Vernon Reid knew it was time to consult his little red notebook. That day in 1987, the guitarist and his bandmates were rehearsing in their loft above Broadway and DeKalb Avenue in Bushwick when they stumbled upon something. Unprompted, lead singer Corey Glover started humming a tune that would end up sounding familiar to almost anyone who over the ensuing three decades has listened to the radio, watched MTV, attended a sporting event, or virtually wailed in Guitar Hero.
âThe whole idea was to move past the duality of: Thatâs a good person and thatâs a bad person,â Reid said. âWhat do the good and the bad have in common? Is there something that unites Gandhi and Mussolini? Why are they who they are? And part of it is charisma.â
With the sound of the elevated J train rumbling in the background, Living Colour went to work on what would become an anthem. âWe started the rehearsal and there was no âCult of Personality,ââ Reid said. âAt the end of it, âCult of Personalityâ had been written.â The opening track on the groupâs debut album, Vivid, which turns 30 this week, strutted into the lily-white realm of mainstream rock ânâ roll and blew out its speakers.
âRock music was made by white people at that point,â said the bandâs former comanager Roger Cramer. âIt was the heyday of the hair band. And Living Colour came along and could play and sing circles around those bands. But they were black.â
All four members were, in fact. âThe hair,â Reid said, âwas a different texture.â Despite having chops and a loyal following in the biggest city in the country, Living Colour for years couldnât land a record deal. Calhoun said that theyâd heard âItâs not gonna happenâ so often that it was difficult to believe that theyâd ever break through. But in the face of rejection, the band refused to change their style. They were eclecticââWe were part punk, part metal, part funk, part free jazz,â Reid saidâbut they unmistakably played rock ânâ roll. That was a statement to a nation with a selective memory.
âOne of the most frustrating things,â Calhoun said, âis the ignorance of people who will not admit or deal with the fact that black people invented rock ânâ roll.â By making songs about the perils of hero worship, racism, and gentrification, Living Colour forced listeners to reckon with uncomfortable truths.
âWhen I first heard the song âCult of Personality,ââ Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and now Prophets of Rage guitarist Tom Morello said in an email, âI was absolutely blown away that clearly there were other African Americans who unapologetically loved Led Zeppelin and wanted to shred.â The record, he added, âopened the doors to my career.â
âCult of Personalityâ and Vivid, which went double-platinum, were the result of Living Colourâs prolonged fight to convince record companies that a black band was not merely a niche act with an outside shot at crossing over to a white audience. The unfair designation was tough to shake. To fully transform into DayGlo superheroes, the quartet needed the backing of the worldâs most famous rock star.
Soon after getting âCult of Personalityâ down, Living Colour was playing it at their unofficial home base: CBGB. The legendary East Village club was only a trip over the Williamsburg Bridge away from the bandâs Brooklyn space. By then, the group was already playing tight gigs all over town.
Reid had spent the early part of the decade touring with jazz-funk drummer Ronald Shannon Jacksonâs Decoding Society and originally formed Living Colour as a side project. For the London-born, New Yorkâraised guitarist with rock ânâ roll ambitions, it was a maddening period. Black musicians may have honed the genre, but they had long since been relegated to the background of the rock scene. By the early â80s, critics were treating Jimi Hendrix as a supernatural anomaly rather than a descendant of pioneers Chuck Berry and B.B. King. Racially mixed bands like Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and War were disappearing. MTV was barely playing videos by black artists. FM rock radio had been scrubbed whiter than CBGBâs iconic awning.
In 1985, seeking change, Reid, journalist Greg Tate, and producer Konda Mason cofounded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization with the stated mission of âcreating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music.â
Around that time, Reid tinkered with his band. Corey Glover was then a young actorâhe went on to play a key role in Platoonâwho happened to have a booming voice. Reid and Glover didnât know each other, but had mutual friends. They met at a party for Gloverâs former girlfriend. When it came time for cake, Glover remembered his ex asking him alone to sing âHappy Birthday.â So, in hopes of a reunion with her, he said, âI did my best version of âHappy Birthdayâ that I could do. It made Vernon and I have a conversation, and we talked about music.â The two quickly joined forces.
âI was absolutely blown away that clearly there were other African Americans who unapologetically loved Led Zeppelin and wanted to shred.â
âProphets of Rage guitarist Tom Morello
In addition to Glover, the new Living Colour lineup was bolstered by fellow New Yorkers Calhoun, an award-winning Berklee College of Music grad, and Muzz Skillings, a bassist with rock and jazz experience. The group relied on a wide range of influences, among them the Isley Brothers, Bad Brains, and Prince. ââLittle Red Corvette,ââ Reid said, âwas manna from heaven.â
But even as Living Colour was taking over New York, record labels shook their fists at the band. âThe record business was flat-out racist,â Cramer said. âThe pushback was intense from every corner. We shopped them to every single label. At that point in time there were a lot of them.â The lunkheaded but pervasive line of thinking that an all-black rock band singing about social issues couldnât appeal to the masses irked Glover. âYouâd think people would get that thereâs a universality to it,â he said.
Living Colourâs fortunes began to change in late â80s, when Mick Jagger was looking for musicians to play on his second solo album. The Rolling Stones lead singer held an audition at SIR Studios on West 52nd Street. Reid was invited to attend. Glover had just quit his job as an undercover security guard at Tower Records. (âI was horrible at it,â he said, âbecause I would let people steal records.â) Without much else to do, he tagged along with his nervous friend. Reid described the session as âtotally chaoticâ and âhorrible.â It wasnât a complete disaster, though.
It turns out that Jagger knew all about Living Colour. Bassist Doug Wimbish, who joined the band in the â90s, was working with the famous frontman back then. At one point, Reid recalled, Jagger said that heâd heard the band was cool and that he wanted to see them live. âOffhandedly we both said that we were playing at CBGBâs this weekend,â Glover said. Sure enough, Jagger came to the show with Jeff Beck. Cramer remembered roping off a table for Jagger, who had to crane his neck to see over the crowd.
Shortly after that show, Jagger asked the band to join him at Right Track on West 48th Street. While recording his solo album Primitive Cool in the next studio over, he produced two Living Colour demos that were recorded by Bad Brains collaborator Ron St. Germain. The first, âWhich Way to America?,â was a rebuke of the class divide, and the second, âGlamour Boys,â was a funky, winking roast of hollow, image-obsessed men.
Even with Jaggerâs support, the group continued to face skepticism. Cramer got asked whether Living Colour was similar to Sade and Winger. âIf you have to explain to a label what it is that you do as an artist,â Cramer said, âyouâre fucked.â He recalled telling one A&R man that Jagger had produced Living Colourâs demos and in response hearing, âWhatâs he done lately?â One company was interested in the band, Cramer said, but reduced its offer after an executive couldnât handle how heavy they sounded during a triple bill at the Roxy with hardcore staples the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains.
âIf you have to explain to a label what it is that you do as an artist, youâre fucked.â
âformer comanager Roger Cramer
Epic Records, finally, ended up signing Living Colour. In hindsight, Reid views the deal as a bittersweet triumph. âWe had to get the cosign from a person who literally embodied what rock ânâ roll is,â Reid said. âThe fact that he had to come see us, and dig us, for us to get at the back of the line is crazy.â In a way, it echoed the Rolling Stonesâ previous embrace of Howlinâ Wolf and Muddy Waters. It was done out of reverence, but underscored the reality that black artists were being defined not by their own music but by their connection to the white bands unabashedly mimicking them.
Still, at long last, Living Colour had a record contract. The group wasnât about to let that opportunity slip away. Ed Stasium, whoâd worked with the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Jagger on Primitive Cool, produced Vivid. By late 1987, when the band recorded the album, theyâd already played its songs thousands of times. For that reason, Calhoun said, âit was a really easy record to make.â
Their major-label debut, which included the two Jagger-produced demos, was bursting with heavy guitars and sharp social commentary. Cowritten by Reid and poet and professor Tracie Morris, âOpen Letter (to a Landlord)â directly addresses the gentrification of American cities. When I mentioned the track to Sevendust lead singer Lajon Witherspoon, he immediately sang the first line of the chorus: âNow you can tear a building down / But you canât erase a memory.â âI remember that song like it was yesterday,â said Witherspoon, whoâs African American. Gloverâs voice, the metal vocalist said, has âundeniable soul.â
The seeds for âFunny Vibeâ were planted years before when Reid stepped onto a department store elevator and a white woman clutched her handbag. âThe fear,â he said, âenraged me.â In an instant, by no fault of his own, Reid was put on the defensive. âAnd now I have to assuage your fear,â he said. Public Enemyâs Chuck D and Flavor Flav, with whom Reid worked on Yo! Bum Rush the Show, appeared on the track, which asks skittish white people what theyâre so damn afraid of. Directed by Charles Stone III, the video features a series of situations similar to the one Reid experienced.
âWho was talking about those issues at the time in rock ânâ roll?â Calhoun said. âNot many people.â
Before âCult of Personalityâ was finished, it needed tweaking. âThe way you know the song is not the way we played it,â Glover said. âIt was Ed who said, âWhy donât you play the hook first, and then the verse?ââ After all, how could you not start with that riff? Stasium compared it to âSunshine of Your Loveâ and âMississippi Queen.â It was a sound that only couldâve been generated by someone with Reidâs eclectic style. As Vivid engineer Paul Hamingson put it: âVernon brings a record store with him every time he plays.â Carla Harvey, a vocalist in the metal band Butcher Babies, told me that the first time she heard the opening of âCult of Personality,â âthe hair stood up on my arms and I was like, What is this?â
âWho was talking about those issues at the time in rock ânâ roll? Not many people.â
âdrummer Will Calhoun
To give the songâs message even more weight, the band folded in short portions of historically significant speeches by Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (The group also wanted to use the closing line of Martin Luther King Jr.âs âI Have a Dreamâ speech, but it proved too expensive to license.) The excerpts became one of the anthemâs signatures.
Of course, âCult of Personalityâ wouldnât be a classic without a perfect solo. Stasium said Reid nailed it on the first try and then did it again five more times. Each take, the producer said, was different. He chose Reidâs initial effort and didnât bother offering the guitarist much feedback. âYou donât fuck with art,â Stasium said.
Vivid was released on May 3, 1988. Success wasnât instantaneous. The first single, âMiddle Man,â didnât make a splash. Then Living Colour filmed the âCult of Personalityâ video. âThe thought was that if we can make a great video, this thingâs gonna blow out of the water so fast,â said Dan Beck, then senior vice president of marketing and sales at Epic.
Drew Carolan directed the clip, which featured both live performances and historical footage. It introduced the world to Gloverâs trademark look: a Body Glove wetsuit. Heâd been shopping with his then-girlfriend, a music video stylist, in the Bowery and noticed the stretchy, neon one-piece at the Patricia Field store. He figured it would be an interesting thing to wear onstage at a place as willfully grimy as CBGB.
âI didnât think anything more about it than that until I realized it looked like a superhero costume,â Glover said. Body Glove later began shipping him suits of various colors. âEverything they sent me started to look more and more like costumes from some comic book,â said Glover, who admitted that his kids arenât fans of his old skin-tight outfits. âMy whole comic-book nerd thing came out.â
As a teenager in his hometown of Nashville, Witherspoon searched for Gloverâs spandex suits, but couldnât find them. The problem, he said, was this: âWe didnât live by any water!â
Beck said that the video first got airplay on local music channels before MTV finally dropped it into its regular rotation. For Witherspoon, seeing Living Colour on TV was formative. âThey werenât afraid to be different, which I thought was something that would help me feel comfortable in my own skin,â he said. âBecause I was that kid who was into rock and heavy music. I think they opened the door for artists like me.â
Harvey grew up in Detroit getting teased for being a mixed-race kid who liked rock. After catching a glimpse of Living Colour, she remembered thinking, âTheyâre like me.â
Rock radio eventually followed MTVâs lead. On April 1, 1989, the band performed on Saturday Night Live. A month later, Vivid and âCult of Personality,â the second of which went on to win three Video Music Awards and a Grammy, respectively peaked at no. 6 and no. 13 on the Billboard album and singles charts.
Late that summer, Living Colour joined the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour. For a group used to playing densely packed clubs, opening for the biggest band on the planet in quarter-full football stadiums was exhilaratingly strange. âWe were a tiny speck,â Glover said. âWe felt very small.â Added Reid: âIt was important for us to do. But it also plucked us out of our natural development.â
It was, however, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. During one day off, Reid spent hours walking the streets of Boston with Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Reid also often hung out with bassist Bill Wyman in the backstage game room, where they played snooker and table tennis. âBill Wyman,â Reid said, âwas a master of parlor games.â
The tour wasnât all fun and games. In October 1989, before Living Colourâs four-night run with Guns Nâ Roses and the Stones at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Reid and Calhoun gave a live radio interview. In it, they were asked not about their own music but rather âOne in a Million,â the noxious GNR track in which lead singer Axl Rose infamously rails against âfaggots,â âniggers,â and âimmigrants.â Unsurprisingly, Reid and Calhoun explained that they disapproved of the song. âYou should call all assholes out,â Calhoun said. But both were incensed that they had to answer for Roseâs lyrics.
âYou know whatâs frustrating about that?â Reid said. âAt no time did anyone ever say, âWell, you know that Slash is black.â Nobody turned to Slash and said, âYo, man, how do you feel about âOne in a Millionâ?
Before Guns Nâ Rosesâ first set at the Coliseum, Rose and his entourage confronted Muzz Skillings backstage. Glover is convinced that Axl saw the bassistâs dreadlocks and thought he was Reid. âMuzz got surrounded by a bunch of goons,â Calhoun said. Rose, whoâd apparently heard Reid and Calhounâs interview, proceeded to defend himself. âFirst thing out of his mouth: âYou got a problem with me, man?ââ Skillings told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. âSo then he goes on, âItâs in the media that Iâm some sort of racist, man. âŠ I ainât no damn racist.â On stage that night, Rose yet again verbally exposed himself.
âWhen I use the word ânigger,â I donât necessarily mean a black person,â he reportedly said. âI donât give a crap what color you are as long as you ainât some crack-smoking piece of shit. All you people calling me a racist, shove your head up your fucking ass.â
The next evening, Living Colour responded to Roseâs tirade. âLook, if you donât have a problem with gay people, then donât call them âfaggots,ââ Reid told the crowd. âIf you donât have a problem with black people, then donât call them âniggers.â I never met a nigger in my life. Peace.â At that moment, the band launched into what Calhoun called âthe best version of âCult of Personalityâ ever.â
After the set, Keith Richards came to Living Colourâs dressing room and shook Reidâs hand.
To Reid, the post-Vivid years felt like the climactic scene of a heist movie. âTheyâre trying to open this vault door,â he said, âand then all the sudden, it opens, and they go, âHoly shit, whatâs on the other side of this door?ââ
For Living Colour, waiting on the other side wasnât stratospheric fame but rather the impossible task of topping their debut. Released in August 1990, Timeâs Up featured guests like Queen Latifah, Doug E. Fresh, and Little Richard. The critically acclaimed album peaked at no. 13 on the Billboard chart. The next year, as the Seattle scene was beginning to explode, the band was part of the first Lollapalooza lineup. Also on the diverse bill: headliners Janeâs Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T and Body Count, and Fishbone. Living Colour, Tom Morello said, âhelped usher in the alternative rock era by not looking like or sounding like they were supposed to.â
But in late 1991, Skillings left the group. Doug Wimbish replaced him and played on Stain, which hit record stores in March 1993. It was Living Colourâs last new full-length studio album for a decade. âThere was a lot of pressure on us,â Reid told New Yorkin 2009. âMy first marriage was breaking up; Living Colour was touring, but communication within the band was spotty. The problem with men is, we donât have a language for emotion. Weâll curse at each other but never really talk.â They broke up in 1995, but reunited after the turn of the millennium. Shade, their latest album, came out in September. Currently on tour, the band is still proudly defying the perception that rock music, whateverâs left of it at least, belongs only to white dudes with long hair.
âWe hope we can have the same chance they did,â said Jarad Dawkins, the drummer for Unlocking the Truth, a metal trio that appeared on The Colbert Reportwhen they were middle-schoolers. âTheyâre like our uncles, pretty much.â The band, whose members are African American, toured with Living Colour in 2014. Naturally, the young group discovered âCult of Personalityâ by hearing it on the soundtrack of a video game.
Today, the song remains a rock radio staple. Itâs appeared in three versions of Guitar Hero. Former WWE wrestler CM Punk used it as his entrance music. Itâs a stadium anthem. And its message, well, is frighteningly relevant. Thirty years later, itâs clear that Vivid as a whole was one of the late 20th centuryâs most prescient albums. âIâm incredibly grateful for that,â Reid said, âbut itâs also incredibly disheartening.â
Most of the clubs that reared Living Colour have been renovated or razed. Right Track Recording is closed. Calhoun, whose custom bass drum is in the collection of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently visited the neighborhood where the group rehearsed in the late â80s. Con Edison, he remembered, used to dig 20-foot holes there and leave them exposed. The area, the drummer said, âlooked like Vietnam after the war.â Now coffee shops have arrived. Rents are on the rise. Itâs the same cycle the group was talking about in 1988 with âOpen Letter (to a Landlord).â
âShit hasnât changed,â Glover said.
These days, Reid looks back on Living Colourâs rise with a mix of pride and incredulity. Heâd like to be a bit more specific about how he wrote the songs on Vivid, but his cherished little red notebook has been gone for years. He accidentally left it on the subway.