2015 marks the 27th anniversary of the release of Living Colour’s debut album, Vivid. Despite heavy rotation on MTV and a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1989, time has not bestowed the classic status the album deserves.
“GO ON VIRGINIA, PLAY IT LOUD.
YOUR NEIGHBORS WILL LOVE IT”
-Message in the liner notes to Vivid
Vivid is a bunker buster of race roles in rock: an eclectic hybrid of metal, funk, rap, and soul, Vivid was one of a handful of organic rock albums in the latter part of the 1980s. The preference of a real, live drum and bass sound and a judicious sampling philosophy has meant that after 25 years, Vivid is as dynamic and impactful a listen as ever before. As Greg Tate says in the liner notes of the 2002 re-issue, Vivid is a “resonant, relevant and nostalgic album.” Considering the topicality of the core songs, this is all the more impressive.
The New York City-based collective grew out of the long-time passion project of Vernon Reid. The English-born Reid was an acclaimed guitarist in jazz and funk circles when he conceived of the Living Colour group in the early 1980s. Picking up where Funkadelic left off with ‘Who Says A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock’, Reid set out to put together not just an all-black rock ensemble, but an entire community of all-black rock outfits. The result was the formation of the Black Rock Coalition. With Living Colour, Reid set out to prove that funk, metal and rap could be fused into one monstrous roar. And then played with the sensibilities that a jazz background offers.
“To say that the scene Living Colour came out of was vibrant, or electrifying, or exciting, or frustrating, is all an understatement. The Eighties that we were a part of was completely off the rails. That was when I saw Blue Cheer play a set at Danceteria, when I saw Nick Cave’s very first show in America, when I experienced the early days of the band Material … staggering stuff.” – Vernon Reid, Guitar World 2010
In Living Colour’s classic roster, Reid had found the perfect faction his vision required: Drummer Will Calhoun was a versatile drummer who played with fluidity and immense power; bass player Muzz Skillings brought hard urban rhythms and a calypso flavour; guitarist Reid’s tapping technique and shredding solos added depth and colour to the palette. His sonic flair (a la Eddie Hazel) and atmospheric figures (not unlike Carlos Santana) put him at the frontline of guitar heroes among axe players of the ‘80s; but the secret weapon in the group is vocalist Corey Glover, an actor-model who found his calling on the stage of CBGB, where Living Colour cut their teeth.
Glover’s malleability sees him shift from doo-wop to metal vocalisations with the ease of a tiger on Vaseline. Blessed with a diverse range and fiersome pipes, Glover was the perfect choice for the group. He demonstrates the vulnerability of Tracy Chapman ( ‘Open Letter to a Landlord’), the sensuality of Al Green (‘Broken Hearts’) and the satirical bite of Public Enemy (‘Funny Vibe’). But he’s best utilized as a full-throated rock singer. All of these technical components, when mixed together, make Living Colour a badass, four-headed behemoth.
Vivid was a blistering assault on Top 40 rock and hair metal. It made a mockery of The Rolling Stones (for whom Living Colour opened on The Steel Wheels tour) and Def Leppard, whose reliance on programmed beats, slathered vocals and overly manicured guitar production gloss wilts beneath the thick riffs of ‘Cult of Personality.’
WATCH A PERFORMANCE OF ‘CULT OF PERSONALITY’
The band were serious practitioners who employed a wide range of cover material, and continue to do so today: from Talking Heads to James Brown, Pere Ubu to The Clash, and AC/DC to Jimi Hendrix, Living Colour’s interpretations of these songs not only paid tribute to their spiritual forefathers, but allowed the band to add textures to their setlist. No Living Colour gig is complete without some respect being laid at the feet of
one idol or another. (On their current tour, ‘Preachin’ Blues‘ is the standard set-opener.)
Reid, who was the main songwriter in the group, found inspiration in the dire streets of New York City: with the rise of crack and slumlords, the emergent street proselytizers turned emcees, and the disparity between mainstream culture and the reality in Black communities, NYC was pure fodder. The voice of a new black consciousness, most notable in the strains of Public Enemy (with whom Reid had recorded before Chuck D and Flavour Flav returned the favour on Vivid), found its way onto Vivid. The social commentary on Vivid runs counter to the plasticity, pomposity and hollowness that the mainstream rock of the decade spewed. And now, 25 years on, have the songs become redundant? No. Like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On?, Vivid reverberates with humanity, compassion and righteous anger. 25 years on and the following passage is as painfully relevant and acidic as ever:
Where is my picket fence?
My long tall glass of lemonade?
Where is my VCR, my stereo, my T.V. show?
I look at the T.V.
I don’t see your America.”
– ‘Which Way To America’
WATCH LIVING COLOUR PERFORM ‘WHICH WAY TO AMERICA’