Bad Brains: A Punk Powerhouse Reunited
Friday, August 3, 2007
At this weekend's two-day Virgin Festival at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, it's likely that a good number of musicians will gravitate toward Sunday afternoon's performance by hardcore punk pioneers Bad Brains, who came together 30 years ago in that punk bastion, Southeast Washington.
"Whatever came from four black youths from D.C. being inspired to make progressive punk rock music under the banner of peace and love, that's just on the Great Spirit," bassist Darryl Jenifer says of the band that's had a multitude of breakups and never managed to capitalize on adulation paid by numerous punk, rock and alternative bands.
One of them, in fact, will be part of Saturday's lineup: the Beastie Boys, who before getting into rap 'n' rock were punk rockers who worshiped at the Bad Brains altar in the early '80s during the D.C. group's explosive performances at New York's CBGB. The Beastie Boys, whose own initials were a tribute to Bad Brains, used to open for them.
Now, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (MCA), often spotted slam-dancing at those CBGB shows, has produced "Build a Nation," Bad Brains' first album of original material since 1995 featuring the original lineup of Jenifer, singer Paul "H.R." Hudson, drummer Earl Hudson and guitarist Gary "Dr. Know" Miller. In fractured progress for seven years, it finally approached the finish line after Bad Brains reunited once again in October for three sold-out dates at CBGB, celebrating that legendary venue's legacy and imminent closing.
Don't call it a comeback, says Jenifer -- "we didn't make it nowhere . . . we're still coming" -- and don't get caught in the breakup lore. "We never break up. It looks like we're breaking up and going apart, but really we're like a dysfunctional family. You don't break up with your brothers and sisters."
Bad Brains, he says, have "a long, long legacy of innovativeness" that began in the Hudson family home in District Heights, just across the border from Southeast. Earl Hudson, Jenifer and Miller were still in high school in the mid-'70s when they formed Mind Power, a jazz fusion group in the mode of Return to Forever; they were also fans of metal, funk and soul.
In 1978, they began exploring a very different sound, melding hyperkinetic punk rock and loping reggae. According to Jenifer, the punk connection came from the band's first singer, Sid McCray, who "knocked on the door of my home on Alabama Avenue wearing a ripped-up suit jacket with safety pins." Having seen a TV report on the Sex Pistols, McCray arrived with four albums newly purchased from indie haven Yesterday and Today Records: "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols," Dead Boys' "Young Loud & Snotty," the no-wave sample "No New York" and the Ramones' "Rocket to Russia." The band would adopt its name from the later Ramones song "Bad Brain," its"bad" meaning good.
"We were 17, 18, and that was some wild [expletive]," Jenifer says of punk, also pointing to a June 1978 Bob Marley concert at the Capital Centre in Landover that introduced them to Rastafarianism and reggae. "The safety pins, multicolored hair and all that [expletive] went out the window. The little hats came on, the red, gold and green buttons, the whole look of the Rastas -- we were coming into our culture at that point."
Punk and reggae had already met in England, notably with the Clash and the Ruts, but the Bad Brains mix stood apart, and not simply because of the novelty of four young black guys mixing it up. For one thing, Bad Brains delivered the punk end with far greater proficiency than their earnest but less accomplished peers; their speed, virtuosity and brutal power became a cornerstone of hardcore punk. Earl Hudson's older brother, Paul -- better known as H.R. -- was now handling the vocals, and he quickly earned a reputation as one of punk's most electrifying frontmen, master of a piercing nasal falsetto and machine-gun delivery. The Village Voice described him as "James Brown gone berserk, with a hyperkinetic repertoire of spins, dives, back-flips, splits, and skanks."
Bad Brains gave their first performances in the basement of a rented house in Forestville, drawing small peer audiences with posters and handouts advertising themselves as "the greatest punk rock band in the world."
According to Jenifer, "that's PMA, positive suggestion," or more properly, positive mental attitude, a band esthetic inspired by a self-help book. "Say what you're going for: We were telling ourselves that before anything." And telling fans the same thing in "Attitude," one of the most enduring Bad Brains songs.
There would be local gigs at recreation centers and in basements, and for a while in clubs, the latter scene quickly drying up as owners wearied of fan rowdiness and incidental destruction inspired by Bad Brains' over-energized shows. Their fans included future members of Minor Threat, Scream (drummer Dave Grohl, later of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, has called Bad Brains "the greatest live band ever") and S.O.A. (State of Alert), whose singer, Henry Rollins, made his first (and, hard to believe, reluctant) stage forays guesting with Bad Brains.
The band's first single -- the self-produced, brutally fast, 90-second "Pay to [Expletive]" -- was released in 1980 and is considered a hardcore classic, along with the somewhat hyperbolic "Banned in D.C." "We never were banned in D.C.; no one ever said we couldn't play anywhere," Jenifer says. "That was something we said to put fuel to kick our asses out. In PMA, it says you've got to keep moving, and we had conquered D.C. Trust me, no one ever locked the door of D.C. on us."
Still, Bad Brains found a more receptive home in New York's Lower East Side. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1982 on cassette-only Reach Out International Records, had an influence that outstripped its sales, inspiring not only punk rockers but also black rock bands (Living Colour, Fishbone) and funk metal bands Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction, whose Perry Farrell described his sound as "a cross between Duke Ellington and Bad Brains." (Hooray for Washington!)
Unfortunately, internal tensions kept Bad Brains from breaking beyond cult status. H.R. was usually at the center of things, an unpredictable, disruptive force whose manner seemed to embody the band's sound: calm, peace-and-lovey one minute; aggressive, sometimes violent the next. He and Earl Hudson wanted to emphasize reggae, while Dr. Know and Jenifer wanted to rock.
"There came a little tension among the brotherhood about which way we wanted to go," Jenifer admits. Splits were frequent -- the first came in 1984 -- and as various singers stood in for him, H.R. developed a solo career devoted to reggae music under the name Human Rights.
Bad Brains never matched their impact commercially. The Cars' Ric Ocasek, a fan of the ROIR tape, produced 1983's "Rock for Light" and 1986's metal-infused "I Against I" -- considered Bad Brains' masterpiece -- but poor distribution and erratic touring destroyed any momentum. A couple of major-label releases -- 1993's "Rise" on Epic, 1995's "God of Love" on Madonna's Maverick (made with the stipulation that the original lineup reunite) -- both bombed. The release of the latter was marred by two violent incidents involving H.R. as Bad Brains were about to open a national tour for the Beastie Boys. Dropped from the tour, Bad Brains called it a day until 1999, when the original lineup toured as Soul Brains, H.R. having decided it was wrong to use the word "bad" in the band's name. Even now, he refers to the group as "Human Rights Soul Brains."
"He's just trying to be controversial," Jenifer says, chuckling. "H.R. is my all-time friend, but he's just trying to keep a curve in things. The Bad Brains are like a brotherhood from before Bad Brains, almost like a family. We'd been through a lot before we even gained any popularity playing all over town."
Yauch, who in 1987 played with Jenifer in a band called Brooklyn, invited Bad Brains to record at the Beastie Boys' new Oscilloscope Laboratories studio, telling various music publications that his goal was to replicate the raw sound of Bad Brains' ROIR tape (he's called it "the best punk/hardcore album of all time") as well as their live shows. Those can be witnessed thanks to last year's "Bad Brains: Live at CBGB 1982" DVD and the documentary "American Hardcore," which features Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye, Black Flag's Rollins and others discussing how important Bad Brains were to punk.
Released June 26, "Build a Nation" is a blast from the past, mixing punk/metal tunes such as "Pure Love," "Let There Be Angels (Just Like You)" and "Expand Your Soul" with reggae tracks such as "Natty Dreadlocks 'Pon the Mountain Top" and "Peace Be Unto Thee." The musicianship remains exemplary in its energies, though H.R. doesn't always muster old fires. On the album, he relies a tad much on dub and vocal effects, his voice often in the lower range. Sometimes in performances, he seems loath to tap into his ferocity of yesteryear.
"That's people going, 'I want to hear [Jenifer mimics a punk screech] like it's '82'; it's not '82. I made a conscious decision to make the music sound like it's '82, and that's the first time me and Doc have done that in a long time."
As the opening track puts it, "Give Thanks and Praises."
Bad Brains Appearing Sunday afternoon as part of the Virgin Festival at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore What to expect: One of the most influential punk groups together again -- at least for a while.