My All-Timers: 38. Bad Brains — Bad Brains
Throughout 2017 and in these essays, you’re going to hear about a lot of punk rock. You’ll see me ranking certain punk bands higher than, let’s say, Led Zeppelin, and that might ruffle your feathers a bit. Trust me, I’m not out here to ruffle feathers. My intentions could not be further from a feather rustling. Your feathers will remain intact. Feathers.
What I will try to make clear is how the best punk records of my youth cut open a hole in my brain and hopped in, and they haven’t left since. They blew the doors off my upbringing and showed me what you could do with volume and senseless aggression. You could bring some sense to it, and some purpose, and suddenly what repelled others could be your own wondrous creation.
One of punk’s most wondrous creations is Bad Brains — the all-black Rastafarians from Washington D.C. who discovered that if they got together and played really loud and really fast, they made a halfway decent sound. This was documented on Black Dots, a very early recording with a few songs that would show up on Bad Brains, but with a tone that was less distorted — almost like a jazz band playing punk. It’s a very cool record, but it in no way prepares you for the fury that would be unleashed on their debut record.
I bought Bad Brains with a sticker on it that had MCA of the Beastie Boys declaring it to be the greatest album ever made. It’s not my Number One of All-Time, but I can see how a young Adam Yauch would become enamored with this stuff. Especially since he was a young man when it came out, so the impact of this record must have been immediate and life-affirming. Even almost two decades after it was released, I discovered it and wanted to run screaming down my neighborhood’s street.
“Sailin’ On” opens the record and gives you just about everything you need to know: the guitar tones are going to be on fire, the bass and drums will pound your skull, and there is a crazy singer. From there it goes right into “Don’t Need It,” which starts with a riff that sounds like a furnace trying to explode. And then “Attitude” barrels away with a simple message about positivity. And then “The Regulator” is more mid-tempo but has a nasty riff, and then “Banned in D.C.” is just one of the best punk rock songs ever written, and I should probably stop before I just describe every song on the record.
Back to “Sailin’ On” — that is such a great song that 1996-era No Doubt covered it at the MTV Beach House Party, and even their goofy shtick didn’t ruin it. I’m just now realizing that Gwen Stefani might have gotten some of her vocal inspirations from Bad Brains’s H.R. — the wild warbling, almost operatic, yet always staying totally in tune. But Gwen couldn’t howl like H.R., and maybe no one ever has. If your band does a Bad Brains cover, your singer will not be able to sound remotely like H.R. His voice was an untamed growl, almost like a scary monster but way cooler than I’m making it sound. In the same breath, he could suddenly croon like Sinatra. It barely makes sense.
I love this record with the caveat that three of the songs are straight-up reggae, and reggae is boring. Reggae was invented to mildly entertain stoned people, and to make smart people feel smarter for loving something that is terrible. It’s like people who drink IPA’s — just because you are engaging in a fundamentally unpleasant activity doesn’t mean you have graduated to a higher level of existence.
(If I ruffled any feathers there, then once again, I apologize.)
ANYWAY, the reggae songs here at least act as a type of comedown from the high energy of everything else. Take a break for two or three minutes with an innocuous jam, then let “F.V.K.” shatter you into a million pieces.
Strangely, this record would be the highest musical achievement for Bad Brains (Rock For Light rules, but that contains a few re-recordings of songs from Bad Brains, so it doesn’t count). I Against I is decent, and then it all just goes off a cliff. They simply forgot how to write engaging punk rock songs, instead going for boring punk, boring reggae, and super awful punk-metal. But hey, 98% of punk bands aren’t able to have even one song as good as anything on this record here, so maybe Bad Brains set their own bar too high. Some people use all their geniuses resources once, and then the resources never come back.