|Side One:||Side Two:|
While you can’t (easily) read it, the sticker in the top left proclaims this “the best punk/hardcore album of all time” in the words of the late Adam Yauch (of the Beastie Boys). It also advertises the solo debut of bassist Darryl Jenifer. It’s a bit weird, simultaneously having that attempt to get the attention of people who know nothing about the historical relevance of the album, while also encouraging (in familiar marketing techniques, but semi-reversed) additional purchases by association. Weird in that someone who is not familiar with the album would not, most likely, think to buy something that was created by a person involved in this unfamiliar release. While I can break it down, I may never truly understand advertising.
On the face of it, this doesn’t look astonishingly different from a lot of the punk albums that cropped up in the U.S. in particular in the early 1980s: hand-created art, with just enough splash and crudeness to remind you it’s just that, as well as a clear indication of anti-establishment kinds of political sentiment. But, beyond the blinding yellow of the thing (I hadn’t turned the lights on in my music room when I went in to listen, and I could still pick it out as soon as I looked in there), there’s a tiny indicator of one of the bits that is “off” from expectations: the colour scheme of the external art–that is, outside the central image of a lightning bolt striking the Capitol Building–is one that may seem familiar: it’s the red, green, and yellow of Ethiopia, colours appropriated by both the Rastafarian movement and many other African countries. And that’s the giveaway for the big shocker in a scene that was dominated by whites, regardless of their country of origin. A scene that also had endemic racist problems–problems which led to things like Dead Kennedys’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” single the year before this album, which one would think should’ve gone without saying, as drummer D.H. Peligro is black.
Bad Brains were originally a jazz-rock fusion band, but, through their introduction to punk turned toward the more aggressive, definitively faster, rock-based music, even naming themselves after a Ramones song. They released a single in 1980 (“Pay to Cum!”) and recorded an album the next year, and this is, of course, that album, as eponymous albums often are debuts.
Bad Brains is peculiar as an album, too, not just for the novelty of an all-black punk band, but because it comes at the early end of hardcore punk, before it was most completely congealed. It came at a time where the term had only recently gained its most probable source of popularity and familarity, D.O.A.’s Hardcore ’81. Dead Kennedys had only just released their most definitively hardcore release, In God We Trust, Inc. at the very end of 1981. Sure, Black Flag had been around for a while, and had finally released their debut full-length, Damaged, at the end of 1981 as well. But, overall, it was nothing like an established genre yet.
Though it was not yet a conrete term, Bad Brains operates in a space that defies even developing expectations while remaining inarguably hardcore in its approach, in retrospect if nothingi else. Certainly the inclusion of reggae and dub tracks like “Jah Calling” and “Leaving Babylon” made for an anomaly in the hardcore scene, but reggae’s ties to punk were established long before that, with, for instance, the Clash and their cover of “Police & Thieves” on their own eponymous debut in 1977, following it with a cover of Toots & the Maytals’s “Pressure Drop” in 1979 and even original compositions after that. Instead, the way that H.R. (“Human Rights”) sang, the way Dr. Know played guitar, the way Darryl Jenifer played bass and even the way Earl Hudson drummed kept them in a new space.
“Sailin’ On” starts with a rapid count-off from Hudson on his sticks, and moves at a breakneck pace through less than two minutes of song, using heavy riffing and frenetic but very full drumbeats to remove space for any kind of breath. Dr. Know lets out a solo halfway through that lets anyone listening know these four are a force to be reckoned with musically, if the absurd speed of the song’s failure to reduce their precision wasn’t obvious enough for anyone. H.R.’s voice is mixed around the middle, and doesn’t distinguish itself completely until he reaches the chorus and it sounds as if his mouth is motorized and moving almost past the control of his tongue. A little bit of melody and hook enters for the chorus, eventually having made this the song I identify most closely with the album, which isn’t unusual, considering how many times it has been covered since then.
“Don’t Need It” places the band very firmly into the punk mindset, immediately ranting against the ideas of materialism defined by “the newest and the best” and their lack of need for anything of the kind. The pace is not let up for a moment, the song barely topping a minute in runtime, with Hudson left the only one playing as the song transitions immediately to “Attitude” where H.R.’s yelps and squeaks make themselves more apparent, some nonverbal and rising quickly and sharply to make him more instrument than spewer of words. The song establishes the abbreviation that reappears throughout the album and helps define the intent of the band: P.M.A.–Positive Mental Attitude. If you can catch it, it tells you that the musical aggression is a choice not intended to insist on actual aggression, and that the band’s religion (they make their association with the Rastafari movement apparent, writing on the album, “All praises to the All Migghty Creator Jah Rasta Far I”) is intended for positive action (their contemporaneous run-ins with homosexuals in the punk scene and their regrettable actions that followed this notwithstanding–they have since recanted their judgment of MDC’s Dave Dictor and Big Boys’ Randy Turner, et. al.).
After the punch of continued furor in anti-authoritatian “The Regulator”, the band hits “Banned in D.C.”, referring to their “unofficial ban” from clubs in Washington, D.C. where they formed. It has one of Dr. Know’s best solos on the entire album, hinting at the sound they’d approach nearer the end of the decade, one that incorporated the stylings of heavy metal and the emphasis on instrumentation associated with it.
And then suddenly it all almost stops: “Jah Calling” starts, which is noted as “a dub” in the lyrics for the CD version. An instrumental track, Darryl plays a bassline that will have a familiar feel to anyone who has ever listened to dub, with Hudson’s drums distant and heavily spread out across the track. It’s mostly a showcase for Dr. Know’s meandering, sunny guitar lines. The production will help many with the dub claim, as most snare hits carry the echo and eventual distortion that makes dub so readily identifiable.
But the break is brief, and the side ends with “Supertouch/Shitfit” and “Leaving Babylon”. “Supertouch/Shitfit” is interesting because that divided song title is actually indicative of a divided song: about one minute in, the song shifts tempos and gears entirely, with dragging, heavy guitar riffs and pounding drums that announce a mutation: now we enter “Shitfit” itself, and H.R.’s vocals become so fast they are almost impenetrable, an effect that lasts throughout the song, even as a second shift to that transitional riff allows for another of Dr. Know’s most powerful solos.
“Leaving Babylon” is one of the less dub and more reggae “break” tracks on the record, and makes for a solid ending to Side One, using a sound that is admittedly still more on the dub side of things, but plays a lot more like reggae with H.R.’s vocal and the palm-muted ratcheting guitar of Dr. Know reminding more of most reggae than “Jah Calling” ever would.
Side Two opens with an intro to “Fearless Vampire Killers” that reminds us of what a musical force we’re dealing with, before it spins back into that cyclone of hardcore that the band does so well–maybe better than anyone else. “I” and “Big Take Over” keep us in the same groove, though “Big Take Over” acts as a mild reprieve from the pacing of the majority of the record, using another instrumental intro (partly defined by Morse code credited to “Dave Id”) to give us a moment’s rest, if not a moment’s peace. When it does launch itself, Hudson gets his shining moment, with drums that sound as if they could be mimicking the heartbeat of a hummingbird, so much bass thumping along it’s almost like the rest of the band doesn’t notice how fast he’s setting the pace.
“Pay to Cum” was released, as I mentioned, as a single prior to the album itself. It is 1:25 of rejection of societal clamping on art and expression of the soul–though you’d be hard pressed to follow H.R. in this. The song is absurdly fast–even with lyrics, I realized I was consistently a few lines behind H.R. at any given moment.
“Right Brigade” may be the only one of the hardcore/punk tracks that doesn’t run the risk of whiplash, fittingly placed near the end of the record and carrying with it the zig-zagging solo of Dr. Know that seems to be the only part that doesn’t realize this tempo.
“I Luv I Jah” is the closing song on the album, and is one I most readily identify with the band, even if I Against I is the album I think of first (indeed, I actually wrote about it almost a year ago). It’s another dub/reggae hybrid and is possibly the most relaxed of these tracks on the album, having no insistence to it, just a sound that feeds the song’s message: finding peace, a center in self and love despite the chaos and influence of the external world–despite the temptation to respond to those who say you are “not their brother”. It’s also–by far–the longest track on the album. Indeed, were it not for the three reggae/dub tracks, the album would barely top 20 minutes. The song is a langorous 6 minutes and seems to be in no hurry to end itself, turning to vocal improv from H.R. at the end.
Now, there’s actually one last track on the album, the oddly-yet-appropriately titled “Intro”. Obviously, this isn’t the place for an intro–at the end of an album. But, if you listen to it, you get the definite feeling that it belongs as an intro, without question. It builds briefly, and then stops at only a hint, telling you there is more to come–maybe it’s a mistake, maybe it’s a joke, maybe it’s a deliberate decision to hint at the future (uncertain as that was–their follow up, Rock for Light, was only produced at the insistence of the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, and still didn’t stop a break up that lasted until I Against I was released in 1986).
While the playing of Hudson, Jenifer, and Dr. Know (aka Gary Miller) is impressive and ear-catching, H.R. is best at helping to define a new sound. The rest of the band establishes them clearly as hardcore and pushes the boundaries and limitations of a genre that, even before it was subdivided, was known for its lack of emphasis on musical expertise. But H.R. uses a voice that manages to do the same thing, only more obviously–yet with skill enough to lend it a kind of subtlety. While it has become almost a defining characteristic for some modern bands, the “snotty” vocals of punk were not definitive. Still, the nasal element is present in H.R.’s singing, but without the tone that makes them snotty. It’s nasal and higher-pitched, but it is more free and shameless than a lot of the more simple, to-the-poin, or heavily affected voices chosen by many other punk bands–including some of the big ones. Together, they have a sound that remains fresh and unique, not just because they could play their instruments so well, but because they could do it without sacrificing the energy, the messiness and the vibe that defined punk as a sound for so many then–and now.
Next Up: The Band – ?
¹My copy of M.C. Strong’s The Great Indie Discography lists the release as being in December of ’82, while someone has constructed the Wikipedia page with the month of release listed as February. Both have experienced errors I know of on this front, so I’m just going to leave it alone.