BAD BRAINS: BLACK DOTS (1979/1996)
1) Don't Need It; 2) At The Atlantis; 3) Pay To Cum; 4) Supertouch/Shitfit; 5) Regulator; 6) You're A Migraine; 7) Don't Bother Me; 8) Banned In D.C.; 9) Why'd You Have To Go; 10) The Man Won't Annoy Ya; 11) Redbone In The City; 12) Black Dots; 13) How Low Can A Punk Get; 14) Just Another Damn Song; 15) Attitude; 16) Send You No Flowers.
This set of demos, recorded by the band as early as 1979 at the soon-to-be-famous Inner Ear Studios in Arlington (at that time, located in the basement of recording engineer Don Zientara), had long since passed into legend before it was officially released as an archival treasure in 1996. Quite a few fans still worship it as Bad Brains' finest hour — which is hardly a major surprise for a hardcore act, where «first» frequently equals «best» just because nobody needs a «second». And even though acknowledging this means being really mean to Bad Brains and Rock For Light — after all, there must have been a reason why they did not want to make these tapes public in the first place — after a few listens, I feel almost ready to concur.
The trick is that in 1979, the «classic» sound of Bad Brains was not quite ready yet. Most importantly, the band had not yet developed their insanely fast tempos: ʽPay To Cumʼ clocks in at 2:02 here, compared to 1:25 on Bad Brains, and the proportions for the rest are quite similar. This certainly does not mean that these tempos are «slow» — they do take a bite out of the band's alleged uniqueness, but let's face it, there is a certain point where acceleration starts bordering on the ridiculous — or, at least, the rhythm section parts start blurring together like telegraph posts out the windows of an express train, creating the illusion (or, sometimes, the reality) of sloppiness and out-of-control chaos. On Black Dots, the band takes care not to cross that border — they are being very fast and very aggressive, but never go over the top.
On the other hand, in 1979 Bad Brains had not yet fully worked out their reggae schtick: there is only one reggae number on the record, ʽThe Man Won't Annoy Yaʼ, and even that is more of a tentative reggae/rhumba hybrid than a proverbially solid Rasta prayer from H.R. and the gang. Everything else is straightforward, monolithic, ultra-vicious punk stuff — no prisoners taken, no mercy granted, and H.R. is still singing it in a somewhat traditional punkish bark: snarling and vengeful, but not yet schizophrenic.
The only thing that is mildly merciful are the tempos, which allow you to better appreciate Dr. Know's creaitivty: for instance, the intro riff to ʽDon't Need Itʼ turns out to be a cool, well thought out rock'n'roll riff, which I never noticed once it had been sped up into an incomprehensible wobbly mumble on Bad Brains. Additionally, the band's sense of humor is more overt here than it would be once their Rasta fixation got the better of them — ʽJust Another Damn Songʼ, for instance, feels like a subtle sendup of the very hardcore / minimalist values the band allegedly set out to promote, since lyrically, musically, and mood-wise it is just another damn song.
There is even a sort of equivalent of a «love ballad» here — ʽWhy D'You Have To Goʼ sounds like an (intentional?) parody on old-school sentimental garage rock (music) and blue-eyed soul (H.R.'s breaking down vocal): hardly a «good song» in any sense, and they would never ever try this again, but actually, in the absence of proper reggae counterbalance, it is good to have an occasional breakaway from the «rock'n'roll speedboat pattern».
Overall, the album fully deserves its reputation. The sound quality is actually higher here than it would be on Bad Brains, so there is no reason to shy away from the «demos» sticker. And even if the individual songs still do not stand out as brightly shaped as one could hope, given the slight decrease in tempo, Bad Brains were still one of the speediest bands around in 1979, and the H.R./Dr. Know duo — one of the most badass duos of the year.
It all conforms to the observation that hardcore bands generally «blow their wad» over the first 20 or so months of their existence — Bad Brains just spent too much time without a proper record contract on their hands: by the time they released Rock For Light, their first properly recorded and engineered record, they'd already spent six long years in hardcore mode, so no wonder Black Dots gets so much respect. Rock For Light may still remain the definitive «mature» Bad Brains album to play off both their aggression and spirituality, but Black Dots reminds us more properly of how they made their name in the first place — a naturally inevitable thumbs up here if we agree to care about this band at all.
Check "Black Dots" (MP3) on Amazon