Living Colour: Colour Shifts

LIVING COLOUR’S LAST ALBUM, VIVID, IS STILL RIDING HIGH IN THE US CHARTS. THE BLACK ROCK COALITION STARS HAVE JUST SUPPORTED ANTHRAX ON THEIR RECENT UK TOUR. PAUL LESTER JOINS BOTH METAL MASTERS ON THE ROAD.

ANTHRAX’S BURLY, beefy man-mountain of a manager is having a quiet word with me about the metal band’s choice of Living Colour as support guests.

“Do you mind if I just add a comment here, for what it’s worth? Do you know the most racist bunch of f***in’ people? The f***in’ press! Anthrax take a band on tour, f***in’ period, and cos they’re black there are more f***in’ questions… You guys are making a f***in’ issue out of this! This is a great band (meaning Living Colour) and a great big period! Everyone is saying, ‘It’s a bold move Anthrax did’. F***in’ bold! It’s a show!”

It would seem that Anthrax’s manager, a bear-with-a-sore-paw with whom I have no great desire to disagree, has rather misunderstood the point of my enquiry. I’ll ask guitarist Scott Ian instead. Why Living Colour, Scott?

“They’re one of our favourite bands.”

That is all I wanted to know.

ANTHRAX ARE currently on their first major tour of England since November 1987, having spent several months opening for Kiss, Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne (all Anthrax heroes, past and present).

This time, they’ve chosen Living Colour as support, the rising stars of the American music scene who are currently at Number 12 in the States with their debut album, Vivid, 10 months after it was initially released. This is some 16 Billboard rungs above that achieved by Anthrax’s State Of Euphoria album, which first saw the light of day last September. Having cleared the dressing room or four-out-of-five of the Anthrax contingent with my customary tact and diplomacy, I’m left to pick up the pieces as Scott Ian spills the beans.

“I think there’s a similar attitude between us and Living Colour — we’re both very face-value. There’s no wondering where we’re coming from, in our lyrics or talking to us. On or off stage we’re pretty much as you find us.”

Anthrax’s demystification of the typical phallus-and-phantasy heavy metal foolery, has been well-documented. And, like Living Colour, Anthrax play down the star/fan relationship in favour of a post-punk “ordinariness”.

“We have no secrets as a band. You know, it’s like, what’s the big deal? We’re in a band, we tour. There is no mystery.”

But you can’t really blame people for being intrigued about this Anthrax/Living Colour coalition. Are they playing the sort of stuff that Anthrax could do themselves?

“Some of Vivid we might do and our audience would like it. Personally, I happen to admire all the things that Living Colour do.”

Lyrically, both bands seem to have embraced the idea of a moral restoration for HM, hard rock, whatever, that appears to coincide with the music’s critical rehabilitation. For example, ‘Who Cares Wins’ on State Of Euphoria and the new British single release from Vivid, ‘Open Letter (To A Landlord)’, are both pleas for compassion in the face of urban development and gentrification in New York, the kind that squeezes out the poorer sections of the community.

“Yeah, the Living Colour guys come from the same part of town as us, Queens, in Brooklyn. But musically, I dunno… I can’t say if Vernon Reid (Living Colour guitarist and lyricist) was listening to Black Sabbath in 1975 like I was… You’d have to speak to them about that.”

LIVING COLOUR seem to inspire a flood of comparisons whenever they are around, either through journalistic laziness, or because of the sheer spread of sounds, styles and textures evinced on Vivid, a kaleidoscope of possibilities. Living Colour are like no one else while reminding the listener of every great rock noise they ever fell in love with.

Vivid is a lucky bag, a phantasmagoria of sonic exploration that conjures up a million brilliant moments. Here is an A-Z of Living Colour “likenesses”: Anthrax, Bambaataa, Cameo, Defunkt, ELP, Funkadelic, Grin, Hendrix, Ike, Jackson, Knack, Love, Marley, Nugent, Otis, Parliament, Queen, Run, Sly, Temptations, Ulmer, Vibrators, Winwood, XTC, Young, Zeppelin.

Muzz Skillings (bass and backing vocals): “Everybody has their own idea of what we sound like at first, and these people just haven’t given themselves enough time to understand the background we come from and what we’re trying to do. There’s a kind of lazy-thinking mentality where people don’t want to exercise their brains and think critically, and that attitude can sometimes short-change the artist.”

Corey Glover (lead vocals): “Living Colour’s music is an amalgamation of different things. It’s a bit of my life, Muzz’s life, Will and Vernon’s lives. It comes from the things that I listen to, from doowop, hip hop, thrash, from my sense of theatre (Corey was the smart-ass soldier in Platoon), gospel and religious music. It is, basically, taking several strands and putting them together.”

Muzz: “It’s not just a linear thing of one thing happening and then committing it to vinyl. The music on Vivid is part of our personalities, our imaginations, dreams and desires projected onto vinyl and expressed through rock ‘n’ roll.”

VIVID IS a riot of colour and an explosion of emotion transferred to plastic by way of some mind-crumbling instrumental and vocal virtuosity. The blasphemous bass creativity of Muzz Skillings and Will Calhoun’s despotic drum dynamics constitute a supremely functional rhythm unit — one that is ably suited to the myriad styles and genres of Living Colour’s molten pot of power-driven rockfunkpopsoulmetal. Corey Glover’s voice, too, is an alphabet of possibilities, now lilting and warbling like George O’Dowd on ‘Broken Hearts’, now screeching and wailing like Robert Plant on ‘Which Way To America?’ Vernon Reid’s ‘scuse-me-while-I-f***-the-sky guitar atmospherics, his pyrotechnical licks, riffs and fretboard runs are already legendary, earning him as much acclaim as any axeman since James Marshall Hendrix. Or Tom Verlaine. Or Terry Bickers.

Will: “People are amazed that we namecheck Anthrax and Public Enemy (featured on ‘Funny Vibe’) in the same sentence, and how we play with them. We’re breaking down barriers, opening up people’s eyes. Living Colour is all about freedom of expression, the freedom to express our love of all these musics.”

Vernon: “Definitely. We’ve listened to Age Of Chance, their use of scratching, cut-ups and metal, Tackhead, The Beatnigs’ Television, that Reggae Philharmonic album, Kings X, The Neville Brothers, Enya, everything.”

Will: “We want Living Colour to be unpredictable, the way every one of Weather Report’s albums would be different, or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, bands for whom the sky was, truly, the limit.”

Vernon: “People always wondered what the second Sex Pistols’ album would be like. I want that degree of expectation about our next record.”

As Muzz said earlier, Vernon buys thousands of records. It shows. The tipsy apocalypse shuffle of ‘Middle Man’ recalls the crazy experimentation of Todd Rundgren’s guitar-mad ‘King Kong Reggae’, ‘Open Letter’ starts with a drizzle of sparks that glimmer like Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, while ‘I Want To Know’ jumps with the hard pop joy of the Knack’s 1978 novelty nugget, ‘My Sharona’. ‘Funny Vibe’ is speed metal mayhem one second, then it’s mid-period Earth, Wind & Fire funk the next, as well as interspersing a Public Enemy rap and a blistering Vernon Reid scorch-solo, all without missing a beat.

Vernon: “We’re going back into the studio in May or June to work on the new album. We’re not one of those bands where you can guess what the next record is going to sound like, what the single, the cover, or even the video will be like. Anything is possible this time for us. Yeah, Living Colour can do anything.

LIVING COLOUR are now Number 12 in the American singles’ chart with ‘Cult Of Personality’, which despite mentions of Gandhi and Stalin, is receiving heavy-duty MTV rotation, while the group appear on Channel 4’s Big World Cafe to promote ‘Open Letter’. The Black Rock Coalition Festival is flying the Living Colour flag in New York’s CBGB’s even as we speak — a spate of groups dexterously avoiding colour-conscious pigeon-holers. Clearly, the Living Colour star is in the ascendant. That night they will play a set in Manchester to suggest quite strongly that, come next March, Anthrax will be supporting Living Colour. They overcome the handicap of not having a soundcheck to perform seven shuddering, nuclear peaks.

Any day now they will be massive, a global rock force with which we shall all have to contend. The size will suit them, suit their beautiful noise.

Muzz: “We’re a rock band with our own slant on things. Rock in its broadest sense.”

Corey: “And we’re accessible people, with the same hopes and aspirations as everyone else. Because of all the rhetoric and bullshit that surrounds this band, people expect us to be so lofty and untouchable, Black Panthers or militants. Men and women come and find us and want to make some sort of contact with these so-called celebrities (laughs)… cos they are searching for something. They say, ‘God, I can’t believe I’m talking to you!’ But I’m a regular guy, you can call me on the phone anytime!”

Will: “We’re not just saying we’re boring rock musicians who play golf and shoot pool on the weekends.”

Vernon: “I am!”

The bullshit stops here.

© Paul LesterMelody Maker, 25 March 1989

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