Arts and Entertainment

The world is fast. Bad Brains are faster.

The legendary D.C. hardcore band raced ahead of its time, and we’re still catching up
(Photo by Glen E. Friedman and illustration by Tayler Ayers)

Electrocution, convulsion, possession, all of the above, all at once. That’s what it looks like, but it’s not. It’s H.R., frontman of Bad Brains, leading his untouchable hardcore punk band through a blazing three-night stand at New York’s CBGB in December 1982 during which various forces appear to be guiding his body: electric currents, neural misfires, holy spirits. But there’s only one force at work here, music, and he’s channeling it through the entirety of his physical form until total abandon and complete self-awareness seem to conjoin. Is that what freedom is?

This all happens inside the 60 minutes of “Bad Brains Live at CBGB 1982,” which doesn’t really play like a concert film so much as camcorder evidence of a supernatural event repeated three times within 72 hours. We need footage like this to exist. Otherwise, we might not fully believe the eyewitnesses who still describe Bad Brains as the greatest live band to ever visit our plane.

That said, we probably wouldn’t dismiss believers as the kind of people who saw the Virgin Mary in their toast, either. That’s because the two indomitable albums that Bad Brains dropped in this era — a self-titled debut from 1982 and 1983’s “Rock For Light,” both being self-reissued this year along with most of the band’s ’80s output — are crammed with anthems of exhilarating speed, secret finesse, deep purpose and immutable optimism. The world has sped up over the past four decades, but this music still feels fast. In increasingly hyperbolic times, it remains extraordinary.

And from those fortunate enough to have caught it in the air between 1979 and 1983, the testimony is practically unanimous. “I’d never seen anything like them,” said Denise Mercedes, guitarist of the Stimulators, describing her first Bad Brains show in the pages of “NYHC,” Tony Rettman’s oral history of New York hardcore. “The moment that they hit, it was like a bomb going off. It was louder, it was faster.”

So, an explosion? That might describe Bad Brains’ kinetic power as a physical sensation, but it doesn’t fully account for the music’s meaning. And as detonative as their songs felt, this band wasn’t destroying anything. Instead, they were inventing a powerful sound that adhered to their foundational credo of “positive mental attitude,” a can-do concept that H.R. had borrowed from the popular 1937 self-help tract “Think And Grow Rich.” The group’s advocacy for that mind-set, abbreviated in H.R.’s lyrics as “P.M.A.,” registered in bright contrast to the nihilistic gloom that clouded the dawn of the punk era. Instead of shouting at an impending apocalypse, Bad Brains seemed to be barreling their way toward whatever might come after.

These albums teem with other cosmic contradictions, too. The songs sound furious and ecstatic, the performances feel raw and precise, and all together, what seems like a molten volatility ultimately cools into a sustained act of supreme control. The only unambiguous feature of the Bad Brains’ sound is speed.

Bad Brains, circa 1981, pictured from left: Dr. Know (Gary Miller), H.R. (Paul Hudson), Earl Hudson (front) and Darryl Jenifer. (Glen E. Friedman from the book “My Rules”)

Tempo is a clockable thing. It’s a quantitative way to try to understand music’s qualitative mysteries. But with Bad Brains, speed is something to commit your attention to, even if you’ve heard the songs 500 times. There’s a nonperishable generosity to music that moves this fast. It can reveal new information each time it races by.

Still, it’s easy to get dazed by the simple physical feat of it. Imagine four Olympians sprinting 100-meters in lockstep toward a photo-finish tie for gold and you’re starting to get a picture of the kinesthetic telepathy between guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller, bassist Darryl Jenifer, drummer Earl Hudson and his older brother H.R. (born Paul Hudson). According to the band, Earl set the tempo, starting the songs with a simple four count, but in Bad Brains nobody leads, nobody chases, nobody hurries ahead, nobody lags behind. Speed becomes an expression of collectivity. Or maybe even a virtue.

In terms of a career, the quartet didn’t get off to the quickest start. Bad Brains formed in Washington in the late ’70s, first as Mind Power, a jazz fusion group inspired by Chick Corea and Mahavishnu Orchestra, but eventually changed its name and vision after discovering the Sex Pistols and the Damned. Hoping to combine those British sneers with the radiance of Jamaican reggae, they proceeded to make an unprecedented noise that would inspire the D.I.Y. ethos of Minor Threat and their peers, quickly making Washington the epicenter of American hardcore.

When Bad Brains relocated to New York in 1981, they kick-started the scene there, too, then spent the rest of the decade dodging fame. One of the band’s earliest managers, Mo Sussman, shopped the group to major labels as “the Black Beatles,” but the band had already developed a phobia of the fine-print on record contracts — especially H.R., whose mercurial behavior foreshadowed his later struggles with mental health. Later in the ’80s, when H.R. reportedly skipped out on a meeting with Chris Blackwell, the Island Records founder credited with launching Bob Marley and U2, it seemed like Bad Brains would remain an off-and-on proposition.

Back in 1981, the band was still all the way on, at least onstage. “The way the world was moving in that era was making all of us play faster,” Jenifer, the band’s most discreet virtuoso, told Filter magazine in 2007. “We intended to play fast, but not as fast as we morphed into playing. We were only speeding up with the times, the motion of the whole scene.”

The front cover of Bad Brains’ 1982 self-titled album. (Bad Brains)

That’s one way to survive on a planet that’s spinning too fast: Outpace it. You can hear the band winning the race on their self-titled debut, something they recorded quickly and erratically across the spring, summer and fall of 1981 at 171-A, a four-track recording studio and performance space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where the band sometimes lived and rehearsed. The results sound as bright, scorching and unrepeatable as that lightning bolt striking the Capitol dome drawn on the album’s iconic cover. It’s the kind of record that forms a permanent crease in your memory the moment you first encounter it.

Listen for the 501st time and you’ll hear new sparks shooting off it, too. For instance, ever notice that the most torrential moments of Dr. Know’s guitar solos tend to move up the fretboard like a rainstorm in reverse? Or how at the end of an especially locomotive burst of words, H.R. likes to curl his last syllable into a vertical shriek? Now listen to the rhythm section and try to imagine that 100-meter dash again, only this time at a 45-degree incline. Velocity is speed plus direction. This is ascension music — a sound rising in the direction of higher consciousness.

H.R. of Bad Brains does a backflip onstage at CBGB in Manhattan, circa 1982. (Glen E. Friedman from the book “My Rules”)

It seems absurd that a book like “Think and Grow Rich” had any kind of formative influence over a developing punk scene skeptical of capitalism, spirituality and the notion of hope in general, but everything about Bad Brains seemed to defy the odds. Written during the Great Depression by failed businessman Napoleon Hill, the book offered techniques for amassing personal wealth through positive thinking, and its success as perennial bestseller helped to establish the entire concept of American self-help — an optimism industry that Barbara Ehrenreich meticulously debunks in her 2009 book “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.” Ehrenreich describes “Think and Grow Rich” as one of the “classics of self-delusion” designed to “harness the subconscious mind to conscious greed.”

H.R. allegedly latched onto the idea of “positive mental attitude” by complete accident, pulling the book off his father’s bookshelf after an argument about the direction of his life. In “Finding Joseph I,” a 2017 biography of H.R. by Howie Abrams and James Lathos, the singer described the band’s abiding ideology as swirl of tenacious self-improvement and wishful clairvoyance: “I think the philosophy was to have something positive to say — have some kind of prophetic message that would prove to people that we could do something better.”

What kept Bad Brains’ P.M.A. from evaporating into hardcore woo-woo was the band’s ability to shape reality, to transpose its optimism into a sound that literally moved people — including H.R., who occasionally punctuated his bandmate’s nonstop sound-gestures by landing backflips onstage, something he first practiced as a child while swimming in the ocean. That physicality extended to the audience, too. Before it became ritualized, slam-dancing emerged as an instinctual response to hardcore punk, and the term “mosh” is believed to originate from Bad Brains speaking in reggae slang and Jamaican patois from up onstage, asking the crowd to “mash it up.”

In all that push and shove, a sort of End Times optimism began to foment around the Bad Brains. The band grew more fervent in its spirituality and had fully adopted Rastafarianism by 1982 with H.R. singing about the fall of Babylon, a biblical concept that dovetailed neatly with the doom-saying so common to punk at the outset of the Reagan era. Just as he had repurposed Hill’s pseudo-metaphysical greed mantra into an underground humanist rally cry, he learned how to articulate a pacifist vision in a serrated punk snarl. “We don’t want no violence, we don’t need no wars,” H.R. sings on “Rock for Light,” the band’s brightest flash of utopianism. “We just want what’s right: Rock for light.”

In a combined-frame image, Bad Brains performs at the Rock Hotel in Manhattan in July 1985. From left, Dr. Know (Gary Miller), H.R. (Paul Hudson), Earl Hudson and Darryl Jenifer. (Photo illustration by Steven Hanner)

It’s strange how we use the word “timeless” to praise the music we feel most loyal to — especially since music is a temporal art that relies on time in order for it to be experienced. And while it might be tempting to think of recorded sound as a replayable swatch of frozen time, scientifically, only light experiences true timelessness. Einstein taught us that time and space are relative: The closer you get to traveling through space at the speed of light, the slower time will move — and at light speed, time stops. The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose had a nice way of putting it: “Eternity is no big deal to a photon.”

The front cover of Bad Brains' "Rock For Light" album. (Bad Brains)

Try keeping these ideas in your head space when listening to “Rock For Light,” an album in which producer Ric Ocasek helped push Bad Brains even closer to light speed by speeding up the tapes while remixing the album with Jenifer in 1991. The forthcoming “Rock for Light” reissue restores the performances to their original speed (slower) and pitch (lower). It sounds infinitely better. (Maybe we can forgive a guy who named his band the Cars for wanting to make a fast thing go faster.)

And at life speed, the band’s ideas hit harder, especially the title track’s cosmic refrain: Rock for light, rock for light, rock for light. In this moment, and in so many others, Bad Brains invite us to yearn with them, to move with them, to sprint alongside them as they accelerate into a realm of pure energy and total freedom where this music might live forever and eternity is no big deal.

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