Monday, December 13, 2010

Let's discuss the Bad Brains... This entry is inspired by the fact that lately I've been playing this very album every day on the way to work in the car. The trip itself is only about 10 minutes or so - close enough that I probably really shouldn't be driving at all - and just the right length of time to digest a good 5 or 6 songs which get the adrenalin pumpin' and ready to start the day. It's a cure-all for life's woes which hit me at that time of the day, an embodiment of the redemptive powers of music. Sorry, am I getting too heavy here? For some folks it's Bruce Hornsby. Others it's Bon Jovi. Lately, for me, it's Bad Brains and their debut self-titled full-length cassette (and long since available on LP and CD) on ROIR from 1982. Back in highschool, my main Bad Brains fix was via their Rock For Light LP, and for me it still remains their highpoint, but since I only own it on LP, it's the CD version of their debut which is getting the flogging. Perhaps all of that's not very interesting, but the story of the band is.

You probably already know it: four black teenagers from Washington DC with a great interest for the noodling jazz fusion of Mahuvishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever, as well as the likes of Hendrix and P-Funk and early-'70s UK heavy metal such as Black Sabbath and Budgie ("doomsday music", as the band called it), form a fusion band in the mid '70s called Mind Power. It was in this context of musical-prowess-worship that the band honed their chops. Unlike most punk rock slobs who were inspired by the Ramones upon first listen to pick up an instrument, these guys had already done all the groundwork. Bad Brains were equally as influenced by the Ramones, along with the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols, and dropped the straight fusion nonsense pretty quick, diving headfirst into the realm of hyperspeed punk rock, aided and abetted by their superior skills as musicians. The concept of skilled musicianship is an issue I've chewed over in recent years when my mind should probably be elsewhere, and I've come to the conclusion that in the genre, it's a vastly under-rated talent.

The anyone-can-do-it ethos is something to be encouraged - always has been and always will be - but it's a fact that not everyone should do it, and the combination of skilled and expressive musicianship and the desire to make great and powerful rock 'n roll (and the definition of that is purely subjective, so let's not dwell on it) is one which can't be beat. All the best hardcore bands of the era possessed the necessary chops and used it: Minor Threat, Black Flag, Big Boys, Die Kreuzen, hell, I'd even throw the Dead Kennedys in there. These were real musicians who'd honed their craft, not part-timers blasting out indistinguishable three-chord thrash. Now, lest you're starting to think you're reading Modern Guitar magazine, let's change the subject.

Below are two clips of the band, one from CBGBs in 1979, and one from the same venue in 1982. The sound in the latter is tougher, faster and heavier, and the band is starting to look like it's weathered a few tours under its belt, but it's unmistakably the same band. The band in the former looks almost innocent in comparison: like young punkers from nowheresville (and Washington DC, except for a few other noteworthy bands, was pretty much nowheresville, musically speaking, back then) in the big smoke for the first time, still shaking off their Brit-punk obsessessions and forging their own identity. Face it, if you walked into CBGBs in 1979, which was a time when New York's original "punk rock" scene was on its last legs, and witnessed just a few minutes of the band's onstage power, you'd just about lose your shit. I challenge anyone reading this to compose a convincing argument otherwise. The dynamics, the songwriting skills, the chops, the wild charisma of the band's presence - and, hey, I'm going to have to mention it - the apparent novelty of an all-black punk rock group (a distinct minority-within-a-minority) playing the music faster, more powerful and possibly better than anyone else before them would add an extra thrilling element to them as a band.

During that same year, the band had recorded a demo in DC w/ Dischord veteran, Don Zientara, in his basement. It was later released as the Black Dots LP/CD. If you're a fan, it's essential. And if you're a fan, you probably don't need me saying that. It's got tracks which later reappeared on their ROIR and Rock For Light LPs, as well as some which never surfaced anywhere else. The most infamous of these, or the one which always gets mentioned, is "Redbone In The City", which musically is a direct facsimile of the 'Pistols' "God Save The Queen", complete w/ HR growling out a Rottenesque snarl. It's a hoot, and shows the band at a crucial stage of their development. When they were being more original and finding their own musical voice, such as on "How Low Can A Punk Get?", they were all the better for it.

In 1981 they made the big move to New York from DC, after having basically kickstarted that now-famous scene by inspiring the likes of Ian MacKaye, Hank Rollins and co. to start their own bands, and knocked the city on its head. Any NYC HC bonehead from the period, even the smart ones like Jack Rabid, will tell you that the Bad Brains were the band to see ca. 1980-'83, and towered over every other band in the city. Given the level of NY's HC talent, that's possibly not such a big achievement, but you get the idea. That year they recorded this album at the 171-A Studio in NY, a streetfront venue/hangout for the city's punkers and old-school White Panther/Yippie beatniks, and released it on cassette in 1982.

Some folks, some of them even famous, rate it as the best hardcore punk album of all time. I don't agree with them (Damaged still gets the vote: discuss), but I won't argue the point. In its own way, it's perfectly valid. Whilst there's a few superfluous reggae tracks which 90% of listeners probably skip (the band wrote competent and sometimes even good reggae music, but it was never remarkable), there's more than a few tracks you could stake your life on: "Pay To Cum" (originally self-released as a 7" in 1980), "Banned In DC" (the opening drum roll and subsequent explosion into a breakneck polka beat as HR lets out a scream still gets me punching imaginary walls like a goddamn loser), "Sailin' On", "Right Brigade", "The Big Takeover" (the thumping kick-drum lead-in which again erupts into an almost Sabbath-like swing before racing into more hyper-drive punk is one of their greatest moments), the ferocity and anger of "Fearless Vampire Killers" - they're all songs which rate as some of the best ever laid to tape by a band claiming to play rock 'n' roll music.

The band had hit the skids by 1983 after they'd became embroiled with a particularly nasty incident w/ the Big Boys in Austin (Google it if you don't know it, I'm not going into it here) and then had their gear stolen in Boston. None other than The Cars' Ric Ocasek, a man who was convinced they were the best band in the land, came to the rescue, bought them new instruments and put them into the studio to produce their epochal Rock For Light LP. For me, perhaps for sentimental reasons (I bought it when I was 15 and played it every single day for at least 6 months), it remains my favourite recording of theirs. Others complain that Ocasek took a bit of the bite out of their sound, but I don't hear it. Maybe the guitar could be turned up a touch in the mix (on the Caroline reissue from the '90s it is, so don't complain now), but I suspect that people just like to complain and pick holes in the efforts of famous people meddling with their fave underground rock combos (see Bowie/Stooges).

The band split soon thereafter and have been back and forth as an operating and non-operating entity ever since. Some of their subsequent recordings possess similar goods: I Against I and Quickness, from 1986 and 1989, respectively, have their moments of greatness, though the band were starting to incorporate funk and metal sounds into their musical brew (sometimes edging awfully close to the audio-atrocity known as "funk-metal"), and their '90s recordings, or the little I've heard of them, belong to a different band, or at least a band who couldn't claim me as a fan. The group subsequently redeemed itself to an extent with the fine Build A Nation album in 2007, a recording which stylistically took them back to their early '80s HC roots, and now they rate as an almost heritage-rock band of the underground. All manner of people who play in famous rock bands you'd never want to listen to hail them as a defining influence on their music, though it shouldn't be forgotten that they also inspired the creation of a whole lotta great music 30 years ago.

A couple of years back, SPIN magazine published a list of what they considered to be the 50 most important and influential musicians in the history of rock music. The Age newspaper ran a story on it down here, as it had created the predictable controversy such lists inspire. They asked a few local rock celebs for their comments; Spencer P. Jones was aghast that SPIN considered Fugazi more important than The Who, and Bruce Milne remarked that he thought the inclusion of the Bad Brains high up on the list, w/ the absence of Black Flag, whom he noted he thought to be much more influential despite his great fandom for the 'Brains, was an example of the list's token nature and SPIN's desire to appear as nice liberal folk. He's right, of course, but that doesn't diminish any of their greatness as a band. They deserved to be somewhere on that list. The story of the band is way too complex and varied to be given its due in a simple blog entry; I've just skimmed the surface. You know what you need to do, and if you've already done it, then let's collectively praise Jah for the genius of the Bad Brains.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Along with Minor Threat's complete discography, Bad Brain's two first lengths (which mostly revolve around the same songs) are just the best American Hardcore ever (which makes it the best Hardcore punk ever, period).
I mean, I'll never dispute the well-deservedly legendary status of Black Flag's "Damaged"- arguably the holy grail of USHC and a pivotal influence on extreme music of all sorts-, but whereas the first side of that record is flawless, songs like "Life of Pain", "No More" and "Damaged I" make sitting through the second side a kinda difficult and somewhat intellectual endeavor which I'm not usually willing to undertake(the same way one should sit for hours in front of a Pollock's painting so as to appreciate the guy's undisputed talent). The closing track's specially annoying, coming dangerously close to the headache-inducing noisefests of early Swans and the like. I might be wrong, but I don't see the musical or even creative merit in songs like the aforementioned.
Besides, I guess that the jock thing frequently related to Hardcore has lots to do with Henry.
Of course I don't know him personally, but I guess his tougher-than-fuck-macho-as-shit stance is partially to blame for all the John Brannons, and subsequently Harley flangans, Ray Cappos, Chokes (Slapshot, Negative Fx), et al of this world.
To sum up, "Damaged" is a great record, but for the reasons cited, Minor Threat's EPs and Bad Brains' debut and "Rock for Light" would deserve the title of best Hardcore records for this humble servant.