Yesterday’s Music News about Living Colour releasing a new album this fall, and a subsequent tour, brought back a flood of intense memories. When I was in junior high and high school, I went through a substantial phase where they were my absolute favorite band. Based out of New York City, the came out of nowhere with their first album, Vivid, one of the few albums I’ve heard in my lifetime where I, and others, realized that we were hearing something we’d literally never heard before. One of the earlier bands to bend and blend genres, their brand of funk/rock/soul/metal/R&B created something not just unique, but incredibly good. They seemed like a band that should have been megastars, but instead they released the Grammy-winning album (1988’s Vivid), and excellent follow-up (1990’s Time’s Up, which also won a Grammy), and then commenced fading into obscurity. Yes, they continued with 1993’s very good Stain, and the also quite good Collideøscope in 2003 (not to mention the Biscuits EP in 1991), but their star never shined as bright as it did the late 80’s/early 90’s.
Which is nothing short of a musical tragedy. Living Colour had an amazing set of ingredients — a singer, Corey Glover, who had a made for soul and R&B, but metalhead’s mind. A guitarist, Vernon Reid, who was unbelievably talented, creating sounds and ideas with his instrument that could make you pound your fist, and then transition into gentle melodies that would stun the audience (he was also the main songwriter for the group). Reid’s musical sensibilities were as all over the map as Glover’s voice — before he’d even formed Living Colour, he’d collaborated with jazz guitarist extraordinaire Bill Frisell. While the other two bandmates weren’t as prominent, they were still incredibly skilled. Muzz Skillings, the band’s original bassist, was a solid talent who would go on to be replaced by Doug Wimbish, and drummer Will Calhoun would lay down rhythm sections that were equal parts headbanger and hip hop. They were strongly political, but also would sing songs of love and hjeartbreak just as effectively. All of that combined into a glorious, sometimes chaotic, but always gorgeous creation that has never been equaled.
Vivid, their first album, was a shock to the system of listeners everywhere. Living Colour was loud in every way — the music they played, the colors they wore. Their getup is pretty goofy by today’s standards, but it was refreshing in 1988, when metal and hard rock was all spandex and long hair (and white people, of course). It’s a terrific album, from start to finish; one of the rare albums that has no weak tracks on it. “Cult of Personality” was it’s most famous track, of course, a shot across the bow of the musical world, demonstrating that rock as we knew it was evolving in front of us. But everyone knows that song, so I’ll go with my three favorites. The first, “Broken Hearts,” is a seemingly simple song of love and regret, but it’s complex lyrics spoke of something more than your typical rock ballad. It powerful drums, the meandering, ethereal guitars, a bouncing bassline, and soulful, poetic lyrics like the opening “I see the fragments of the dreams I used to have / And bits of aspiration lying in the sand” and it created something radically different. “Memories Can’t Wait” featured Reid at his art-rock best, a crazy mess of guitar opening the track and punching through Glover’s lyrics throughout the track. Finally, Desperate People is them brandishing their hard rock torch, a fast-paced head-bobber of a track that features Glover flexing his voice to its fullest, particularly towards the end when he passionately cries “You need friends, you need help / But first you have to help yourself.”
Time’s Up proved that Living Colour had no interest in resting staying the course, but instead they released a much more intense, mature record. Every aspect of their sound had been ratcheted up — the title track was much harder, the ballad “Solace of You” was much softer, more loving lullaby than anything else they’d done (and made it onto almost every mixtape I made for a girl) and “Under Cover of Darkness” was simply pure sexy. They provided a powerful energy through “Information Overload,” a guitar-heavy cautionary tale about mass media and technology. “These Are Happy Times” was a sludgy, heavily funky piece that perhaps was a glimpse of what was to come on the next record. And of course, the clever and scathing “Elvis Is Dead” (featuring Little Richard!) was both an indictment of rock and roll, as well as a stark criticism of American celebrity worship (picking up, perhaps, where “Cult of Personality” left off). Unquestionably, however, my favorite tracks are “Love Rears It’s Ugly Head,” another not-so-subtle tale of love’s pitfalls, and “Fight The Fight.” The latter is a sprawling, operatic piece that has a hook so intense you’ll shiver a bit, and then abruptly switches gears into a hard rock/funk hybrid. One of the more eclectic versions of the former is actually the “Soulpower Remix” of “Love Rears It’s Ugly Head,” which I’ve included here — you can find it on the Pride collection of rarities and B-sides.
Stain was an even more radical departure than Time’s Up was (and the first after Muzz left the band). It was much heavier, displaying a more metal flavor, at times even veering off into industrial. This was the album that perhaps alienated some of the more casual fans who were looking for the brighter-sounding tracks found in the prior releases. But Living Colour wanted to branch out and experiment even more. Stain is actually an excellent record — the heart of Living Colour was unchanged — powerful, funky sound permeates the record, and the slower, more sludgy-sounding tracks somehow even enhanced that. It is, however, the first of their albums where I found myself skipping tracks. “Bi,” while admirable in its subject matter, was a little lyrically weak. However, “Leave It Alone” was a masterpiece, an anthemic hammer of a song that featured a darker-sounding Glover on vocals, and Reid playing a much grungier brand of guitar. “This Little Pig” was just straight up metal, a jackhammer-paced track that featured a barking Glover and industrial, machine-like sound effects. The real departure is the softer “Nothingness,” a gauzy, hypnotic track that is exactly as cynical as the title belies.
The trend towards heavier, harder music continued, albeit 10 years later, with Living Colour’s last release, Collideøscope. Note only darker in sound but also in lyrical content, Living Colour had now completely abandoned the livelier, wittier tracks like “Elvis Is Dead” and “Funny Vibe,” and instead moved into straightforward, much more serious sound. Collideøscope represented a real shift in dynamics for the band, an almost angier-sounding record. Yet despite the drastic tonal shift, it’s still a Living Colour album, and a damn good one too. Their criticism of media and culture continued with “Operation Mind Control,” which proclaimed “Just try on this straight jacket, of conformity / While we force feed you propaganda, on the state TV / It’s operation mind control / It’s the battle for America’s soul.” There’s also a knockout cover of AC/DC’s “Back In Black” that’s probably the closest they come to their younger, more whimsical ways, as well as the ballad-esque “Flying,” which is far more disturbing a song than it sounds — a strange song about love and suicide. One of my favorites is also the very intriguing, electronica-infused “Choices Mash Up,” a technological marvel of a track that’s unlike anything else they’d done.
These are all of the reasons that I’m cautiously optimistic about The Chair in the Doorway, their album due out in September of this year. Despite their changes and evolutions, Living Colour has never let me down. I’ll never forget seeing them on the “Time’s Up” tour, and the almost uncontrollable energy that they displayed. So I’ll line up to buy the album, and I’ll see you at the show.
And here’s my final present: their cover of Bad Brains’ classic “Sailin’ On,” live at CBGB. Thank me later
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.