Once Elvis Presley came along, followed by the British Invasion, rock and roll tended to be very…white. This tendency existed despite rock’s roots in the blues and gospel traditions, not to mention the thrilling innovations of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and James Brown. “Soul” and “R&B” came to refer primarily to Black artists, whereas “rock” did not – with very few exceptions. One of those exceptions was Living Colour.
British-born guitarist Vernon Reid grew up in New York City, where he learned to love jazz and punk as much as he did R&B and funk. One of his favorite guitarists was Jeff Beck. In 1984, after some years with experimental, genre-blending groups like the Decoding Society under the helm of jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, Reid decided he wanted to dig deeper into his love of rock music.
The band he started, initially called Vernon Reid’s Living Colour, had a changeable personnel lineup for the first two years. But lead singer Corey Glover, who joined in 1985, is still a member of the group today. The following year, drummer Will Calhoun joined and stayed, and Muzz Skillings remained their bassist until 1992.
Living Colour is often associated with Fishbone, another band of African-American musicians working in the rock world. However, except for their racial make-up, the two groups are quite different: Fishbone, formed in 1979, had a strong basis in ska and reggae, which they blended with rock, whereas Living Colour uses aspects of jazz, punk, and metal along with rock and roll.
With an assist from Mick Jagger, who was impressed by Reid’s playing and enjoyed the band’s well-produced live shows, Living Colour gained enough of a foothold to sign with Epic Records in 1987. Their debut, Vivid, came out to great fanfare in 1988, charting at No. 6. Its biggest single, “Cult of Personality,” won a Grammy.
The album-only track “Which Way to America” is a good example of the kind of social commentary Living Colour’s lyrics embrace, a belief in a dichotomy between the average person’s perception versus the underlying evil forces that keep the little guy down. The song begins “I look at the TV/Your America's doing well/I look out the window/My America's catching hell.”
The songs on their second album, Time’s Up (1990), had been in development for a few years. Some had even been recorded before, at a live show at CBGB in New York. In fact, that whole 1989 gig would eventually be released in 2005 as Live from CBGB on Legacy Records. But for most record-buying fans in 1989, all the songs on Time’s Up were new.
One element that set Time’s Up apart was the parade of Black musical celebrities who made appearances, such as Little Richard on “Elvis Is Dead” and Queen Latifah on “Under Cover of Darkness.” There’s a lot going on here. The album closes with “This Is the Life,” with an ethereal intro that seems to combine free jazz and Arabic chanting. The song itself has a heavy, psychedelic Black-Sabbath-meets-Jefferson-Airplane sound, leading into a guitar solo almost worthy of Jimi Hendrix.
When Skillings left the band in 1992, he was replaced by Doug Wimbish, who remains Living Colour’s bassist. Wimbish’s first album as a member of Living Colour was Stain, in 1993. Although the album charted, it did so at lower numbers than the previous record. Soon a suit was filed over the title by the band called The Stain, forcing Sony to pull Living Colour’s album. It was out of print for almost 20 years until being rereleased in 2013.
“This Little Pig,” a collaborative songwriting effort by all four band members, comments on youth being pulled in various directions, believing they have power when they really don’t. The dissonant, screaming guitar line is terrifying. The level of anger makes Black Flag seem like delicate flowers. (Warning: some explicit lyrics.)
Citing artistic differences and an interest in exploring their own paths, Living Colour broke up in 1995. Wimbish and Calhoun started a project called Head >> Fake. It also turned out to be the band’s reentry portal. At a CBGB gig by Head >> Fake in 2000, Reid and Glover joined their old bandmates for some songs. They enjoyed the experience enough to keep working together.
They intended to make another album. And then 9/11 happened, becoming the biggest influence on Collideøscope, released in 2003. While “Nightmare City” is not directly about the attacks themselves, it comments on the lingering stresses and political and social reactions that followed. The lyrics are made more powerful by repeated references to the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
It took six years to put out another album, 2009’s The Chair in the Doorway. This was their first release to chart since 1993, as well as their debut with the hard rock and heavy metal indie label Megaforce Records.
There’s some sly humor in hidden tracks on this record. The first is experimental composer John Cage’s 4:33, which is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence (actually, whatever ambient noise happens to be in the room). The second is “As*hole,” a heavy metal heartbreak song with snide lyrics.
The best song on the album is “Hard Times,” a convincing amalgam of raging metal bassline, blues rhythm and harmony, and a virtuosic guitar solo.
Living Colour’s release schedule keeps getting slower. The next album took eight years to prepare, although that long silence had not been part of their plan. They started recording Shade in 2011, hoping to release it in the following year or so. However, the various members’ other projects and obligations, not to mention friction with their management, made it hard to get together in the studio. They finally released the album in 2017.
Besides 10 original songs, Shade includes tracks by three generations of other Black musicians: rapper The Notorious B.I.G., soul star Marvin Gaye, and Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, who wrote “Preachin’ Blues” in the 1930s. Living Color play it much more slowly than Johnson used to, ratcheting up its intensity with elements of metal.
Given how many years have separated their last few albums, there’s no reason to assume Shade is Living Colour’s final recording. At this writing, the band is preparing for tours in the US and Australia.
Reid has long been distressed by society’s preconceptions of what Black musicians can and cannot play. Even at the beginning of his career, it seemed to him that people were already forgetting that rock music came from Black music. So, to bolster his own efforts and support other artists, he co-founded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. That organization continues its work today.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Clemens Stockner.