A couple months back, Ian MacKaye, singer and founder of two of the most important independent bands of the past 30 years (Minor Threat and Fugazi), unintentional instigator of the Straight Edge movement, and creator of Washington, DC-based Dischord Records, without which many bands would never have gotten their music heard, came to Lancaster to speak at the campus of Franklin & Marshall about his life in punk rock. Of course, MacKaye's version of punk rock history is from the point of view of the thriving Washington scene. With bands like Teen Idles, S.O.A., The Slickee Boys, Government Issue, and MacKaye's Minor Threat among many, many others, our nation's capitol spawned one of the most influential scenes in the country. During his talk at F&M, MacKaye repeated and underscored a point he made in the excellent documentary American Hardcore: None of those bands, indeed none of that scene, would have even existed if not for one band - the band all those DC punks looked up to, were inspired by, and aspired to one day play as well as: Bad Brains.
Starting out in the mid-'70s under the name Mind Power, the band that would morph into Bad Brains originally played jazz-fusion, but soon found themselves enthralled with the new, rough sound of bands like The Dead Boys and The Sex Pistols. Renaming themselves after a Ramones song, Bad Brains took the energy and angst of punk rock, the complex polyrhythms and arrangements of their jazz-fusion days, and a healthy dose of their Rastafarian beliefs, and forged something new.
Unlike the typical bands popping up in punk's "anyone can do it" universe, Bad Brains were accomplished musicians - something they demonstrated through hyperspeed playing. Fast? Oh you bet! Faster than most, but never sacrificing melody for speed, never missing a tempo shift or a modulation, never flubbing a note. Their debut single, 1979's "Pay To Cum", set the bar for what was to become Hardcore Punk; it's a bar that has never been equaled. It is one of the most stunning pieces of vinyl ever - a whirling tornado of a song that blows through you in an instant leaving a trail of destruction but leaving you wanting more. A lyric sheet helps a bit, but it's better to simply ride the cyclone and see where you end up when it's over.
Bad Brains weren't always stuck in hyperdrive, though; their discography shows an evolution that has at times brought reggae and dub rhythms to the surface, at times revisited their jazz roots, and at other times focused more heavily on melody than power.
Over the years, the Bad Brains core of singer H.R. (Human Rights), Dr. Know, Darryl Jenifer and Earl Hudson, along with various permutations of other musicians brought into and thrown out of the mix, have split apart and reformed more often than anyone can count. The constant underlying tension in the band in part drives their music, but there is no telling when the next explosion is coming. As of 2010, the original members are together and touring again; how long it will last this time remains to be seen.
For this week's NW4NW, here is one of Bad Brains best, 1986's "I Against I." As a bonus, I've also included a second clip of an early performance of the legendary "Pay To Cum." Enjoy!