Hardcore does not necessarily age well. News that a fifty-something hardcore band is out and about can be cringe-worthy, unless of course it’s Bad Brains — the band that many say invented hardcore.
Whether you agree or not, they are certainly part of the conversation. Ian Mackay (Minor Threat, Fugazi) has said many times they were his favorite band back in the day. Henry Rollins (Black Flag) has told stories about piling in a car with them, going to New York and seeing the Cramps for the first time.
In the early 1980s they were African-Americans playing in a very white, very exclusive scene — pot-smoking Rastafarians living among the straight-edge crowd. Yet, they began as a progressive jazz band, made of people whose minds were blown by both punk rock and reggae. They were musical virtuosos who introduced different rhythms, keys and time signatures to a music that despite its rebellious nature, was often guilty of being very orthodox and puritanical in its approach.
And now, decades later, the classic lineup of singer HR, guitarist Dr. Know, bassist Daryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson is re-united and touring.
Those familiar with the band know that enigmatic frontman HR (Paul Hudson) was, and still is, the flashpoint of Bad Brains. He has a voice unlike any other, at times sounding like the bastard child of Eek-A-Mouse and Jello Biafra, yet with a soulfulness that would give Prince a run for his money. Village Voice once called him “James Brown gone berserk, with a hyperkinetic repertoire of spins, dives, back-flips, splits and skanks.” But as it is with so many of punk’s elders, word is he’s mellowed out. In a recent conversation with him, he introduced himself as “HR: Mr. Human Rights.”
When Build a Nation (produced by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch) was released in 2007, it proved that the band can still fire on all circuits — without a doubt, one of its best records to date. Roughly split down the middle between hardcore bruisers and rolling reggae tunes, it sounds as though the band has come to terms with its schizophrenic self.
“Originally, we were into progressive jazz, listening to Return to Forever and Chick Corea,” said HR, “but we went to New York — it must have been in the late 1970s or 1980 — and we saw Bob Marley, and it was a very positive experience for us.”
They started reading scripture and working the Rastafarian thing into their lives and their music, but they were always able to convey their spirituality without sounding cheesy. The punk rock thing happened in a similar way.
“We were looking for a new sound, and we discovered The Buzzcocks, Blondie, and eventually, the Ramones. And little by little we changed our sound,” HR explained.
So began a career with moments of brilliance, like the ROIR cassettes or the landmark I Against I, but mixed with years of inter-band turmoil and musical inconsistency. At their best, they combined the breakneck speed and intensity of hardcore with the wicked grooves of a jazz or funk. When asked why they are still touring, HR did talk of management commitments, but also “the kids.” He is quite happy to see all the young people at the shows.
“It’s the kids, man, the kids. 20 to 25 years old. We love to see them out at our shows.”
This didn’t sound like the guy who, once upon a time, allegedly swung a mic stand at fans he thought were spitting on him. He sounded like a guy happy with his life, his music and his world. Certainly not a bad thing for him, but perhaps not so great for the fans hoping for backflips and somersaults.
Bad Brains will perform Thursday, Aug. 19, at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. 653-0721 or www.venturatheater.net.