How Low Can Punk Get?

Bad Brains and the legendary Black Dots

Early HR in action

I’ve always told people that I saw the Bad Brains before they were good. It was at a now-forgotten club on NYC’s Upper East Side called The 80’s, which still sounded very modern because the 80’s had just begun. It was Friday, February 22nd, 1980 and the Bad Brains were the opening act for the main attraction, namely the legendary Dead Boys, who were nearing the end of their initial run.

We were too young to get into CBGB’s, where they played often, but my friend who lived near the club had a connection and got us in. The place wasn’t nearly full – who other than us uptown denizens wanted to see a punk show on 86th Street between Second and Third Avenues?

Original flier from Dead Boys/Bad Brains show at The 80s / Courtesy of Jeremy Shatan

We had no idea what to expect when four African-American dudes took the stage, bald heads gleaming in the spotlights, and launched into…something. It sounded like an uncomfortable combination of pure noise and jazz fusion played at lightening speed. We were alternately intimidated by their look and aggression and amused by what we perceived as their complete incompetence. I don’t remember them playing any reggae that night, but if they had I might have been more intrigued. Finally they stopped and left the stage, which was quickly occupied by the Dead Boys, who came on like a heat-seeking missile to our skulls with Stiv Bators planting the heavy base of his mic stand on the ceiling of the club, a move I’d never seen before – or since. Even on the downward slide, they were true rock stars and it was an unforgettable show.

Of course, when the “Pay To Cum” 45 came out the following year, it all made sense to me. I probably played it every day until the ROIR cassette came out – the A-side anyway, as I’m still unsure of what they were doing with “Stay Close To Me”! But that yellow tape of Bad Brains saved my life during the summer of 1982 when I had to wake up at 4:00 AM for work. For years, I tasted Corn Chex whenever I listened to that album from all those mornings eating cereal and listening to it on my Walkman so as not to wake my sleeping neighbors.

 

 

Now, with the vinyl reissue of Black Dots over 20 years after Caroline Records first put it out, I find myself putting that prototypical concert at The 80s in context. That show might have been one of the first gigs they got after recording Black Dots and shopping it around, since it was essentially a demo tape. Even if we didn’t already know that, the muddy sonics, talking (“Can you hold it for a second!” someone yells after “Redbone In The City”) and bits of between-song noodling would make it obvious. 

With 40 years of hindsight, the Bad Brains circa 1979 are at least coherent. However, there are still moments of the disorganization I experienced on that long ago night. There was a reason why they kept working on the songs that ended up on the ROIR tape: they knew they could be better. Even now, the difference can be startling. “Don’t Need It,” for example, is taken at a stately pace compared to the later version and Earl Hudson’s drums are functional but lack drama. Dr. Know’s guitar solo is cool to the touch rather than incendiary, as it is on the final take. H.R.’s vocals also find another gear on the later recordings, full of distinctive yelps while still packed with power. He also thankfully loses the faux-British accent.

Bad Brains Black Dots, Caroline Records 1999

On “The Regulator,” it sounds like there are two basses causing the intro to suffer from over-complexity – a hangover from their fusion days? Also, one bass sounds out of tune! On the version on the cassette, however, Daryl Jenifer’s bass is almost overwhelming in its virtuosic simplicity and power. The ROIR version of “Banned In D.C.” similarly showcases a nearly frightening level of precision between Jenifer and Hudson, with Dr. Know’s guitar soaring instead of searching for the solo. Finally, I doubt songs like “Supertouch/Shitfit” would have become as indelible without little touches like that otherworldly shriek that opens the song.

Shepard Fairey Black Dots print

There’s only a six-song overlap between the Black Dots demos and the debut album, which leaves eight other songs, of which only one ever resurfaced, “How Low Can A Punk Get,” which was chopped nearly in half when it showed up on Rock For Light in 1983. It was probably the right decision to shed those other songs as many of them seem built from spare parts and fueled by frustration with their own process. When a band calls something “Just Another Damn Song,” they’re either approaching a breakthrough or a breakup. The songs are never less than fascinating, however, and it’s a thrill to be let into their process of becoming the great band who later commanded our devotion. 

In the end, my only hesitation about this beautiful white-vinyl reissue is that it enshrines something that was only a temporary way station for the Bad Brains. With cassette culture on the rise, I would love to see Black Dots put out on a tape, preferably with a handwritten label and J-card, like the ones my bands passed out to anyone we thought could move our career forward. No matter: When the Bad Brains emerged from Inner Ear Studios after laying down these tracks, they were going places, even if no one knew just how far they would fly.

 

Jeremy Shatan

Jeremy Shatan is a dad, music obsessive, NYC dweller, working for the future at New York Genome Center. He's also a contributing writer for RockandRollGlobe.com. Follow him on Twitter@anearful.

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