When you’re talking Living Colour, what you see is also what you hear, which—in the case of the heavy-hitting New York quartet—is the sound of four virtuosic African Americans reclaiming the rock ‘n’ roll Elvis Presley “borrowed” from black bluesmen in the ‘50s and giving it a blast of 21st century nitrous for modern audiences.
Living Colour are best known for the 1988 smash “Cult of Personality,” but the guys are still breaking musical boundaries today. They last stormed through Cleveland (Grog Shop) behind their terrific 2009 release The Chair in the Doorway, and opened for Aerosmith at a concert for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton just last August.
If you grew up in the ‘80s, you’ll recall the fever (or furor, depending on one’s predilections) the band caused when they popped up on MTV airwaves, banging their dreadlocked heads to Vernon Reid’s heavy metal guitar hysterics whilst sporting the latest in Body Glove spandex.
“Wow!” exclaimed your suburban white friends. “I didn’t know black guys could rock out like that!”
Well, duh. Ever hear of Miles Davis? Jimi Hendrix? Parliament / Funkadelic? Bad Brains? Fishbone?
At age 17, perhaps not.
And while Living Colour wasn’t the first black act to parlay muscular rock rhythms (“Middle Man”), blues progressions (“Desperate People”), funky bass lines (“Funny Vibe”), ska (“Glamour Boys”), and cutting-edge guitar wizardry (“Type,” “Behind the Sun”) into its oeuvre, the Big Apple bad boys successfully distinguished themselves in an era saturated by electronic schmaltz and diluted by a promulgation of Debby Gibsons and Tiffanys.
By the end of the decade, Living Colour commanded the sort of attention that still awaited Metallica, Nirvana, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their moniker—along with the title of their debut album, Vivid—bespoke their modus operandi: Vibrant and visceral, Living Colour extended an open invitation to rock to teenagers of every complexion and creed.
What’s your favorite color, baby?
Sprung from the Black Rock Coalition’s enclave of artists who preferred rocking out on real instruments (instead of merely beat-boxing to samples like the floodtide of emerging rappers and hip-hoppers), early incarnations of Living Colour centered around anchorman / uber-shredder Reid, who’d already drawn notice in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society.
By the late ‘80s the classic lineup was complete, with drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings doling out gargantuan grooves behind multi-octave soul singer Corey Glover (who’d enjoyed a cameo in the 1986 Oliver Stone war epic Platoon).
Produced by Ed Stasium (Ramones, Talking Heads) in tandem with patron Mick Jagger, Vivid (“Cult of Personality,” “Open Letter to a Landlord”), was an ear-shattering culture bomb that pollinated the planet for a refreshingly desegregated rock landscape (Soundgarden, Korn, Sepultura, Rage Against the Machine, Suicidal Tendencies, Sevendust, etc.) wherein skin pigment took a back seat to fret board prowess and punk attitude.
The group followed up their Epic debut with Time’s Up (“Information Overload,” “Love Rears Its Ugly Head”) in 1990, connecting quickly with audiences that might’ve remained out of reach ten years prior. Support slots with Guns ‘n’ Roses and The Rolling Stones only widened the fan base.
Recognizing the band’s ability to attract crowds with their cool look, unifying message, and multifaceted musical approach, Perry Farrell put them on his roster for the inaugural (1991) Lollapalooza.
New bassist Doug Wimbish signed for 1993’s Stain, after which the band took a well-deserved hiatus. But 2003’s Collideoscope saw the middle men take a bold step into the new millennium.
27 years removed from Vivid, Living Colour are hotter than ever. Fresh off the stint with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, the fellows are ready to pound pavement in advance of their sixth studio album, Shade, set for release in 2016.
Younger audiences have caught on, too: Living Colour’s music has been included on video games like Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto, and featured prominently in WWE matches with charismatic wrestlers “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and C.M. Punk.
The 2015 tour brings Reid, Glover, Calhoun, and Wimbish back to C-Town for an all-ages, post-holiday bash December 29th at Music Box Supper Club, where they’ll survey a selection of new songs, hits, and deep cuts…and talk right down to the Cuyahoga constituents in a language everyone there can easily understand.
Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" heated up MTV in the '80s.