Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bad Brains: Bad Brains

Review # 25
Artist: Bad Brains
Title: Bad Brains
Format: LP
Label: Reach Out International Records
Year: 1982
Songs: 15

The Bad Brains self-titled LP begins with the song "Sailin' On," which is reminiscent of the Ramones. Sure, it's a little faster than some of the Ramones stuff, and it has a guitar solo, but right down to the "ooh ooh ooh" vocals, this sounds a lot like it could be a Ramones cover.

Don't be fooled.

The Bad Brains did not play cookie-cutter punk.  In fact, compared to their contemporaries in the hardcore scene, there were few bands as inventive and interesting as the Bad Brains. They defied genre and racial barriers to bring us some of the most interesting punk rock ever recorded.

If you aren't familiar with the Bad Brains, it's worth noting that everyone in the band was black, which for the early 1980s punk scene was virtually unheard of. Musically, they also stood apart from other bands in the scene. Before the rise of hardcore punk, these guys had played jazz fusion, and it shows. The band wasn't afraid to mix their influences, and they were highly proficient at playing their instruments.  Some of the songs on this record (i.e. "Fearless Vampire Killers" and the famous single "Pay to Cum") are among the fastest and also most precise of any hardcore from the era. They rush forward at breakneck speed, only to stop suddenly, throwing you against the proverbial dashboard, before racing off again at 100 miles an hour. At other times, the pace slows down a little, and you can hear some hard rock/metal influence in the guitar. Some of these songs show a jazz influence, hiding just under the surface, in the rhythms and bass lines. 

By far the most obvious non-punk sound on this record, however, is reggae.  The record features three straight up reggae songs.  Not reggae influenced punk, but full-on reggae. We get our first hint of it on the short instrumental "Jah Calling," about midway through side A, go back to hardcore for one more song, and then close side A with "Leaving Babylon," a reggae song that, on it's face, would feel more at home alongside some early Bob Marley material than a hardcore track.  Yet, somehow it flows.  "Leaving Babylon" manages to feel like the same band.  Sure, H.R.'s distinctive and sometimes screachy vocal is obviously the same. But this aside, it still has the same feel somehow. The transition to "I Luv Jah," the third reggae tune on the record, feels a little more awkward, but on the whole still fits.

The record, oddly enough, closes with a track called "Intro," which is just a few seconds long.

Overall, this is one of the most interesting punk records to come out the American scene in the early 1980s.

Sadly, I don't think I can end this review on a wholly positive note.  I would be remiss here not to mention the homophobia controversy that surrounds this band. In the 1980s, singer H.R. made some very unkind remarks about gay people, and was rumored to be an anti-Semite as well. This sort of prejudice is sort of ironic given what the band themselves must have encountered as one of the first entirely non-white punk bands. But, the guys from Bad Brains were committed Rastafarians, and that's a religion that, like most (all?) others, is understood by some of its followers as promoting hatred of certain outgroups. I recently read an interview with bassist Daryl Jennifer, who said that those days are over for Bad Brains. According to Jennifer, the band was overzealous in the early days of their following of the Rastafari movement, and has since spent more time contemplating and studying the religion. This, he said, has led them to the belief that hating people is wrong and actually not in accord with the tenets of the religion. According to Jennifer, the band no longer condones prejudice. But he stopped short of an apology, and as far as I know, the band has never made one. Whether or not it's true, H.R. still has a reputation for being a homophobe and kind of a jerk all around.  So, do with that what you will. It's sad to have to write about this, because the Bad Brains were/are a great band (I believe they still tour now and then), but it's not the sort of thing that I feel can be swept under the rug.

Here's a couple of songs:

Leaving Babylon

Pay to Cum

Total songs listened: 306


Rae said...

Do you have a link to a song? I'm interested in what this rastafarian punk sounds like.

... not that I want you to play it all the time! :)

Damon said...

Yeah, I'll put something up!