Punk rock has been around long enough to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is Bad Brains‘ self-titled album. Does the 1982 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Dustin Gates will be defending and Carson Winter will be attacking.
I have a confession to make: even though I started my ventures into hardcore when I was 15, I didn’t start listening to Bad Brains until I was 20. It’s not that I hadn’t heard of them until then, I was well aware of the band. But like most kids who were too young to have experienced the birth of hardcore, I was told by countless sources (mostly internet sources, but also by a few high school teachers) that the place to start with Bad Brains was the band’s third album, I Against I. As a kid who just wanted fast, short songs like Minor Threat’s Complete Discography, I was turned off from the band due to not hearing what I wanted to hear at the time, not giving them a second through for the rest of high school. It wasn’t until I was in a punk band of my own that I gave Bad Brains another listen. The drummer of my band started singing about having PMA, and I didn’t understand the reference. As soon as practice ended, I got back to my room and immediately went to YouTube to look up songs from the band’s earliest periods. Within two week’s time I was the proud owner of both Bad Brains and Rock for Light (or maybe it was just a single week, I can’t remember the exact date of purchase in relation to pay-day).
What I’m getting at with my longwinded, personal story is that the appeal of Bad Brains, specifically their self titled debut, isn’t specifically limited to hardcore’s newcomers. While Bad Brains certainly exhibits all the qualities that any young punk wants in an album (those qualities primarily being songs played at breakneck speeds and a mostly unintelligible vocalist), there’s more to the album than just that. The way that the Bad Brains could go from the fastest punk songs I had ever heard to a slow dub at the flip of a switch was a talent that no other band at the time could pull off. Even most modern bands don’t master the technique of quick genre shifting by their first album.
The thing that I really appreciate most about Bad Brains is the level of musicianship– punk is known as a genre where the bands don’t have to be particularly good at their instruments when they first start out, gradually improving and refining their sound as time progresses. Bad Brains, meanwhile, was a group of jazz musicians that made the collective decision to play faster than all the kids who were playing fast already. Not only did they play lightning fast, but this album also showcases the band’s ability to maintain an incredible sense of acute melody while doing it. While this sort of thing has become more commonplace in the thirty years since the release of Bad Brains, it’s notable to point out that, much like the ability to shift seamlessly between two genres, the band was performing this melodic chaos with ease on their debut and it had not taken them three albums to perfect.
Bad Brains does have a few faults, I can admit that. It’s hard to really know what a good number of the songs are about due to not being able to understand HR a good portion of the time, as he seems to be the only band member who had trouble keeping up with the pace. It’s no secret that the band has let their faith influence some of their lyrics, prominently displayed in tracks like “Jah Calling”, and “I Luv I Jah”. While future Bad Brains albums come under fire for having lyrics that were seen as an attack on a specific minority group, the lyrics on this album are generally left undiscussed, probably because they can’t be understood. And when they could be understood (like in “PMA”) the lyrics suggest that the band was all about keeping it positive.
I won’t deny that Bad Brains can be a jarring listen- while I praise the fact that Bad Brains put their abilities as both a hardcore band and a reggae band on full display, they really could have worked on the sequencing. I get that sometimes a band will purposely slow things down in the middle of an album so that the momentum doesn’t grow stale, but there’s a vast difference between following up five incredibly fast hardcore songs with a mid-tempo rocker than following up five incredibly fast hardcore songs with a six minute reggae/dub jam. And then there’s the oddly placed “Intro”, at the very end of the album. But in this day and age of digital music these problems are trivial at best: playlists can be rearranged to the listeners liking, or songs can simply just be removed (or never downloaded in the first place), creating a much better and even flow. Dilemma, deleted!
Even with its flaws, Bad Brains is a wonderful example of what hardcore should be. It’s loud and fast enough to act as an introduction to the hardcore genre for beginners, but there’s enough musical depth for older listeners to appreciate. I Against I may be hailed by critics as the band’s magnum opus, but as far as punks should be concerned, the band’s true masterpiece is their self titled debut (or maybe Rock For Light, which is really just more of the same but with slightly better production values).
Bad Brains is one of those bands that I heard about early, but put off listening to for a long time. I’m sure I probably looked up “Pay to Cum” on YouTube when I was first learning about those Important Bands in Punk History. But this was a kid who thought Anti-Flag was hard as shit, so I’m going to bet they were a bit too abrasive for me back then.
But, now that my ears have been hardened and my sensibilities evolved, I revisited Bad Brains self-titled.
And to my surprise, I found I still didn’t really dig it.
This is coming from someone who loves punk rock unequivocally: Bad Brains doesn’t do it for me. Sure, they’re fast. Yeah, they could play their instruments. But I still struggle with why I should care. They were an intolerant group led by a vocal homophobe, and while they’ve apologized and mended their ways it does still taint their legacy for me. But even that can be left firmly in the past when discussing their self-titled, because, for me, what truly encapsulates my attitude towards Bad Brains is how dispassionate I am towards it. It doesn’t move me. I doesn’t really provoke pleasure, or pain. It just kind of is.
Bad Brains played their music with a certain amount of virtuosity; guitar solos are peppered into their buzzsaw attack, they take time away from their freneticism to throw the listener an instrumental reggae track (“Jah Calling”)– compared to the likes of Minor Threat and Dead Kennedys it’s easy to see Bad Brains as a more confident band. I mean, they already knew how to play, they were musicians that just happened to catch the punk bug. But, I can’t help but feel they lacked punk spirit. What Bad Brains did was mimicry. They saw something that caught their eye and they played fast because, well, what they saw and liked was being played fast. Their influences on the other hand played fast because they fucking meant it– they were furious and they expressed that rage through speed.
I’m not a hater of religion, but I am an atheist. So, there’s always been that element, for me, of seeing Bad Brains as essentially Christian rock (Rastafarianism is often said to be a ‘way of life,’ but anything that celebrates a reincarnation of Jesus Christ doesn’t sound nearly as non-religious as they make it out to be). Of all things punk is, I believe being held to a higher power isn’t among them. Punk rock is about taking control of your life, denying the tools of control, spiritual or otherwise, power over you. It could be said that being a Rastafarian was an act of rebellion, because it wasn’t a mainstream religion. But, jumping from religion to religion isn’t breaking any shackles, it’s just exploring weakness with a room full of crutches.
The Bad Brains’ self-titled is truthfully pretty interesting musically. Metal, hardcore, and reggae all gathered into a chaotic blast of early 80’s hardcore. But ideology is too big a part of punk rock for me to fully enjoy Bad Brains. I like to think it could’ve been a great record for me if they had approached their subject matter differently. Don’t tell me that you love Jah, tell me why I should. Punk rock shouldn’t be about giving the converted a pat on the back; challenge me, show me the cracks in my logic, make me change my mind. If you’re not doing that, what are you doing?
Add Bad Brains to My Radar