Monday, April 30, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #004 - 'bad brains' by bad brains

I think it's time we talk about race in punk music.

Now this is not a comfortable topic, and there are layers and nuance that I'll freely admit that I'm probably not the best guy to talk about beyond looking for the history. And with the history of punk... well, it gets even dicier, especially coming out of the late 70s and how genres were co-mingling and mutating. Of course punk has some of its deepest roots in black music - at its core much of punk utilized traditional rock and roll song structures invented by black musicians - but throughout the 1970s traditionally black musical genres were going in very different directions, from the growth of soul, funk and R&B to the mutation of disco to the very early days of hip-hop. And while black music was getting more opulent and smooth, punk seemed to be heading in the exact opposite direction - although one can make the argument that the sharp political subtext that underlined a lot of soul music and funk music would have had common cause with the punks of the time.

But that doesn't mean there weren't punks of all races within the scene who found common cause with the righteous fury and rough edges of the genre... and this is where we hit another major roadblock and it has to do with a subgenre I referenced a few months back: the Oi! scene. Originally grounded in working class rebellion in the U.K, it was a sound that sadly got co-opted by second wave skinhead culture and hard right, frequently racist groups in the late 70s and early 80s. And while you could definitely make an argument how much of this was fair to the scene or the artists within it, many who could credibly make the argument to being misrepresented, the messy public perception led to ugly assumptions and branding that Oi! bands and even hardcore punks have had to fight to escape for years since, not helped by the street punk and skinhead explosion in the U.S. where the hard-right branding was harder to escape or deny. And with that popular connotation, it's no surprise why black artists might have shied away from the scene, especially in the face of friendlier, no less conscious or political spaces like in early hip-hop.

Of course, there's another side to this, and it leads to another genre that was organic, raw, and often sharply political: reggae. It was a looser subgenre than punk, but throughout the 70s it had flourished and had often received billing and airplay in punk venues. And thus the cross-pollination of genres between the newborn hardcore scene and reggae was only a matter of time, with one group originally making music as a jazz fusion act before amping up the tempos and bringing an distinctly black flavor to hardcore punk, now widely held as one of the most legendary bands of the genre. That's right, we're talking about the 1982 self-titled debut from Bad Brains, and this is Resonators!

And here's a nice change of pace: even though like with Milo Goes To College Bad Brains didn't precisely make a pure hardcore punk record, it's arguably one of the easiest projects to discuss that I'll cover on this show, mostly because for what it is it has held up remarkably well. And some of this comes from pure, direct simplicity - hell, perhaps even more than Black Flag on Damaged, the self-titled record from Bad Brains is pretty damn ruthless in its approach: blisteringly fast shredding and riffs in razor-sharp slices of hardcore spaced out by interludes that owe way more to reggae than punk, albeit with the rougher, cassette tape production that would characterize the entire release. And as such it's the sort of record that doesn't really require a lot of deeper analysis, lyrical or otherwise - but hey, when the shredding is this tight and visceral, who gives a shit?

But I do think it's fair to get some of my nitpicks out of the way first: for one, while I'm familiar with dub and reggae I wouldn't precisely call myself a fan of the genres - less that I dislike them and more that they wouldn't be my first choices to seek out and probably deserve a year-long Resonators run in their own right. And while I don't mind the stripped back jittery bass, tight upstroked guitars and echoing, stuttered percussion of tunes like 'Jah Calling' and 'Leaving Babylon' and 'I Love Jah' - it's nowhere near as lush as most reggae I've heard but it works to the overall cohesiveness of the project - as interludes they can run a tad long and feel a bit undercooked lyrically. Granted, you could make the latter statement about the entire project, but I'd argue that's less of a flaw than a feature with Bad Brains - yeah, you're not coming to this record for the songwriting, but the broad directness of its attitude is a big plus, especially considering how mostly upbeat and positive it is. Most of this comes from the group being Rastafarians, but a more pronounced influence is a book H.R. was reading at the time: Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, a self-help book written at the tail end of The Great Depression that honestly feels a little trite but H.R. brings the conviction to sell it. And why that optimism works at all is the contrast, as it's hard to avoid the apocalyptic metaphors strewn all across this record, both foretelling end-times or a rise of authoritarian or fascist conformity, which flies in the face of the individualism of this project. And hell, when you have songs like 'Sailin' On' that imply how little they have to lose, why not tilt more into raw positivity? Now granted, it doesn't go all the way there - there's still a pronounced strain of nihilism on 'Pay To Cum' or how 'Supertouch' switches into 'Shitfit' - but when you get songs like 'Don't Need It' and 'Attitude' and 'Right Brigade' or even 'Banned In D.C.', where the band rightly points out how those punk clubs probably need them more than the other way around, it's hard to deny a certain sense of optimism.

Now what is interesting is how Bad Brains don't really touch on race on this project - the larger focus seems to be on class struggles like on 'Fearless Vampire Killers' or authoritarian figures like 'The Regulator' and 'Big Takeover' - but the sad fact is that this doesn't surprise me. Looking at 'Don't Need It' it almost seems like Bad Brains are rejecting 70s aesthetics of black beauty in favour of a narrower brand of punk class warfare, but the truth is that by existing in that space and including reggae cuts on this project they did plenty to assert black identity in punk. And it's worth considering the time and origin of Bad Brains in 1982: the Reagan administration was in full-swing coming out of the early 80s recession, the last remnants of the Black Panthers had collapsed, critical race theory was yet to be developed, and while Washington D.C. was majority black in the early 1980s, Bad Brains had been banned from D.C. clubs, so even if the band was looking to sketch the connections of systemic racism, they weren't really the group in 1982 looking to bring that complexity when there were more direct concerns to be addressed. On the flip side, though, it should also be noted that while the Rastafarian side did slip light religious undercurrents onto this record, it never hits the intolerance and homophobia that would unfortunately colour records like Quickness years later, which while they were explainable for a band like Bad Brains in the mid-80s, they weren't excusable either.

But really,that's not what got the focus of the self-titled record - hell, you could make the argument that the lyrics really weren't the focus at all given the mixing, cassette quality, and how H.R's voice twisted his nasal, frenetic barks into near-incomprehensibility. No, the greater focus was on the instrumentation and production, and the very important acknowledgement that Bad Brains were stepping into hardcore with far stronger technical chops than many of their peers. It's how Dr. Know could shred on the guitars at a velocity closer to speed metal - and indeed, the switch into 'Shitfit' showed how the band could indeed dive towards that genre in years to come. But just as important were Earl Hudson's explosive drumwork or the razor sharp bass foundation that could kick both 'The Regulator' and 'Banned In D.C.' into high gear, or how effective it drove beneath the guitar overdubs on 'Big Takeover'. And then there were the guitar solos - as much as Dr. Know got well-deserved praise for keeping a melodic sensibility in these blazing fast songs, when he opened up to greater complexity on 'Sailin' On', 'Don't Need It', 'Supertouch/Shitfit', and 'Banned In D.C.', he set a standard that even most veteran hardcore punks would struggle to match. But now we run into what might be the greatest hurdle getting into this project: the mixing and production. And look, this record was originally issued on cassette tape, of course it was going to sound muddy and partially drowned in feedback, and it's a credit to the late Jay Dublee that it doesn't sound worse, especially with the reggae cuts and 'Pay To Cum' being recorded live. And while I will note that many of the rerecording by Ric Ocasek on their follow-up Rock For Light would sound cleaner, there is a homegrown grit that I genuinely appreciate here that picks up the textured, grimy intensity for the band to shred through.

So yeah, as a whole the self-titled record from Bad Brains really does deserve the critical acclaim it's received over the years... even if future records wouldn't quite live up to the high standards it set in hardcore punk. The band would release the more polished and successful Rock In Light a year later before going through one of their many breakups, but for a blistering hot moment that would inspire acts from Sublime to the Beastie Boys, Bad Brains delivered a genuinely terrific hardcore release. For me, it's a very solid 8/10 and is incredibly easy to recommend - maybe not the best beginner's record for hardcore, but its refinement, sonic balance and distinctive palette make it worthy of its legacy - if you haven't, definitely check it out!

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