I love a nice oxymoronic juxtaposition. It has something to do with my character. The rich guy who takes the bus, the sportcoat with jeans, the pro-war democrat, the watchable Keanu Reeves movie, all of these things strike a particular chord with me. Non-conformity at its most visible.
So it was back in 1988, and I had just been hired into my second job ever, clerk at the Record Bar, a smallish independent chain that still sold vinyl out of scratched up wooden racks. The Bar also refused to dictate the music we put on the store's sound system, thus letting each shop develop its own community identity. We were right next to the university, so we were the alt slash 120 Minutes shop.
I usually loved whatever dropped. The Replacements, XTC, The Pixies, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Husker Du - all these bands were mainstays and, with the exception of Saturdays when we were compelled to move R.E.M., Bon Jovi, and the dreadful, asspompous Rattle and Hum, I was pretty content with my working environment.
Then one slow, slow shopping day, I'm stocking Christmas cassettes in an empty store when I hear a Malcolm X quote, then the sickest guitar riff I've ever heard, then the rhythmic equivalent of all hell breaking loose.
"Sweet Teresa," I thought to myself, "What kind of ridiculous is that?"
I stood up and asked the same question of John Wells, who was blasting said ridiculousness through the store's speakers.
"Living Colour," he answered with a sort of Cheshire Cat grin, and then added, for emphasis, "They're black!"
And so it was that the very same instant I was introduced to Living Colour, I was also made aware of the fact that they were black. It was a facet of the band that they themselves embraced, Vernon Reid being the founder of the Black Rock Coalition, but also one that they never overtly celebrated.
Living Colour weren't specifically black-rock pioneers nor are they an island. You can hear Jimi, George Clinton, Fishbone, and much more in their eclectic, hard, funky sound. They spawned few imitators, most closely King's X and 24/7 Spyz, but most notably, well, Lenny, who looks like Jimi but sounds like Bryan Adams. So he's an imitator? I don't know.
Probably, musically, their closest counterparts would be Rage Against The Machine, except they rap. Or 311, except they suck.
Maybe they are an island.
However, it was the fact that they were the black hard rock band - this wonderful oxymoronic juxtaposition - that put that grin on John's face and elevated Living Colour to a level of uniqueness and originality that was and still is unmatched. Especially in this day and age of monolithia in all types of music, Living Colour answers a question without being asked.
What if black music didn't always sound like that?
Beyond the odd factor of black hard rock, Living Colour were just plain odd. Vernon Reid's stiff-wrist-all-forearm rapid fire guitar work, lead singer Corey Glover, a self-described "fashion disaster" and progenitor of the spandex rock suit and the "dreadhawk." References to Stalin and Mussolini side by side with sound bites from Kennedy and Churchill. Songs like "Elvis is Dead," and "Bi." This is not the stuff of hard rock.
Somehow, Living Colour took all that should have played against them, biases, bigotry, tradition, goofiness - and made it work in their favor. In this, they gained respect and admiration from EVERYONE. Rappers loved them, rockers adored them, the press and critics fawned over them, each pointing out in their own way how their race shouldn't be a factor but it was.
None of that is why Vivid ended up on my employee discount sheet that night. It wasn't even "Cult of Personality." I mean, buying a CD was a big deal. I was a student working for minimum wage. I was visiting the ATM five bucks at a time. I could have just gone home with the "cassingle." What made me cough up the ten spot for the CD was every damn track, from the funk/soul stomp of "Broken Hearts" to the rage of "Desperate People," quite possibly one of the strongest songs ever written and powerful enough to make Van Halen, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin collectively sweat.
In fact, the whole record stands up even today, its only weakness being some slight overproduction and squishy harmonica playing, both courtesy of Mick Jagger. He gets dap for the seemingly bold gamble that America was ready for the black hard rock band. And it's a shame it took his backing and name to get this band out of the basement.
Living Colour turned rock upside down through two more brilliant records. Time's Up, the title being a nod to pent up black rage, but also a nod to the generic pent up rage that fuels all good rock, is a record of extremes - the hard thump of "Type," the silly superfunk of "Elvis is Dead," and the funny and bluesy "Love Rears Its Ugly Head." This record, along with Vivid effectively kept rock on life support through the awful, awful 1989-91 period.
1993's darker, moodier Stain, somewhat flawed and out of sync, still gets high praise for "Leave it Alone," a song that best reflects a new lyrical prowess with this record.
Fast forward ten years later, and it seems the boys got the band back together. An unheralded, almost quiet reunion, produced the 15 song Collide-O-Scope, and the record is tricky, and it is most definitely no Vivid.
First off, it's a concept album but, thankfully, it doesn't play like a concept album. The songs are mostly 9/11-and-War-on-Terror influenced, some sad, most angry. Again, the styles vary wildly, from metal on "Song Without Sin," to straight-up punk on "A ? of When," bluesy-soul on "Flying" (a spooky, pretty tune), reggae on "Nightmare City," and, for the first time, bits of electronica thrown into "Operation Mind Control," and "In Your Name." (Check amazon.com for sample clips of most of these).
Like all their records, there are some flaws. They get a little too nu-metal when they don't have to be. "Operation Mind Control" would be the best song on the record if it weren't produced to sound like it was coming through bad speakers. Lyrically, it can get a little trite, definitely a couple steps backwards. And baby, it's a dark, downer of a record, even more so than Stain.
But there are definite rewards. The covers, first of all, are gems. "Back in Black," while the premise is tongue in cheek, is a dead on tribute, and it's, dare I say, better than the original. On the other hand, "Tomorrow Never Knows," is a new take (and rightfully so - how the hell do you cover that tune when you're NOT John Lennon?), and it holds up very well.
Most importantly, even though the guys are pushing-if-not-already over 40, there is not one bit of fat on the record (although Corey looks just a little chunky). The musicianship is, as usual, enough to make guys like me make furniture out of their instruments - it's not even worth trying anymore because I'll never be that good. Corey, one of the most soulful, versatile, and recognizable voices in rock, has tamed it a bit but still wails. The issues are still deep, the writing is still tight, and there's just not a second of waste.
So Living Colour is still the black rock band. I like them for that, but not as much as I like them for their music. And it occurs to me, especially with this sort of strong but hookless comeback, that maybe I really like them not so much for who they are or what they make, but rather, what they do.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
12.1.03 @ 1:38a
I remember coming back from college, summer of '88, and a high school friend asked if I'd heard this group, Living Colour. Being on campus, I'd been exposed to them a few months already before they found airplay on the only AOR station in Richmond. This was the station of Zep, Rush, Tom Petty. You know...white guys.
But then suddenly there was that awful, crunching guitar kicking out a decade of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and the Fat Boys and seething with funk and anger. And my buddy said, "Man, why can't there be more black groups like this?"
And I said, "Why can't there be more groups like this, period?"
Living Colour sits above ROTM (now de-funk'd) because of the range of their stuff. ROTM was hopelessly stagnant, it was all just a matter of what Zack De La Rocha was screaming about. Lenny Kravitz tried to bring the funk, but he was more style than substance.
Odd tangent: Back when Homicide: Life on the Streets was on, Andre Braugher owned that show. And nearly every time I saw him, I thought about Corey Glover swinging his beaded dreads, with that same "smarter than you" grin, speaking/singing with his unabashed righteousness. It's nice to have it back.
12.1.03 @ 9:21a
"I got a reason to believe - we all will be received - at Graceland."
I adore Living Colour.
They proved it was about the music, not the image. They also had as much political pompitude as U2, but didn't ride that broomstick into the ground.
And they kicked ass. I hope more people realize that this time around.
Lenny Kravitz. Please.
12.1.03 @ 9:35a
Like Joseph Stalin! Or Gandhi!
I am now rocking around the office shouting "Cult of Personality" lyrics. Because they can only be shouted. True rock.
12.1.03 @ 10:28a
I never liked Living Colour. They always seemed like they were trying too hard. The hair, the outfits, the "look how we're so much smarter than you because we use political quotes in our lyrics" attitude.
It seemed so...created.
12.1.03 @ 11:12a
But Matt, you can say that about thousands of bands in the 80s and 90s, including U2, R.E.M. (well, maybe not the outfits), Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, etc. I wish there were MORE bands like that, instead of the bland, soundalike Nickelbacks and Creeds and Puddle Of Mudds that we have today.
Since I wrote this (about a week ago), Collide-O-Scope has really grown on me. I'd definitely recommend it now, and I'm learning to love the flaws.
12.1.03 @ 12:10p
U2 didn't jump the shark until the early/mid 90s. R.E.M. wasn't intentionally annoying, they just got caught up in the hype machine. Same with Pearl Jam.
All those bands became that way due to their immense popularity. LC was never popular enough to become cliche. (Although "Cult of Personality" did as a song.)
12.1.03 @ 12:16p
Dammy dammitall, I've already spent my allowance this month and it's only the first. Oh well, there's always plastic I guess..... or how to get into trouble in your retirement years.... I know: I'll ask Santa for it.
12.1.03 @ 1:08p
ROTM: rage Ogainst the machine? :)
12.1.03 @ 1:21p
It was early morning and I had Tolkien on the brain. Bite me.
12.1.03 @ 2:01p
I loved these guys from day one. They were the first concert I ever attended (88 or 89??) - they played in Memorial Hall on UNC Chapel Hill's campus. I also saw them a few other times in support of their other albums.
At one time, I could play the guitar lines to every song on the first album with reasonable success, and several off of "times up."
P.S. - joe fails to mention how SICK the drummer is. He has a doctorate degree in percussion from Berkely music school. He's got mad chops.
I'm going to see them Friday at the Bowery. I expect to have fun.
michelle von euw
12.1.03 @ 8:50p
Love Rears its Ugly Head! I loved that song -- thanks for reminding me of it, Joe. I had a similiar experience with Living Colour back in '89 -- will definitely check out the new one.
LC and Fishbone reminds me how insanely good the Say Anything soundtrack is...
12.1.03 @ 9:46p
Thanks, Michelle. Now I can't get "Party At Ground Zero" out of my head.
12.2.03 @ 8:13a
Allow me to elaborate (probably should have included this in the column, who knew?).
Unofficial yet more interesting site.
12.2.03 @ 9:00a
Oh no, not that again! HTML rears up its ugly head!
12.2.03 @ 9:28a
Good thing you're here to save the day.
12.2.03 @ 1:26p
Two things: a) I personally think Corey Glover did his best work as a VH1 Veejay. Or, you know, not. But it didn't manage to kill his credibility, so there's that.
b) 311 does not suck. Well, now they do. But I'd put "Music" or "Grassroots" up against any of the rap-metal that's come out in the 10 years since 311 first sang "Fuck The Bullshit."
12.7.03 @ 9:37a
I'm gonna go buy the album just as soon as I can dig my way outta the frozen tundra of Somerville, MA.
My favorite thing about this column is reading Joe's inspirational words about a - let's not forget this people - METAL band from the 80's. That's right, they were widely referred to as a Metal band (then again, so was RUSH....hmmmnn). back then Joe and I shared a lot of musical influences, but there was a definite split when it came to the Metal. If you had still been living in town when you discovered LC, I'm SURE we woulda been blasting it together. Oh well, at least we had Van Halen.
12.7.03 @ 10:24a
Then again, the first Grammy for a heavy metal band (again, in the late 80s!) went to...Jethro Tull! Odd, given that the heaviest bit of metal in that group is Ian Anderson's flute...
12.7.03 @ 11:51a
In defense of Rush's metal-cred, I'd argue that "Bastille Day" off Caress of Steel and some of "2112" is pretty metal-ish.