Bad Brains (1982)

June 11, 2013

bad brains artwork

Roll: 1-3-12
Album: Bad Brains, s/t (1982)

When I got into punk at the age of 13, I predictably got into it via the traditional channels: The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. Mostly it was The Ramones as, by accident, I caught Rock’n’Roll High School on the late-late show. When I woke up the next morning I was a punk rocker. I already had Johnny Ramone‘s bowl cut. I was ready to go.

Anyway, my friend Josh’s dad had Ramones and Rocket To Russia and he lent them to me. Josh lent them to me, that is. I have no idea if his dad ever knew parts of his collection would go on vacation at my house. Never Mind The Bollocks and Combat Rock made the pilgrimage as well, causing my own father to joke, “Josh’s dad is a sick man.”

The great thing about getting into a genre when you’re 13 is you do so with a complete lack of discernment. In my mind there was little difference between SNFU and The Police.  I’d heard the term “hardcore” but it didn’t really mean anything to me yet. I think I had a vague idea the tempos were faster and the lyrics naughtier.

I instantly latched onto anything even the least bit punky. The same as had been the case with Mötely Crüe, I was drawn to the hairstyles and fashion as much as the music. Any band with a mohawk and a spiked wristband had a home in my walkman and on my bedroom wall. Which is perhaps why I was the only one of my friends to get into (the best rock’n’roll band of the 20th century) Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

This lack of discernment (or, let’s call it “open-mindedness”) also explains how I was able to alternate between Bad Brains‘ famous yellow cassette-only debut and their genre-defining funk-metal opus, I Against I (1986), without compunction. Though I now hold I Against I pretty much soley responsible for many of the groove-rock travesties which would become popular in the ’90s, I have to admit it was mind-blowing to a kid exploring the world of  alternative rock for the first time. I’d never heard heavy rock that weird before. Or punk that heavy. I thought you were either metal or punk, it was a binary equation with no in-between—not even if you were someone like Anthrax.

I Against I, frankly, confused the hell out of me. But it also lured me away from the fashion-based “punk” of my beloved Sigue Sigue Sputnik and introduced me to punk’s hard core.

I actually found out about Bad Brains in a sideways manner through one of my hair metal-oriented guitar magazines. There’d usually be a column in the back highlighting an “outsider” band (as long as they had a guitarist with proper chops) and Dr. Know was featured in one of these on the strength of I Against I. That article was so full of hyperbole that it flat-out guaranteed I’d pick the album up on my next weekend trip to Grennan’s Records & Tapes.

Fringe-L-150-21209-1124616167So, in a way, it was a hair-metal magazine that also introduced me to the Fringe Product label; a Canadian imprint that licensed punk releases from American and European labels that would have only been available as pricey imports otherwise. For a time it seemed like pretty much every Canadian store’s punk section (if they had a separate section) featured almost entirely Fringe titles. Soon I’d buy anything with the Fringe logo on it. Hello Dead Kennedys, Alien Sex Fiend, Hüsker Dü, Dayglo Abortions and the Better Youth Organization compilation Something To Believe In which opened up even more avenues for me to wander down.

I’d like to claim at this point that I was a politically informed, budding young member of the intelligentsia, interested in the themes of social justice punk bands sang about. Though I’d pay lip service to those ideals, it wasn’t truthfully the case. I was 13 and still pretty enamored with MTV shock-rockers like W.A.S.P., so the songs I liked best had titles like “Tits On The Beach“, “Let’s Fuck“, “Fuck  My Shit Stinks“, “Fuck Satan to Death“, “Pay To Cum” and “Too Drunk To Fuck“.

Heh-heh. He said fuck! Heh-heh-heh. 

Who cared what deeper, social message Bad Brains’ H.R. or Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys may have hidden in plain sight? Not I, not then.

Needless to say, the proto-emocore of “Sailin’ On“, from the subject of this review, was entirely lost on me. As was a lot of the Rasta symbolism, even if Bad Brains was actually where I first learned about Rastafarianism. My only previous exposure to reggae had been through Men At Work, The Clash and The Police so I was well-schooled by “Jah Calling“, “Leaving Babylon” and “I Luv I Jah“. Yet, to my developing ears, those songs were perhaps a little too authentic. I wanted non-stop buzzsaw punk guitar and breakneck tempos, not these constant bong breaks (something I appreciate most about the album now).

The word “buzzsaw”  does, however, effectively describe the majority of the album’s 34 minutes. Not only in the Ramones-inspired 16th-note rhythms, but in the uniquely transistor-tinny tone of the guitar. It actually sounds like a rotary blade cutting through concrete.

I remember one of my friends saying, as he handed my Walkman headphones back to me with a sour look on his face, “That sounds TERRIBLE!” and me thinking, “What’s this guy on? This is the most amazing guitar sound I’ve ever heard.”

And it still is. There’s something unique about it, something magical. It’s undeniably thinner than hospital broth, but it sucks you into another dimension. Even more than self-proclaimed “21st century boys” Sigue Sigue Sputnik ever managed, Bad Brains sounded like a band from another planet.

Of course, due to the fickle tastes of my peer group (and my intense need to adhere to those tastes), within 18 months my Ramones bowl cut turned into a bouffant Bon Jovi perm and I’d more or less set punk aside (that punk shit is kids stuff, man!) in favour of Poison‘s radio-friendly butt-rock (serious music, dude!).

Luckily, by late 1988 Jane’s Addiction, whose Nothing’s Shocking owed an obvious debt to I Against I, would pull me out of my Def Leppard delusions and set me back on the alternative path.


One comment

  1. I am doing everything currently in my powers to get my hands on the original cassette release of the bad brains album, which I believe was originally yellow with white spine and red tape, is there any possible way you could help me to locate this item, I am willing to pay. Or could you offer me any additional info, thanks!

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