At their best, Bad Brains are a band to make the hairs on the back of your neck ripple in awe. Rastafarians from Washington DC by way of New York City, Bad Brains play a groundbreaking, incendiary mixture of raging hardcore punk, deftly thudding metal and heartfelt, liquid reggae, bristling with spiritual fervor. Visionary frontman H.R. (Paul Hudson) has the lungs of a lion, able to morph from sweetly soulful crooner to fiery banshee wailer; guitar wizard Dr. Know erupts with serpentine squealing leads and charging, crunching chords; the churning heartbeat rhythms are forged by limber bassist Darryl Jenifer and stoic drummer (and H.R.’s brother) Earl Hudson.
The quartet’s problem is its internal volatility: the Bad Brains have broken up and reformed more times than Liz Taylor has walked down the aisle. While such tumult hasn’t diminished the band’s tremendous influence (not only on obvious progeny like Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz, but on the likes of Rollins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys and Jane’s Addiction as well), it has precluded large-scale success. Nonetheless, Bad Brains continue to reunite, tilting gloriously at the windmills of Babylon.
In their quest to become a crossover band, these black jazz-rock fusionists from Washington DC (later based in New York) turned to orthodox speedpunk and released the memorable 1980 super-fast single “Pay to Cum” (1:33 of free-fire guitar rage, produced by Jimmi Quidd of the Dots) that established their mastery of that genre. Bad Brains’ hardcore is a more distinctively modulated roar than most, but what really sets them apart are radically contrasting excursions into dub and reggae. Hardcore’s dogmatic streak makes it harder on chameleons than most rock subgenres; these guys get away with it.
On the Bad Brains cassette album (and the four-song Bad Brains EP excerpted from it), the quartet excels in both fields: loping, Rastafarian reggae (“I Luv I Jah,” “Leaving Babylon,” “Jah Calling”) and powerhouse political slam-rock (a re-recorded “Pay to Cum,” “Banned in D.C.,” “Big Takeover”). The album was later reissued on CD under the title Attitude and later on vinyl as Bad Brains.
The Ric Ocasek-produced Rock for Light, which includes new versions of five Bad Brains songs, offers the same dualism, with subject matter covering everything from angry politics (“Riot Squad”) to minor pop culturisms (“At the Movies”), stretching from Rasta topics to “How Low Can a Punk Get” sociology. Throughout, Joseph I’s (aka H.R.) reedy vocals set off the hardcore roar led by guitarist Dr. Know (Gary Miller) and sweetly color the reggae rumble. A fascinating and truly unique blend. (Ocasek and bassist Darryl Jenifer remixed the album for its 1991 reissue, which also adds three outtakes from the original sessions.)
I Against I is a bracing all-rock explosion, a mature collection of well-written originals played, at varying speeds, with authority and enthusiasm. Dr. Know trots out a number of different effects, sounds and approaches; H.R. has likewise never been better. Shrugging off punk conventions, Bad Brains explore sophisticated and subtle terrain all their own. At its most explosive, the record crosses Van Halen with Black Flag; more restrained passages resemble an energized, younger Police. The quartet holds reggae rhythms to a bare minimum, although lyrics continue to reflect their religious and political convictions.
Playing punk, thrashy rock and reggae with equal command and conviction (Earl Hudson’s deft drumming is crucial to the band’s gear-shifting ability), the Bad Brains fill the impressive Live with familiar repertoire items documented at a handful of dates on an ’87 tour. The CD bonus track is a reggae version of “Day Tripper.”
Like many hardcore stars, Bad Brains took a turn towards metal (on the mighty Quickness, a mid-speed rock record with just one reggae number), accepting the genre’s brutish intensity but rejecting its clichés. Dr. Know’s spiraling near-jazz leads and Hudson’s thundering percussion (fortified by a second drummer) give H.R. a mighty platform from which to deliver the band’s obscure socio-religious analyses — of AIDS (“Don’t Blow Bubbles” contains the memorable exhortation, “Don’t blow no fudge buns”), genetics, musical trends and Rastafari faith.
The Youth Are Getting Restless is another ’87-vintage concert album, this one a punky explosion recorded at an Amsterdam show. Although there’s lots of material overlap with Live, this eighteen-song selection offers a more extensive review of the first three albums, downplaying dub for such charged classics as “Rock for Light,” “Pay to Cum” and “Big Takeover.”
The quartet entered the ’90s in limbo, issuing a spate of live discs, all recorded during the I Against I period. That stasis ended in 1993 when a new lineup — Dr. Know, Darryl Jenifer, Mackie and singer Israel Joseph-I (a dead ringer, vocally, for H.R.) — signed the band’s first major-label deal and cut the surprisingly solid Rise. Galloping thrashers like “Unidentified” and “Coming in Numbers” really get the adrenaline flowing, while delicious reggae numbers like “Love Is the Answer” and “Yes Jah” allow Israel Joseph-I to take a credible stab at Bob Marley stylings. A snazzy version of Graham Central Station’s “Hair” is apropos lyrically (“I just don’t believe it’s fair/To judge a man by the length of his hair”). Predictably, this outfit didn’t stay together long.
Reuniting once again with H.R. and Earl Hudson (not to mention producer Ocasek), and signed to Madonna’s Maverick label, the original rasta-blastas sound as powerful as ever on God of Love‘s crisp, chord-driven openers, “Cool Mountaineer” and “Justice Keepers.” The title track and “Tongue Tee Tie” are familiar metallic riffsters driven by big, funky Bonhamian beats in the tradition of such past bruisers as “Re-Ignition,” “With the Quickness” and “Rise.” Interesting dub/dancehall textures and synths enliven “Long Time” and the reggae-rocking “How I Love Thee.” But despite H.R.’s leonine presence, God of Love is uneven and oddly uninspiring. Vocals and arrangements seem awkwardly off on several cuts (“Darling I Need You,” “Thank Jah” and the curdled ballad “Overs the Water”); the poorly sequenced record is simply not one of the band’s best. Following the album’s release, Bad Brains split up yet again.
H.R. (Paul Hudson) has left and rejoined the group several times, releasing solo albums along the way. The fascinating if indifferently recorded Its About Luv (on his own Olive Tree label) offers chaotic punk — class of ’77 UK division, with anthemic melodies (“Let’s Have a Revolution”) — on one side and upbeat Caribbean funk (“Who Loves You Girl?”), jazzy reggae (“Happy Birthday My Son”) and a live rocker (“Free Our Mind”) on the back. (Expanded by the three-song Keep Out of Reach 12-inch, Its About Luv was issued on cassette — and CD — as HR Tapes.)
The high-tech Human Rights — featuring, among others, Oscar Brown Jr. and H.R.’s brother, drummer Earl — is a bizarre but captivating pastiche of funk, reggae-based rock-pop, carefully arranged and delicately textured rock, studio experimentation and other offbeat manifestations of H.R.’s beliefs.
Most of Singin’ in the Heart is straight Rasta reggae and dub — easygoing grooves nicely played and warmly sung, with some neat guitar work thrown on top — but then there’s “Singin’ in the Heart” and “Don’t Trust No (Shadows After Dark),” on which a different group of musicians (Oscar Brown Jr. performs the entire title track on keyboards and a drum machine) support H.R. in a suavely soulful pop mode.
With Earl on drums, four guitarists, backing vocalists and a two-man horn section, H.R. sings nothing but old-style reggae originals with little stylistic variation on Charge, a handsome but dull album that praises the lord so often it might as well be a church service.
H.R. produced, co-wrote and sings (Earl plays drums) on the deeply atmospheric Zion Train, one of many albums by Ras Michael, a legendary Jamaican figure whose career dates back to the ’60s.