music.”
It was through the BRC that I first learned about some of the historical aspects of rock music and its creators — and about some spectacular young bands, a few of whom eventually got signed to major-label contracts, including Reid’s own Living Colour. During the latter part of the 1980s, CBGB’s, the Bowery bar that a decade before served as ground zero for the first wave of American punk, became the band’s primary venue. “CB’s was where we became a band,” Reid recalled in 2009. “I did gigs there that were such absolute tragedies that I would be in tears, but Hilly [owner, Hilly Kristal] would always book us again.”
Often playing on bills with fellow BRC members JJ Jumpers, Faith and 24/7 Spyz, Living Colour (Reid, vocalist Corey Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun) gave incredible, high-energy performances, becoming one of New York’s must-see bands. While Living Colour celebrated punk with their adrenaline-rush performances, the band was reared on a healthy diet of ‘70s radio pop, soul/funk bop and free jazz pioneers Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, allowing those influences to seep into their sound. “We’re really a New York City band,” said Reid. “There has never been a division for me in terms of the styles of music I liked.
Living Colour’s songs called out casual racism (“Funny Vibe”) and gentrification (“Open Letter to a Landlord”), while their biggest hit was massive and universal “Cult of Personality,” a song that continues to resonate. Mick Jagger is said to have stumbled into CB’s during a Living Colour set in 1987, and offered to help get them signed to his label, the usually conservative Epic Records. Fact or legend, soon enough their brilliant Epic debut, Vivid, saw Living Colour winning Grammy and MTV Awards, gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, and by 1989, opening up for Mick and the Rolling Stones in stadiums across the U.S.
As Bad Brains, Fishbone and Living Colour helped break down barriers for all Black rockers, they also broke ground for today’s forward-thinking musicians. “I think the sheer impossibility of what we were able to do was an inspiration,” Reid said. “AFROPUNK is the next generation, which is so necessary.” Without those successes, it’s impossible to imagine artists like Death Grips, Young Fathers, Cerebral Ballzy, The Knux, Trash Talk or countless others. Members of AFROPUNK’s holy trinity continue to educate and entertain, while playing their asses off. One can only guess what their super-jam at this year’s festival will bring, and what it might inspire.
See members of Bad Brains, Living Colour and Fishbone perform live in a Powerjam at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2016, Aug. 27-28. Get tickets here.
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