Reflecting on the D.C. band’s unstoppable second album
Pioneers of a genre usually spawn a legion of imitators, but despite their legendary status in the world of hardcore punk, there’s no one quite like Bad Brains.
Surely no other punk band started off as a jazz fusion outfit. Yet Mind Power, the name of the first incarnation of the group, cared more for Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever than hard rock. But when close friend and Mind Power frontman Sid McCray played punk for his bandmates, history was set into motion.
Bad Brains, like many other young punk bands, set out to be the fastest group of the era. Their self-titled debut, originally released only on cassette, (better known as The Yellow Tape) illustrates their desire for speed, yet they possessed the chops to elevate themselves above the competition.
Bad Brains released their second full-length Rock for Light on April 15th 1983. It’s telling that they chose to include a number of songs that previously appeared on the cassette-only release, perhaps not considering it a true album. Those re-recorded hardcore songs ooze with even more vitriol than their previous incarnations and the band’s technical prowess remains intact. These aren’t just blurs of forgettable chaos.
What’s not often talked about is how catchy Bad Brains were, even at their most violent. Rock for Light kicks off with the one-two punch of “Big Takeover” and “Attitude”, two absolutely raging tracks. As manic as the music sounds, vocalist HR goes stride for stride with the band. On “Big Takeover” he screams with melody and compresses and expands his lines to match the ebb and flow of the music. On “Attitude” he engages in a rapid-fire call and response with the band as, oddly enough, they embrace a positive mindset inspired by New Thought author Napoleon Hill.
As merely a hardcore record, Rock for Light certainly is worthy of legendary status, but Bad Brains went for a more multi-faceted approach. As the debut cassette foreshadowed, they were determined to play reggae alongside punk, and by the time of Rock for Light, they seemed equally adept at both. Bad Brains proved to play a sparse version of the genre, often sounding like a dub plate of some lost original. Dr. Know’s guitar in particular adds depth with echo and other effects, especially up against the booming rumble of Daryl Jenifer’s bass.
HR’s vocals are still idiosyncratic but no more so than other reggae singers such as Horace Andy or Lee “Scratch” Perry when he chose to pick up the microphone.
The reggae tracks, “I and I Survive”, The Meek”, “Rally Around Jah Throne” and “Jam” give the album a great sense of flow, providing periodic respites from the punk assault. More importantly they are great tunes that stand on their own. Their inclusion also helps to solidify their unique mindset, the confluence of streetwise hardcore punk, New Thought literature, and Rastafarianism.
With Ric Ocasek on production duties and sense of gathering momentum, Rock for Light seemed poised to make a big move. Bad Brains though would prove to be their own worst enemy, a theme that would plague them throughout their career. First of all, vocalist HR and his brother Earl Hudson, who played drums with the band, pushed for the group to begin playing reggae exclusively, which they felt was more consistent with their Rastafarian beliefs. This didn’t go over well with much of their core audience, especially when their live sets started to only consist of reggae jams.
Even more unfortunate are the instances of misogyny and homophobia that the group engaged in. This culminated in a well-known incident in Austin, Texas between HR and Randy “Biscuit” Turner of the Big Boys over the latter’s sexuality. If they hadn’t burned any bridges at that point, they were certainly a ablaze after that. While some fans remained loyal, many others boycotted the band for their bigoted views.
Bad Brains broke up shortly after. This also proved to be a regular occurrence for the group who split and reformed many times throughout the years. Sometimes they reunited with HR and Earl Hudson, other times they brought in others including Israel Joseph I and Chuck Mosely, previously of Faith No More.
Despite the checkered history and an uneven discography, Rock for Light is a historic album. Between their technical acumen and expansive sound, Bad Brains were the group many a fledgling punk musician looked to for inspiration. Over time, they incorporated even more elements into their sound, including funk, hip-hop, and soul and their influence can be seen in almost any underground genre that followed.
But Rock for Light is arguably their crowning achievement, and it sounds as fresh and vital as it did when it was released.