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Living Colour: Can Black Guys Play Hard Rock?

Updated on February 11, 2015
Current Living Colour
Current Living Colour
Early Living Colour
Early Living Colour
Playing it live in Vienna in 1993
Playing it live in Vienna in 1993
Corey Glover (left) and Doug Wimbish
Corey Glover (left) and Doug Wimbish
Mick Jagger in 2003
Mick Jagger in 2003

Buy some of Living Colour's music . . .

These four African-Americans invented a unique hard rock style

 

By the middle 1980s, hard rock or heavy metal bands were comprised of mostly white guys, but the band Living Colour proved that a quartet of black guys could be just a forceful, funky and headbashingly punkish as any other hard rock assemblage. Simply put, these people of “colour” could rock like anybody else! In the book Secrets from the Masters (from the pages of Guitar Player magazine), published in 1992, Joe Gore wrote:

Apart from a few rare exceptions such as Jimi Hendrix and Prince, rock and roll has become white turf. To a large extent, the music business can't accept the idea of a black hard rock band, despite the music's undeniably Afro-American origins. Of course, there's no law prohibiting black musicians from playing rock and roll, but those who do are not likely to be embraced by the industry.

(This statement is an old one, but Gore’s assertion still seems relevant in the rock and roll business.)

English-born guitarist Vernon Reid formed the band Living Colour in 1984. Reid, a jazz and rock guitarist, grew up in New York City, eventually becoming a mainstay in the local jazz scene, initially slinging his axe in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s band, Decoding Society. Over the years, Reid developed a jarring, accelerated playing style of blurred licks, chromatic frills and ranting power chords, punctuated with pedal effects and whammy bar reminiscent of guitar heroes such as Jimi Hendrix. (Living Colour has covered Hendrix classics, namely “Crosstown Traffic,” “Power of Soul,” and “Them Changes.”) Reid’s influences run from jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy to another jazz great Ornette Coleman to Carlos Santana to blues great Lonnie Johnson and also sonic experimentalist Edgar Varése.

Referring to the aforementioned book, Reid had this to say about blacks in the rock and roll business:

In all seriousness, look at the statistical averages of black rock and roll bands that are killing on the charts and really making it. You’ll see that there’s a definite amount of risk. It’s not something that’s happening in a mass, across-the-board sort of way – not since Hendrix. This is just as challenging as being in the Decoding Society, but it’s challenging on another level because you’re dealing with a whole social milieu, a whole way of thinking about rock and roll that’s been locked in place since the middle ‘70s.

In 1986, led by Reid, a coherent group of musicians morphed into the current Living Colour, which included vocalist Corey Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. The band then developed a passionate hard rock feel, featuring funk, jazz fusion, hip-hop, electronica, grunge, R&B and reggae - all of which could be called funk metal. Other than style, the group highlights matters of personal importance, social issues such as racism, as well as elements of family and, of course – romance - though with a rather edgy interpretation of love’s many faces.

Living Colour produced their first album, Vivid, in 1988, which included their signature hit, “Cult of Personality,” a tune utilizing historical audio segments, e.g., “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” a popular New Wave technique at the time. Later, in early 1989, the band played on Saturday Night Live and then opened for the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheel/Urban Jungle Tour.

In fact, Mick Jagger championed Living Colour from the beginning, helping them record their first demo, and as well as priming the pump for obtaining their recording contract with Epic Records. Moreover, Jagger produced the songs “Glamour Boys” and “Which Way to America” on Vivid.

Their second album, Time’s Up, continued their unique sound of quirky rhythm changes, ballad-like intros by Glover, strung out leads by Reid, the pounding rhythm section of Skillings and Calhoun, and the use of taped segments of political importance, such as on the tune “History Lessons.” The album won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Album in 1990. Perhaps the best of this bunch is “Love Rears Its Ugly Head,” along with “Cult of Personality,” both classics of the group, as well hard rock itself.

In 1992, bassist Skillings was replaced by studio veteran Doug Wimbish. Then in February 1993 the band released their third album, Stain, which didn’t score as well as the first two units, though the impetus and verve of the group was undiminished, especially on the tune “Ignorance Is Bliss,” which expressed the very quintessence of hard rock with Reid’s catchy, idiomatic riff run.

Unfortunately, Living Colour broke up in early 1995, splintering into solo acts, even though the fan base of their sound was as strong as ever. Soon, Vernon Reid released the solo effort Mistaken identity in 1996, and worked as a studio musician as well. And Wimbish launched his own solo effort, Trippy Notes for Bass, in 1999.

Then, late in 2002, Living Colour reunited, eventually producing the album Collide0scope in 2003, their first album that didn’t make the charts in the U.S. This offering is decidedly dark, gothic and contemplative and, appropriately, includes a cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Later, in 2006, Sony released Live from CBGB’s (an NYC venue) and Everything Is Possible: The Very Best of Living Colour. For awhile, Corey Glover left the band to play the part of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. (Glover had also acted in Oliver Stone’s movie, Platoon, back in the 1980s and Loose Women in 1996) And, in May 2007, the band released their first live DVD, On Stage at World Café Live. Their most recent CD is 2009’s Chair in the Doorway.

Along the way, Living Colour was ranked #70 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock, a list compiled in 2005.

As long as Living Colour continues to evolve with their distinctive funk-metal sound, they’ll treat us to some of the best hard rock ever produced. And if they can recapture the magic of their first two albums, they could astonish us well into the future. White, black or whatever, these guys can blaze with the best of them!

Please leave a comment.

Cult of Personality

Love Rears Its Ugly Head

Desperate People

Type

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    • tony0724 profile image

      tony0724 6 years ago from san diego calif

      Nice job Kosmo. I still have their CD in my collection and you have just inspired me to turn it on ! I always really liked those guys !

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Thanks a lot for the comment, Tony0724! I've always thought Living Colour had a distinctive sound, and they haven't tried to produce "too many albums," a bad habit many bands get into. Later!

    • Owenyoyoyo profile image

      Owenyoyoyo 6 years ago from Leeds, England

      I have also been inspired to put some Living Colour on, nice one Kosmo!

    • gusripper profile image

      gusripper 6 years ago

      They were very cool band mister.No matter the colour is Hard rock makes you always be living

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 6 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Nice hub. I loved those guys. So the answer to your question, me thinks, is YES.

      Namaste.

    • BennyTheWriter profile image

      BennyTheWriter 6 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Fascinating to read about and hear Living Colour. I'll have to check them out some more. I think it's rather sad that the industry wouldn't accept (according to Joe Gore, at least) black hard rock musicians. Rock is a universal language that knows no barriers!

      Awesome hub.

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Thanks for the kudos, BennyTheWriter. You certainly wear your title on your sleeve, don't you? Anyway, your various comments are appreciated. Later!

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      Great band Kosmo

      Can't believe it's been over 20 years since they hit the scene.

      'Type' is one of the best rock songs ever written.

      Cheers

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Yeah, Shinkicker, I've always liked the sound of Living Colour. They definitely can play hard rock. Later!

    • kruzzall66 profile image

      kruzzall66 6 years ago

      Hey check it out, I wish more colour bands would come out in this new millinium of crap, we need something new that we can sink our teeth into,like Jada Pinket Smith, she truly has the right idea when she formed her band, rock on living colour ,I got your back.

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Yeah, kruzzall66, this new millenium needs a kick in the ass, ya know? Let's give it one! Later!

    • Terminus profile image

      Terminus 6 years ago

      Always thought that they are a fantastic group of musicians and rather bewildered that they did not become even more popular. Very cool music, a unique sound, and one of the few bands from the 80s-90s that have the Terminus seal of approval. ';..;'

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Hey, Terminus, I'm glad you like Living Colour better than Lover Boy! I'm also a little surprised they didn't make it real big. Anyway, I love Vernon Reid's guitar playing. Later!

    • profile image

      BlackRockerStudBrett1953 6 years ago

      A good-looking black dude SHOULD play hard rock instead of (c)rap

      and p***ified "soul/r&b,jazz and/or Gospel.The broads are 100 TIMES HOTTER!!!

    • animekid profile image

      animekid 6 years ago from Upstate NY

      As an older guy who still listens to the " Metal ", Living Colour went to a place that other African rockers simply did not and could not reach. I remember the first time I heard " Cult of Personality " and I thought my god this is one of the hardest rockin songs I'd ever heard, and that was before I had an inkling of who the band was...and that feeling hasn't left either even as I listed to the video of " Cult " here on your hub! Thanks for bringing me back to an earlier time and I enjoyed every second of it.

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Thanks very much for the comment, animekid. I've also liked Living Colour for a long time. These black guys can definitely play hard rock. Later!

    • MarleneWheeler profile image

      MarleneWheeler 5 years ago

      Loved it! It brought back so many memories, I had completely forgotten about them. I enjoyed this so much I'm gonna read this again. Thanks

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 5 years ago from California

      Thanks for the compliment, Marlene Wheeler. I loved writing this hub. Later!

    • profile image

      Monica 5 years ago

      Totally agree. Awesome group!

    • mattbibledotcom profile image

      mattbibledotcom 5 years ago from Washington DC

      Living Colour seems very intriguing. I've started diving into their records. "Cult of Personality" is having a resurgence due to CM Punk of the WWE recently beginning to use it as his theme song (which he used before he was a WWE wrestler as well). In fact, this is the song us grooms men entered my brother's wedding with.

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 5 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Mattbibledotcom. Yeah, "Cult of Personality" is definitely a hard rock hit, and I'm not surprised people play it at weddings. Later!

    • profile image

      Heaven Metal 5 years ago

      I so into Living Colour currently writing a noval which Im hoping I can use some of their favourite tracks.

      Im black women who loves rock n metal because of these guys, I Love U Guys!!!!!!!

    • Miller2232 profile image

      Sinclair Miller III 4 years ago from Florida

      Great Hub you have written. Living Colour was not afraid to be different if you ask me and that is what makes them awesome to me.

    • Kosmo profile image
      Author

      Kelley 4 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Miller2232. I've always dug Living Colour. I think I'll watch one of those videos right now. Later!

    • profile image

      Mark 2 years ago

      "Cult Of Personality" is a hard rock classic, but "Love Rears" is pretty much forgotten. I would say their 2nd biggest song these days (still gets attention) is probably "Type". Then "Middle Man".

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