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Bad Brains

Bad Brains

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because the history of punk rock music was about much more than God saving the Queen.

By Eugene S. Robinson

New York City looked post-apocalyptic, D.C. was mired in the Carter malaise, and in 1977 the Sex Pistols convinced the world that they had invented punk rock music. A sort of end-of-time music of collapse, outrage and justifiable anger, punk rock existed before the Brits branded it as such. Thanks to the Ramones and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the antics and aesthetics were already well in place.

But thick in that mix were the lesser known — to the world at large, at least — Bad Brains. They were four African-American guys from Prince George’s County, Maryland, who were playing music in their basement and trying to do fusion jazz. Just two brothers, a cousin and a friend hoping to get good enough to play like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

Until someone showed up with a record by the Dickies.

They were four African-American guys playing music in their basement and trying to do fusion jazz. Until someone showed up with a record by the Dickies.

“It was the fastest thing we had ever heard,” said lanky bass player Darryl Jenifer. “We started trying to do that immediately.”

So was born the most unlikely quartet ever. From rippingly fast 4/4 time signature rock to turning on a dime and dropping low for some heartfelt reggae — a product of their late-’70s turn to Rastafarianism — Bad Brains musically crushed any and all in their path.

The band also introduced a weirdly concordant spirituality into hardcore punk rock. True, it got them into trouble later when doctrinaire beliefs crossed paths with alternative lifestyles, but Bad Brains’ history is checkered for far more interesting reasons. Specifically their unerring skill for actively resisting any attempts to do business as usual.

With tension onstage and off, and the singer HR (alternatively Hunting Rod or Human Rights) being notoriously volatile and notoriously difficult, Bad Brains defied not just the odds but everything. They attracted the likes of Madonna via the Beastie Boys, and then repelled them. Adam Yauch, also known as the late MCA, produced their Build a Nation record. They were also produced by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek before they broke up (the first of many times). Even so, Bad Brains have endured since 1977 and still play with a fire that’s a clear product of these same tensions. And they still attract crazy and unlikely partners. Most recently Arnette x Bad Brains eyeglasses. A nice companion to their Vans sneakers deal. 

Their song “I Against I,” an agitprop piece railing against the corrupting influences of modern society, can and will send shivers up your spine if you’re a fan of edgy music.

Don’t believe us?

See for yourselves.

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