Living Colour - Vivid Music Album Reviews

Living Colour - Vivid Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a groundbreaking 1988 album, a crucial document in Black rock music with huge, brawny riffs and a complex socio-political message. 

On February 25, 1989, Living Colour’s Vivid entered the Top 20 on the Billboard 200 chart—an impressive feat for any debut album, but odd for a record that was already 10 months old. Released in May 1988, Vivid took nearly half a year to chart, entering at No. 194 before embarking upon a slow, steady climb that seemed to move one rung at a time. So, on the cusp of Vivid’s leap to No. 16, Living Colour took a well-deserved victory lap—literally. 

Making their network television debut that week on The Arsenio Hall Show, the New York hard-rock band delivered the sort of performance that—even without easy YouTube recall—can still be mentally conjured frame-by-frame decades after the fact. Decked out in a matching orange tank top and spandex Body Glove shorts, singer Corey Glover looked less like the typical rock frontman than a guy on his way to the gym, and partway through the band’s electrifying rendition of Vivid’s lead-off crusher, “Cult of Personality,” he decided to get his steps in. After casually strolling off the stage during the second verse, Glover made a beeline for the audience and began running up and down the aisles with his mic like a Day-Glo Donahue, before returning to the stage for some synchronized dance moves and cyclonic hair-whipping as the song raced toward its furious double-time finale. (Arsenio was never known for subtle expressions of enthusiasm, but this might’ve been the first and only time he felt compelled to head-bang his appreciation.) Alas, for many viewers, Living Colour’s bright sartorial choices and mid-song calisthenics routines weren’t the most striking features of the band. Rather, it was the fact that this was all being done by four Black men—an anomaly that, by all historical precedents, really should’ve been the norm. 

During the post-war 20th century, Black artists were the agents of rock‘n’roll innovation and subcultural mobilization, from the genre’s early-’50s infancy on through its subsequent mutations into garage, psych, proto-metal, arena rock, punk, and hardcore. But by the ‘80s, that legacy had been all but scrubbed from commercial rock radio and ignored by the nascent MTV. Sure, Michael Jackson could piggyback on Eddie Van Halen’s shoulders to land a Top 20 single on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, and Prince could do the same whenever he revealed himself to be the new-wave Hendrix, but these were rare monocultural pop stars with the clout and promotional muscle to breach industry-mandated genre lines. For more unconventional Black artists—like dubwise hardcore pioneers Bad Brains or ska-punk eccentrics Fishbone—the walls were closing in from both sides, as they were shut out from both the white world of rock radio and the Black mainstream star-making apparatus that favored slick R&B balladeers, synth-funk loverboys, and fashionable rappers.

By 1985, Vernon Reid’s growing frustration with this Jim Crowing of the music industry had reached its breaking point. Born in London in 1958, but raised in Brooklyn from the age of 2, Reid was a musical omnivore who was schooled by his parents’ funk, soul, and rock records.  He came of age musically in the fabled early-‘80s New York underground, where post-punk, mutant disco, and experimental anti-pop scenes were separated by only a flight of stairs in multi-level clubs like Danceteria. As a studied guitarist, Reid landed his first pro gig playing with jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson in the fusion ensemble Decoding Society, the sort of group that earned invites to prestigious international festivals like Montreux, but whose hard-charging rhythm-forward style allowed Reid to flex a fleet-fingered dexterity that would put most metal shredders to shame. 

Eager to lead his own band, Reid formed Living Colour (its British spelling nodding to his birthplace) in 1983 as a revolving-door ensemble where he could push his avant-jazz proclivities into a more rock direction. Over the next three years, the group served as a sandbox for a host of players (drummer Pheeroan akLaff, keyboardist Geri Allen, and guitarist/bassist Jerome Harris among them) who would go on to populate the credits of countless notable jazz records in the decades to come. But if Reid had corralled a community, he struggled to find an audience beyond his peers—a circumstance that, in 1985, inspired him to form the Black Rock Coalition, a support system of like-minded Black artists who didn’t easily slot into industry-approved genre formats. In a manifesto penned by Reid and Village Voice music critic Greg Tate, the BRC declared: “Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources, and compensations, irrespective of genre.” Black artists were foundational to rock‘n’roll’s past; the BRC would ensure they’d be part of its future, too. 

On a practical level, the BRC provided its members with industry guidance, creative direction, and opportunities to perform together at BRC-branded showcases. With some 20 bands and 60 people initially operating under its banner, it was by no means a given that its founder’s own band would eventually become the BRC’s most visible ambassador. But Living Colour’s trajectory would shift radically when, one evening in 1985, Reid was dragged by his sister to a birthday party in the Upper West Side for a woman who happened to be dating Corey Glover—whose show-stopping rendition that night of “Happy Birthday” to his girlfriend inspired Reid to exchange numbers. 

A church-choir kid who found a new religion as a teen frequenting Bad Brains and Cro-Mags matinees, Glover had no prior professional singing experience; at the time he met Reid, he was a working actor, and had just landed his big break with a small role in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic Platoon. It would be months before Reid actually reached out to Glover to formally audition for Living Colour, and as the singer tells it, he was only invited to perform with the band several weeks later when another vocalist dropped out of the gig last minute. But whatever hesitation Reid might’ve had about Glover presumably melted away once the singer settled into his new role: Blessed with a commanding, gospel-powered voice that could level city blocks and the magnetic look-at-me charisma of an eager thespian, Glover was the vehicle through which Reid’s outré musical strategies and intellectual lyrical concepts could engage the masses.

If only it were that easy. With Glover on board, Reid locked in his rhythm section: Will Calhoun, a seasoned drummer who was once part of Harry Belafonte’s touring ensemble, and the relatively green Muzz Skillings, a wedding-band bassist who was well on his way to becoming a firefighter before committing to the group. But while Living Colour’s combination of raw energy and blazing virtuosity made them a word-of-mouth sensation at local haunts like CBGB, the band were turned down by major labels like Elektra and Warner Brothers on account of being too Black for rock audiences and too rock for Black audiences. To break out of that purgatory, they would need nothing less than a co-sign from the most famous frontman in rock history.

Ever the trendspotter, Mick Jagger was hipped to Living Colour while he was in New York recording his second solo album, 1987’s Primitive Cool. One of his hired guns for the sessions was bassist Doug Wimbish, an alumnus of the Sugarhill Records house band, member of the avant-funk outfit Tackhead, and friend of Reid’s. (In 1992, he would go on to replace Skillings in Living Colour.) Wimbish invited Reid to take part in the Primitive Cool sessions, which led to Jagger attending a Living Colour gig at CBGB. Duly impressed, the Rolling Stone offered to donate some of his spare studio time to the band and record a couple of demos with them. They proved to be the keys to securing a contract with Epic—and those Jagger-produced tracks, “Glamour Boys” and “Which Way to America?” became the first building blocks for Vivid.

While he was certainly appreciative of Jagger’s support, Reid nonetheless bristled at the idea a band as preternaturally talented as Living Colour needed it in the first place. “The fact is we shouldn’t have to have the No. 1 rock star in the world take an interest in us for us to even be signed,” he said. “It really took a lot for Vivid to exist.” But if the Living Colour story up to this point was a perpetual uphill struggle, the release of Vivid couldn’t have been better timed to coincide with a moment when conventional notions of mainstream rock and Black culture were both being overturned. Out west, similarly eclectic bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Faith No More were starting to make the leap from college radio to the right end of the FM dial, portending the transformation of alternative rock into the new normal. At the same time, rap was outgrowing its block-party roots to become an outlet for Afrocentric education, documentarian street dispatches, and community activism, promoting a revitalized Black consciousness that was also filtering into the work of emergent filmmakers like Spike Lee. On Vivid, Living Colour bridged the worlds of primal rock and thought-provoking rap without actually making a pro-forma rap-rock album in the basic riffs-and-rhymes sense. Rather, they connected the brawn of Led Zeppelin with the brains of Public Enemy, producing their own vision of a Black CNN rebroadcasted via Headbangers Ball.

The first voice we hear on the album doesn’t even belong to Glover, but rather Malcolm X: “And during the few moments that we have left … we want to talk right down to Earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.” The sample is taken from X’s famed 1963 address “Message to the Grass Roots,” his fiery rejection of peaceful protest in favor of more aggressive actions against white supremacy. For Living Colour, the quote functions as both a nod to a philosophical forefather and a mission statement for Vivid, where complex socio-political discussions were framed in a language that teens in 1988 could easily understand: anthemic, metal-tinged rock with heft and hooks to spare.

That Malcolm X quote tees up the immortal “Cult of Personality,” where Reid alternates between sledgehammered riffage, Rush-worthy arpeggios, and mind-melting Eddie Van Hazel fretboard acrobatics, while Glover namechecks a litany of political figures from history to illustrate the fine line between charisma and megalomania, and the slippery slope between putting our faith in leaders and being subservient to them. It’s one of rock’s greatest Side 1/Track 1 opening salvos. But given that rock radio was still pumping out pop-metal trifles like Winger’s “Seventeen” and Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time” in 1988, it’s easy to understand why Vivid’s mainstream incursion moved in slow motion. 

Certainly, no other major-label rock band in the late-’80s was chronicling the Reagan-era Black American experience in such, well, vivid detail. While Living Colour were hardly the only band of their era wielding Jimmy Page swagger and John Bonham thunder, no one else was applying them to songs as furious and frustrated as “Desperate People,” an unflinching portrait of addiction’s corrosive, deadening effects on the creative mind (inspired by the death of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat) or “Which Way to America?” a raging critique of the country’s impenetrable class and cultural divides. And where the likes of Guns N’ Roses painted the inner city as a seedy wasteland where innocence goes to die, Living Colour presented it as a place where people lived, worked, and dreamed. Co-written by Reid and poet Tracie Morris, “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” is an equally incensed and heart-rending response to the gentrification of working-class communities, functioning as both a seething indictment of predatory developers and an empowering prayer for the disenfranchised. 

But for all its righteous indignation, Vivid can also be a fun, irreverent, at times proudly silly record, even when the messaging is serious. “Funny Vibe” is the oldest song in the Living Colour repertoire and is most reflective of the band’s improvisatory roots, delivering a mid-album jolt of Princely funk, proggy fretboard runs, and cameos from Chuck D and Flavor Flav. However, it responds to the scourge of racial profiling not with anger but incredulity. Inspired by Reid’s experience sharing an elevator with an old lady who conspicuously began clutching her purse tighter, the song remains an appropriately absurdist response to a country still reckoning with its ingrained racism. Less topical but equally upbeat, “Glamour Boys” was the rare rock song of its era to poke holes in the construct of masculinity, taking aim at night-club casanovas who are always dressed like a million bucks, but whose affluent image is really a product of smoke, mirrors, and overcharged credit cards. 

It’s easy to see why Living Colour would be leery of such poseurs. There was no easy path to success for this band—everything they achieved came through hard work, dogged tenacity, and relentless self-belief in the face of industry indifference. (In this light, Vivid’s punchy cover of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music creeper “Memories Can’t Wait” feels less like a nod to Living Colour’s own Bowery roots than a reassertion of their guiding principle: “Other people can go home/Everybody else can split/I'll be here all the time/No, I can never quit.”) And that could be why Glover couldn’t confine himself to the Arsenio Hall soundstage that night in February 1989—he needed to deliver the band’s message directly to each audience member, converting them one at a time like a door-to-door preacher. 

For a few years there, that persistence paid off: The Arsenio appearance was followed a few weeks later by the band’s SNL debut. In May 1989—a full year after its release—Vivid peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, en route to double-platinum sales, and that summer, Living Colour’s old pal Mick invited them to open for the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels stadium tour. But even as they were being welcomed into the rock establishment, Living Colour were once again thrust into a position where their mettle was put to the test. Their co-openers for a handful of Stones dates were Guns N’ Roses, then embroiled in controversy surrounding their song “One in a Million” and its use of racist and homophobic epithets. During a pre-show radio interview, Reid and Calhoun expressed their discomfort with the song, leading to a backstage standoff with the GNR crew and a crudely defensive “I’m not a racist, but…” retort from Axl Rose onstage. At the following night’s show, Reid decisively shut down any further debate on the matter: “Look, if you don’t have a problem with gay people, then don’t call them ‘f*****s. If you don’t have a problem with Black people, then don’t call them ‘n******s.’ I never met a n*****r in my life. Peace.”

In the wake of the GNR showdown, Living Colour seemed to actively recede from the world of mainstream hard rock, perhaps to avoid a situation where they’d ever have to share a stage with someone like Axl Rose ever again. Vivid’s 1990 follow-up, Time’s Up, was a more confrontational collision of Bad Brains-schooled hardcore, doomsday metal, and sacred-cow slaughters that helped land Living Colour a slot among like-minded misfits on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour the next summer. But before long, alt-rock’s shift away from polyrhythmic punk-funk to the more monolithic sound of grunge cast Living Colour to the margins once again. Following 1993’s grimly intense, lukewarmly received Stain, the band split up (at least until 2003’s reunion effort Collideøscope ushered in an ongoing, if highly sporadic, second act). 

Given that Living Colour made their greatest commercial and cultural impact with their first album, it’s tempting to confine their story to the turn of the ’90s. And the relatively brief timespan of their groundbreaking first run might explain why this band has yet to be properly canonized by rock’s remaining gatekeepers: The fact Reid was nowhere to be found on the 100 greatest guitarists lists published by Guitar World and Rolling Stone feels like an especially egregious injustice; ditto for Glover on the latter’s greatest singers list. You won’t find Vivid on any best debut albums lists from rock-centric publications of note. And an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—for which Living Colour have been eligible since 2013—seems less likely with each passing year.

But the legacy of Vivid has a very long tail, extending from Rage Against the Machine and Sevendust to Ben Harper and Gary Clark Jr. to TV on the Radio and Bartees Strange to Brittany Howard and Black Pumas to WILLOW and Soul-Glo. Not all of these artists are necessarily direct sonic descendants of Living Colour, but they’ve all flowed through the cracks in the industry barriers that Vivid breached, and, in their own unique ways, have each inherited the mission of reclaiming Black creators’ frontline position at rock’s vanguard, both under- and above-ground. Just last month, a DIY Black artist with the No. 1 single in America could be seen rocking a guitar on SNL while dressed as a Dead Kennedy—and in moments like these, the way to the America that Living Colour and the BRC envisioned back in the mid-’80s seems a little more clear. 

Additional research by Deirdre McCabe Nolan

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Living Colour - Vivid Music Album Reviews Living Colour - Vivid Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on November 27, 2022 Rating: 5


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