Way back in 1988, when hair metal and bad pop/dance divas were all the rage on MTV and pop radio, a unique band from New York City released its debut album. Now, all of the members were well-known throughout the city as session musicians and as late night solo artists displaying their respective talents in clubs all over the city. This band came together as lead guitarist and band visionary Vernon Reid began to scour the city with his eyes set on finding the finest musicians that would be willing to play a version of hard rock and metal that was dancing around Reid’s head. His objective was to find the finest bassist and drummer who were willing to help him bring together this funk-based hard rock sound that allowed for jazz and pop excursions. Plus, he wanted to find a powerhouse vocalist who was able to pull this whole sound together. And, the final piece to this puzzle was that all of the members of this band must be, like Reid himself, African-Americans. Thus, in a nutshell, this is how Vernon Reid put together a band consisting of bassist Muzz Skillings, drummer William Calhoun and lead vocalist Corey Glover called Living Colour.
In the late Eighties, outside of the alternative and rap music worlds, I found little to get excited about. The heroes of the Sixties and Seventies were generally struggling with the changing musical landscapes. And, there were few artists that were attempting to bridge the ever-widening gap between black and white musical audiences. Sure, we had the early sounds of Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers fusing white rock with hip hop sounds from the white guy point of view, while Run-DMC was erasing the boundaries between hip hop and hard rock. But, ever since the great Jimi Hendrix passed away, few black artists were bringing their mindset to the hard rock/heavy metal worlds. And, as rap music album sales rose, the timing became more obvious to Living Colour.
So, in 1988, Living Colour changed the world when the band dropped their debut album, Vivid, on an unsuspecting audience. I remember reading reviews of the album in several different music rags of the day, most ranging for acceptance to utter genuflecting. I saw the band’s video for “Cult of Personality” on MTV and was blown away by the political voice the band brought over from Public Enemy and integrated it into their debut single. Then, the late great WOXY-FM, 97X, in Oxford, Ohio, began playing the album cut, and eventual second single, “Glamour Boys” in moderate rotation on an alternative music station. So, the former gave my metal side something new to love, while my alternative side was falling for this new wavish hard rock song of the latter. Needless to say, I decided to buy that Living Colour album Vivid. By the way, did you know that Mick Jagger played harmonica, sang backing vocals AND produced “Glamour Boys”? There’s your rock trivia for today.
To be perfectly honest, I have not listened to this album in a good 25 years. So, I was hoping that my memory of the music of this album had not been overblown in my head over the years. So, when I dropped the needle on Side One’s first cut, their most famous song, “Cult of Personality” jumped from my speakers, as my body was mesmerized by the song pounding away. The best thing was that the lyrics, though written as a response to then-Presidents Reagan and the first Bush, still hold up even better today, as our current President uses his reality television image to infest the Oval Office. And, the lyrics of this song predicted the whole thing.
Side One continues with a couple of songs that are confessional in nature, like a metal version of a good Jackson Browne song with “I Want to Know” and “Middle Man” [Note: I use the Jackson Browne comparison because Browne never backed away from his most personal songs also being some of his more poignant political statements as well.] But, it is the last two songs of that side which raises the album into the classic rating. I am talking about “Desperate People” and “Open Letter (To a Landlord)”. These songs fit nicely next to many of the songs from Tracey Chapman’s debut album from the same year as being the best non-hip hop songs that address the plight of African-Americans in the inner city. And the rising rage of the songs are only enhanced by the Hendrix-via-Van Halen guitar solos that Vernon Reid lays down.
On Side Two, the racial observations are still prevalent, finally being dressed up in a type of music that most white knuckle-dragging metalheads will be able to understand. The political statements are made directly in “Funny Vibe”, with help from Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav, and “Which Way to America”. Yet, more subtle racial statements are made with the aforementioned pop/new wave/metal classic “Glamour Boys”, in addition to the cover of the Talking Heads’ “Memories Can Wait”, which is a funky song originally done by a white band made more funky by a black metal band. So, what can be more political than that?
Living Colour’s Vivid, along with other underrated Eighties metal/hard rock classics like Enuff Z’Nuff by Enuff Z’Nuff, Gretchen Goes to Kansas by King’s X, and Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking, that should be placed next to Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood by Slayer, AC/DC’s Back in Black, Motörhead’s Ace of Spades and Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden as THE classic hard rock/metal albums of the Eighties. After listening to the album a couple of times before writing this blog entry, I almost get the feeling that Living Colour was working toward something bigger than trying to become the next Led Zeppelin. Sorry kids! They were way too busy to become anything other than the first Living Colour. They were a band for the Eighties and beyond.
Hey Rock & Roll Hall of Fame! This is the band that should be going into the Hall BEFORE Bon Jovi, not just Def Leppard and The Jam. I am officially back on the Living Colour bandwagon. I may have to purchase the CD version of this album so I don’t wear the grooves any more.