Ginger’s Secret History of Rock’n’Roll (pt 15)
Our obscuro-rock champion on an album from one of “the most culturally relevant” bands of the 80s. Check out Ginger’s past Secret History Of Rock’n'Roll entries.
I Against I
1986, SST Records
Widely regarded as pioneers of the whole US hardcore movement, the four Rastafarians from Washington DC known as Bad Brains may well have been the most bad-assed group in this emerging scene but they were arguably the most culturally relevant band in America at the turn of the 80s.
Formed in 1977, taking their name from a Ramones song and mixing reggae and punk with soul and heavy rock, to ferocious effect, the early Bad Brains sound was an aggressive speed-a-thon with hints of jazz fusion that made it onto two full length albums (‘Bad Brains’ and ‘Rock For Light’) while the band carved out their legend as one of the most electrifying live acts around. In particular frontman HR cut an intimidating figure as a manic colossus complete with borderline lunatic tendencies and a voice so unique that no-one since has been able to fully copy it.
By 1986 the live hardcore scene had moved on and from being a vital social movement it became, for most, a neat little money earner with an audience consisting largely of college students and trust fund weekend warriors heading into the city for some high octane thrills.
The big three original US hardcore bands – Minor Threat, Black Flag and Bad Brains – had unavoidably moved on in various ways due to the Reaganomic pressure to succeed in an increasingly commercial marketplace. Minor Threat (founders of straight edge) split in ’83 and Black Flag (featuring Henry Rollins) split in ’86 leaving only Bad Brains still standing. No surprise, then, that the first people to put breakneck tempos into hardcore punk rock would strip down their sound and recreate it as a bombastic and almost mainstream offering using thrash metal, punk and (dare I say it) pop, and release an album that would influence every heavy band in its wake.
Bad Brains never were like any other band, and in 1986 this was still very much the case.
Surprisingly, and refreshingly reggae free, I Against I is the sound of a band entirely at home with challenging norms, Slamming into devastating life with opening track, simply entitled ‘Intro’, Dr Know’s Eddie Van Halen level fretboard fireworks are given the rhythmic framework in which to excel, courtesy of Darryl Jenifer and Earl Hudson (bass and drums respectively), and the result is mesmerising. Man, this is a band that can play! Not only master musicians in their own right, together they form one of the tightest and most thrilling musical forces of any generation.
If you want to be impressed by musicianship you’ve come to the right place, if you merely want to lose your fucking mind then you need look no further than second track ‘I Against I’, as HR comes screaming and snarling into the fray amid machine gun fire rhythms and classic punk chord progressions. Traditional arrangements, however, are given short thrift as the song speeds up and slows down with supernatural grace. Bad Brains are their very own force of nature and nothing that they do needs explaining, so don’t try to figure it out. This music is coming from somewhere else entirely. With complete disregard to traditional punk rock, this album contains more undiluted punk spirit than most sloganeering poseurs before it.
As ‘House Of Suffering’ comes tumbling out of the chaos, and while HR sings like he is standing on the lip of the world preaching to his minions we can only listen in stunned awe. The man is simply a legend. ‘Re-Ignition’ detonates with an outburst of snare fills and skin tight staccato guitar and bass runs (as most Bad Brains tracks do) then settles into the serpentine hook that Helmet have heard more than a few times.
Riffs are randomly spat out in brutal discharges of manic energy as the vocals sound as alien as it’s possible for a human being to sound. So far, so fearsome. The album is a heavy-hitting declaration that hardcore punk is whatever the players say it is, and who would argue with evidence as solid as the sonic warfare that has taken place?
Yet it is the moments that Bad Brains let down their guard and raise up the bar that the breath is truly snatched from the listener. The rest of the album seems intent to pile on contrary musical ideas on top of the now familiar guitar, bass and drum fury, like, for instance, the funk of ‘Secret 77′. With as solid a rhythm section as you’d find in any genre of music, Jenifer and Hudson lay down a beat as deadly as it is fluid and serve up funk Bad Brains style, far darker and threatening than any funk you’ve ever heard. And yet there is an anthemic quality that never fails to send an electrical charge to the skin. It’s a magical effect that hasn’t lost its thrill in the 30 years I’ve been listening to this album.
‘Let Me Help’ follows a more traditional hard rock path, with gang vocals putting a sinister twist on the idea of a ‘singalong’ until the chorus adds an irresistible pop edge, leaving this band standing alone in a world of one. Seriously. Who, in the 80s, ever managed to splice as many disparate elements and still managed to sound so utterly unnerving? Take ‘She’s Calling You’, for example. With a purely pop heart it breaks into a joyous heavy rock chorus section while still sounding like the last thing you’d hear before being shot in an alleyway by a stray bullet. As with anything that HR sings it sounds like it’s beamed down from a very disturbing planet where smiles are strictly forbidden and handshakes are consummated in the eyes.
The absolute highlight of the album is a song called ‘Sacred Love’. Sang by HR down a prison telephone, the song has everything that Bad Brains are about, in my opinion. Obscenely precise staccato rhythms, dense lyrics that make even love songs sound subversive and HR’s lascivious delivery. If you only listen to one song on this album, then let it be this track. Classy, shadowy and utterly delicious, it’s an impossible song not to be moved by, in one form or another.
‘Hired Gun’ gives itself over to a much more Jazz inspired groove, while still favouring those crunching bass chords ushering in another familiarly grinding chorus, allowing Dr Know and Darryl Jenifer to fully display the dexterity of their musical nous. Leaving ‘Return To Heaven’ to finish the job of cementing this album into your conscious, and making sure that it’s place in Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die will surely remain in every revised edition for the rest of time.
It’s difficult to imagine a band having the same kind of cultural and social relevance these days as Bad Brains at the turn of the 80s. The music scene today, and in particular the world of punk and metal, would be in very different shape without this band. Bad Brains yield an almost Ramones-like level of influence on everything that happened after them and still this album packs a punch unlike any other influential piece of essential musical history.