Looking around for something that echoed the current state of affairs, I could find no better example than to run a concert given by Washington D.C.’s own Bad Brains – in concert during the Against Tones Festival in Amsterdam at the Paradiso Theatre, recorded and preserved for posterity by VPRO in The Netherlands on May 28, 1987.
Bad Brains was first founded in 1976 as a jazz fusion ensemble called Mind Power in the mold of bands such as Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra as well as R&B musician Stevie Wonder. In 1977, their friend Sid McCray introduced the band, who were already interested in bands such as Black Sabbath, to punk rock, including the Dickies, the Dead Boys, and the Sex Pistols. Mind Power became obsessed with punk rock and changed their name to “Bad Brains”, after the Ramones song “Bad Brain”, but with the word “bad” in the sense of “good”. Despite their burgeoning punk sound, the early Bad Brains, after seeing Bob Marley in concert, also delved deep into reggae music and the Rastafari movement. Sid McCray became their first singer but left in the early days of the group’s hardcore punk era, and guitarist H.R. became the band’s new singer.
The band developed an early reputation in Washington D.C., due in part to the relative novelty of an entirely black band playing punk rock at the time, but also due to their high-energy performances and undeniable talent.
In 1979, Bad Brains found themselves the subject of an unofficial ban among Washington D.C. area clubs and performance venues (later addressed in their song, “Banned in D.C.”). The band subsequently relocated to New York City, where they would serve as a catalyst for that city’s burgeoning hardcore scene. At first, the Brains stayed with their NYC friends in the bands The Mad and The Stimulators.
Their self-titled debut album was released on Neil Cooper’s ROIR on “cassette only” on February 5, 1982, followed in 1983 by Rock for Light, produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars.
In 1986, Bad Brains signed with SST Records and released I Against I, which, in addition to their hardcore punk and reggae sounds, introduced a heavy metal/funk hybrid sound. H.R. provided the vocals for “Sacred Love” over the phone from the Lorton Reformatory while doing a bid for a cannabis charge. Also critically praised was H.R.’s performance: Rick Anderson wrote on AllMusic that, “(HR) digs deep into his bag of voices and pulls them all out, one by one: the frightening nasal falsetto that was his signature in the band’s hardcore days, an almost bel canto baritone, and a declamatory speed-rap chatter that spews lyrics with the mechanical precision of a machine gun”. The title track’s video was shown on MTV’s then-new 120 Minutes program, for which the band appeared in promotional footage.
Despite the success of I Against I, H.R. quit the band again, taking his brother Earl with him after spending most of 1987 touring. 1988 dates for the I Against I tour were done with Taj Singleton on vocals and Mackie Jayson on drums. In 1988, Bad Brains signed with Caroline Records, who released their fourth album Quickness the following year. Since vocalist H.R. and his brother, drummer Earl Hudson were unavailable for the recording sessions, Quickness was originally recorded with Taj Singleton on vocals and Mackie Jayson on drums but before Quickness was ready for mastering, H.R. returned, rewrote the lyrics and overdubbed the vocals for Quickness replacing Taj Singleton’s recorded lyrics and vocals.
Despite several fits and starts, Bad Brains are still with us, 40 years after getting started. Health issues along the way and rumors of a new album – to get an idea of what they were up to in 1987, hit the play button and crank this one up!
Happy Monday – fingers crossed for the rest of the week.