BAD BRAINS: BAD BRAINS (1982)
1) Sailin' On; 2) Don't Need It; 3) Attitude; 4) The Regulator; 5) Banned In D.C.; 6) Jah Calling; 7) Supertouch/Shitfit; 8) Leaving Babylon; 9) F.V.K.; 10) I; 11) Big Take Over; 12) Pay To Cum; 13) Right Brigade; 14) I Luv I Jah; 15) Intro.
So, as it turns out, «hardcore» is yet another genre that white suckers shamelessly stole from their black brethren — or did they? Bad Brains' debut came out in crappy cassette form in 1982, much later than the first LPs by the Dead Kennedys, the Angry Samoans, the Circle Jerks, whatever, but the band began playing their stuff as early as 1977, and at that time, did it faster than any imaginable competition — their advantage being that they actually began life as a jazz-fusion ensemble circa 1975, converting to the loud, the rough, and the obscene two years later under the influence of the newly-emerged «slow» punk scene.
This unusual status — a formerly «intellectualized genre» combo switching to hardcore, and an all-black one at that — impressed the band's peers and fans so much that every once in a while someone will acknowledge Bad Brains as the best hardcore band of all time, or Bad Brains (the album) as their favorite album of all time (actually, the CD reissues all come with an endorsement from the Beastie Boys who do just that). But beyond the race, pedigree, and who-did-what-first issues, I really have very few clues as to what should be the standards to judge «hardcore». Catchiness? Ridiculous. Speed? What do you want me to do, hold a speedometer? Technique? At those speeds, it takes really special ears to measure the subtleties. Social relevance? You play it like that, you are socially relevant by definition even if you only sing about having gay sex. (Actually, you reach the peak of social relevance if you sing about having gay sex, but that is sort of a different story).
In any case, Bad Brains do have some specificity beyond all that. All four members — H.R. on vocals, Darryl Jenifer on bass, Earl Hudson on drums, and the de-facto band leader Dr. Know on guitar — are open Rastafaris, and like every respectable late 1970s act, their major passion, besides speedy punk runs, is classic reggae à la Bob Marley; hence, the odd wonder of this album is that every now and then, in between the brief one-two-minute slash races, they bring the process to a state of chilled-out relaxation with a longer, and utterly un-ironic, reggae groove (and the grooves actually get longer and longer as time goes by — first one is 2:31, second one is 4:10, third one is 6:23 — and you can probably guess which ones are the reggae ones quite easily by scrutinizing the titles without listening).
The band's background is best seen on some of the instrumental passages — for instance, the intro to ʽDon't Need Itʼ, where Dr. Know lets rip with a swirling «jazz-metal» pattern rather than the usual chainsaw; later on, right after the solo, there is also a bit of idea exchange between the drums and the guitars that they must have incorporated from their «artsy» past. H.R.'s «spoken-spluttered» parts are generally much less impressive, although his nasal-wheezy-sneery tone could be a refreshing alternative to the typical «growl» or «bark» of the average hardcore punkster — but they aren't powerful enough to match the volume and intensity of the instrumentalists, and thus, detract from the music rather than add to it.
As could be expected, the quality of the original recording is abysmal: calling this stuff «lo-fi» would be dishonoring the lo-fi genre. Victim # 1 is Darryl Jenifer, whose basslines are actually just as nifty as and sometimes niftier than Dr. Know's riffs, but for the most part, they are «felt» rather than «heard» (except for the reggae parts, where he is saved by all the syncopation, but that is also when he is at his least interesting). Yet the guitar lines, too, could have benefited from a cleaner mix — after all, if you are going to surprise us by introducing fusion-gained technique into punk aesthetics, this could have been done by means of an album that doesn't sound like it was recorded in somebody's flooded basement with the mikes placed on the roof.
Still, a plan is a plan, I guess: whosoever decides his music should sound like shit, be it in his perfect right to carry out the decision. Personally, I think that thirty-six minutes is a bit of an overkill for this stuff, as they really say it all in about, well, ten minutes at the max, and then just duplicate it all for no reason. ʽSailin' Onʼ is an impressive intro with a «pop» slant to it (they even try out some cheesy falsetto backing harmonies, without letting the tempo down for a second); ʽDon't Need Itʼ has that non-trivial set of guitar runs that lets you know these guys are ultimately deconstructionists rather than good-for-nothings; ʽThe Regulatorʼ is Jenifer's ideal bass spotlight; ʽBanned In D.C.ʼ is an important autobiographical statement (the band was indeed banned in D.C., their hometown, for a while); ʽJah Callingʼ is the first, shortest, and best of the reggae numbers — an instrumental with the emphasis on Dr. Know's trippy atmospheric playing rather than all the vocal clichés of the genre. After that — whoever did not get enough, there is more of the same for you. 10-15 minutes is quite all right for me, well sufficient to issue out a receptive thumbs up, and then I pretend I just accidentally hit the «repeat» button.
Check "Bad Brains" (MP3) on Amazon