with Borgo Pass
The brainchild of Vernon Reid, Living Colour first emerged on downtown Manhattan’s vibrant ‘no-wave’ punk-funk music scene in 1983. Reid, a Brooklyn native (born of Caribbean immigrant parents from Montserrat) and barely out of his teens had quickly established himself there as a fiery and rising guitar star. He had honed his skills playing in avant-funk bands like Joe Bowie’s Defunkt and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and had toured Europe, Asia and Africa several times, when he decided it was time for him to step out and do his own thing, a more rock and roll oriented thing. The embryonic versions of Living Colour played instrumental music rife with evidence of Reid’s eclectic tastes, experiences and background. The occasional vocal feature found Reid himself shouting and crooning to a sometimes-comic effect, more out of necessity than desire. Due to its hybrid nature, that first edition of L.C. was considered a suitable opening act for groups as disparate as Fishbone, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and John Cale. Living Colour went through two rhythm section changes before arriving at the ensemble whom recorded Vivid, their major label debut on Epic Records in 1988. Reid lost two sets of journeymen band mates to more lucrative gigs with Lisa Lisa and The Cult Jam and Steve Winwood— career transitions, which ironically indicate just how wide of a musical net Living Colour was already casting.
The mid-80s American music business—radio, record labels, MTV included—was not the most inviting place for an African American yearning to parlay his own brand of metal-dusted rock music. It also seemed to Reid, that a de facto policy of discrimination was being enforced in the business—one that treated rock music as a ‘whites-only’ province, one where, with rare exception, artists of African descent were expected to only scuffle in acceptably ‘ethnic’ genres— R&B, rap or reggae—if they wanted to get ahead. Many of Reid’s Black peers who wanted to also play rock decided it was easier, and less of an economic risk, to accept musical apartheid. In 1985 Reid, an anything but passive student of Civil Rights history, invited several associates
(who included film producer Konda Mason, record producer Craig Street and musician Geri Allen) to join him in forming the Black Rock Coalition. The BRC’s stated aim was to combat industry racism and become the pro-active advocates of musical liberation they were seeking. A quarter-century later the BRC’s members have come to include the bands Fishbone and Bad
Brains, and have become world-renowned for their Black Rock Orchestra which Reid formed and initially directed while Living Colour began building an incendiary rep as one of NYC’s best live rock acts.
The version of Living Colour that assembled Vivid began to take shape in late 1985 when vocalist Corey Glover came into the fold. Glover, a fellow Brooklynite from Reid’s neighborhood, was himself just out of high school then and already pursuing a career as an actor- –a calling that would eventually land him a role as an infantryman in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Vietnam war-pic, Platoon. Glover turned out to be the perfect foil for Reid’s mercurial songwriting, which demanded a singer who could approximate the gritty soul shouting of a Wilson Pickett, the eternal infernal howl of a Robert Plant and the buoyant lilt of Caribbean Soca champs like Arrow and The Mighty Sparrow. Glover also brought a much needed crowdrousing theatricality, Eros and outright machismo to the band’s prior cerebral jazz-rock genius profile. These qualities of Glover’s also brought about a marked increase in the number of women seen attending L.C. shows—surprisingly undaunted by the beer scented halls and scary
bathrooms of L.C.’s most beloved and supportive venue, the gone but never to be forgotten, CBGB’s.
In 1986 the band came to the attention of Mick Jagger after Reid did a session for Jagger’s second solo album, Primitive Cool. Jagger himself crossed CBGB’s threshold one night to catch the band in typical full-on ass-kicking mode. Head suitably blown back, Jagger decided to produce a demo for the band that included two of Living Colour’s live-set mainstays, ‘Glamour
Boys’ and ‘Which Way To America.’ Reid had confided in Jagger that L.C. had already been rejected by very major label then signing rock in New York. After Jagger’s resplendent demo made the rounds, L.C. experienced what New York baseball sage Yogi Berra once described as ‘deja vu, all over again.’ Once more all the majors said ‘No’ with the exception of Epic’s fearless,
colorblind A&R man Michael Caplan, who’d actually been hot to sign them before Mr. Rolling Stone himself came into the picture. Using Epic’s eminence and Jagger’s demo as leverage, Caplan lobbied harder than before to get his bosses to take a chance on L.C. In short order Living Colour’s career prayers were answered, and within a few months work on Vivid began with Reid, Glover, nimble and versatile bassist Muzz Skillings and virtuoso drummer Will Calhoun, (a recent Berklee School of Music grad ) in tow.
The finished album, produced by rock veteran Ed Stasium, is in many ways the studio-polished version of Living Colour’s dynamic live-show from the period. Songs that had become fan favorites (of a predominantly Black, Brooklyn dwelling fan base at that juncture it should be mentioned) were buffed up and beefed-up for dissemination and world domination in a rock
market place, which saw L.C. as quite the exotic novelty. Yet L.C. was not only a rock band who happened to be Black, but a pro-Black pro-social justice rock band who made America’s race, class and power conflicts as well as conniptions into the meat and substance of its lyrics and antioppression attitude. Proclamations of social discontent were clearly articulated in funky, bigfooted and booming power chord-lancing songs like ‘Funny Vibe’ (featuring special guests Chuck D and Flava Flav of Public Enemy) ‘Open Letter To A Landlord,’ ‘Desperate People’ and the song which became their first MTV and Top 40 hit ‘Cult of Personality’—the success of which saw L.C. take home several prizes in 1989—a Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy
award for ‘Cult of Personality’ and three MTV Moonman Awards for Best New Artist , Best Group Video of the year, and Best Stage Performance in a Video.
Going into production for their follow-up, Living Colour faced the dilemma of most newbie recording artists—namely having their whole lives to produce material for a first album and having six months or less to work up songs for their sophomore shot. The band responded to the challenge with an even more determined sense of mission, vision, ambition and brio on the bold, bodacious and bristling Time’s Up. That album spanned a gamut of styles and concerns which ranged from speedcore and premillennium tension on the title track, disco funk and various prejudices on ‘Type,’ psychedelia and schizophrenia on ‘This Is The Life,’ Central African zouk and TK on TK.
1993’s Stain, the band’s 3rd and final album for Epic, arrived right in the middle of the so-called grunge moment. American rock’s Seattle based game changer brought forth a plethora of bands– -notably Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam who, similar to L.C., fused hardcore and progressive elements and steamy Hendrixian funk into a dark, acid-dipped miasma of hooks and hauntings. L.C.’s response to the grunge phenomena resulted in Stain’s brooding collection. It also marked the departure of bassist Skillings and the inclusion of Doug Wimbish—a versatile, near legendary bassman known for his work on classic hip hop tracks like ‘Rappers Delight’ and ‘The Message’ as well as his work with the London based progressive dub-funk band Tack Head. After Stain’s sales didn’t match the out-of-the-park numbers of Nirvana and other ‘grungers,’ L.C. parted ways with Epic. Internal tensions—that perennial and near-unavoidable bugaboo of hardworking, road-weary bands made to run after their own early success—had also begun to set in. After Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, bandleader Reid, then suffering his own crisis of faith, pulled the plug on L.C. The disbanded group would not take stage together for another 7 years and didn’t make another recording until 2003, when Collideoscope came out on Sanctuary label. In the intervening years Reid would record two solo albums and form two touring improvoriented units, Masque and The Yohimbe Brothers, while also producing four acclaimed albums for jazz and blues guitar hero James Blood Ulmer. For his part, Glover would make a vibrant soul-rock collection with members of the Family Stand. Calhoun and Wimbish meanwhile explored drum and bass experiments with their duo project Headfake. Calhoun also came to tour his own music, casting his ensembles with other visionary modern jazz peers such as Graham Haynes and the iconic Pharoah Sanders. (He has also of late began touring with African superstar Oumou Sangare’s otherwise all-Malian band).
During the interregnum other monstrous and multiethnic rock groups flourished and emerged in pursuit of Living Colour’s model of maximum hybridism—most notably Rage Against Machine, Skunk Ananzie, the aforementioned Family Stand and The Deftones. More recent developments have seen a host of rock units featuring Black musicians garnering considerable acclaim and audiences locally, nationally and internationally in the world of indie rock: TV On The Radio, Santigold, The Noisettes, Bloc Party, The Black Kids, Janelle Monae, Black JKS, and The Dragons of Zynth. Their popularity signals a dramatic change afoot in the land for intrepid rockers of African descent. Much akin to the ‘Affirmative Action babies’ of the Civil Rights movement, the racialized rock battleground L.C. had to storm like Normandy in the late 80s has gradually given way to a fertile poly-ethnic seedbed for contemporary Blacks who rock. Since 2002 a regrouped, regenerated, renewed and retooled Living Colour have done several major tours of Europe and South America every year. Their flagship hit ‘Cult Of Personality’ was added to Guitar Hero III, which has since sold over 14 million copies, and in the process introduced the band to an entirely new audience. Yet they’ve always kept an eye on making a comeback album equal in power, imagination and creative currency to their epochal trilogy. That goal has been realized with the release of THE CHAIR IN THE DOORWAY, a rugged and Obama-nation ready lodestar nearly four years in the making. The album finds L.C. stalwarts Reid, Glover, Calhoun and Wimbish looking backwards, forwards, sideways and upside-down for new inspiration and matriculated definition. Loyal fans of the band’s 80s and 90s incarnations
will find much to applaud. The rhythmic lock, drive and propulsion they’ve come to expect from Calhoun and Wimbish sounds as bullish and indefatigable as ever; Reid’s flamethrower guitar remains as full of velocity, piss and vinegar. Just as well, Glover’s vocals continue to work the gully breach between arena-rock bombast, juke-joint braying, gospel catharsis and soul-man soothsaying. Proving they place no great stock in past glories, L.C. has evolved their stadium rock power moves into the spacey psychedelic nether regions where today’s most progressive rock acts tend to sulk, bleed, hop and dwell.
Reid has described TCITD as the band’s first ‘concept’ album and ‘the first album where we had the title before we had any songs.’ About the title’s genesis, Reid recalls it as a throwaway line Glover tossed out apropos of nothing while they stood waiting outside a movie theatre. Something about it stuck with Reid, and so it came to pass that in between tours and other
obligations the band was up and running to the studio again, creating music and lyrics in response to the title’s bewitching, suggestive call. The bulk of the material was developed with assistance from the gifted young producer Count, known for his work with Galactic, and singersongwriter Mark Stewart, an old friend of Wimbish’s from their days in dubmeister Adrian
Sherwood’s camp. Much of the album’s last mile was done over an intense 20-day stretch in Czechoslovakia’s Sono Studios, whose head honchos Milan and Pavel also made creative contributions to the song craft. The mix, resolutely and relentlessly darker and swampier than anything we’ve heard from Living Colour, was done by the eminent studio-rock magus Ron St Germain. (His previous credits, we should note, also include L.C.’s Time’s Up and the Bad Brain’s I Against I).
Lyrically speaking, The Chair is more oblique than Living Colour’s past works, and for that more metaphorically rich, serving up a frenetic, hard-rock meditation on our time—an age where everyday the fragility of America’s political and economic status is producing tidal waves of dislocation, social paranoia, soul-searching, and perhaps, if L.C. has their Def Con 3 way with modern rock, maybe even a little redemptive critical action. The bend-sinister air of the verses and general vibe on The Chair, though, tend to belie any notion of it as a rallying call to the barricades. When told that the title seemed to suggest coming home to a loved one’s suicide, Reid counter-posed another interpretation—that it might also intimate that the fugue of a suicidal spell was broken by a loved one’s appearance just before the self-destructive deed was done. With such heady and cheery thoughts foremost in the group’s mind, L.C. set about making the fearsome, frolicsome rock ‘n’ roll rollercoaster ride that is The Chair.
The album’s opener ‘Burning Bridges’ immediately renders the collection’s fin–de-siecle-reporton-falling empire intentions boisterously clear. A boom-throated Glover sings of a character who seems to be seeking spiritual renewal through treating wealth, privilege and technology as enemies and not friends. A pulse-pounding rocker that harkens back to Billy Idol’s better days, it ranks as one of the most driven songs about slowly cracking-up in the rock canon. ‘DecaDance’ which follows in the sequence, goes global with its take on recession-era paranoia, those observations a sprightly heavy-metal rave.
The lyrics of ‘Behind The Sun,’ Reid confides, came out of Glover’s troubled feelings about the lack of progress in New Orleans so many years after the tragic events, which ensued after Hurricane Katrina hit. Its bright chorus and gnarly-cum-Gnostic guitar collages take a cue from the U2 playbook. From the music-press buzz already swelling around the song, ‘Behind’ appears destined to be The Chair’s first single. Though the album is unabashedly defined by supercharged and aggressive guitar rock, the moments when L.C. relaxes its power-chord grip a bit also prove to be poignant, most notably, on the laconic behind the beat blues of ‘Not Tomorrow’,’ That song’s moody wedding of John Lee Hooker, a classic striptease beat and Glover plaintive melancholia normally kept hidden beneath the surface on the band’s more bombastic salvoes.
Asked “Why Living Colour, again, and why now?,” Reid replies that he’s never wanted be in “repertory band”—one looking to make its last hurrah on the nostalgic laurels afforded from songs recorded two decades earlier. “‘For us the band has always been about possibilities, so the challenge was to dig deep and see what might be there for us to say to this historical moment. The rock genre still holds appeal because songs with lyrics allow you to concoct an emotional capsule that can speak to people for years afterwards.”