Perfect Sound Forever

BAD BRAINS


by Martin Osborne
(April 2012)


Hardcore never did much for me, my own particular snootiness, snottiness and social alienation finding other, far more colourful and energising musical expression. Black Flag, Minor Threat, D.O.A.? Checked 'em out, and took a big loss trading them in at my local second-hand record shop.

Honourable exception: Bad Brains, specifically their "Pay To Cum!" debut single 1 on their own self-titled record company; a dizzying ride of speed, rhythmic genius and dub moves that pretty much made all that came before and after it not really worth bothering with.

Bad Brains were two bands. For 1 minute and 33 seconds in June 1980, they were the proving ground for musical science, then in their second life, spent 31 years peddling a quasi-metal melodrama and timid dub that saw them become hardcore-anointed ones. Everything after "Pay to Cum" is a band unable to trump that first shot, best shot, riding the wave of first mover worship and paint by numbers punk.

Checking histories of the band the song has been bailed up in a corner of 'fast' and 'short' and passed over whereas the albums get the full suck and spin. Wrong way round people- "Pay To Cum!" is the one. We should also mention that it had a B-side, "Stay Close To Me," a lopsided skank, but it's merely okay, and there's already more than enough of the okay kind of thing around so lets move on.

As for claims that "Pay To Cum!" is hardcore, well, that's a bit like saying Jimi Hendrix is rock, The Pop Group are post-punk and certain records by Ornette Coleman are jazz. A more appropriate starting point might be a vague and ill-articulated work in progress notion of a 'total music,' when musicians go so deep into the music and expand instrument and form 'til it is barely recognisable and thus big fun.

Despite the foaming claims of the deaf and illiterate that punk was democracy in action, had no past and intuitive avant savants triumphed over decadent virtuosity, many of more interesting musicians involved in punk and post punk had definite chops and definite roots: Joe Strummer started out in a pub rock band, Keith Levene developing his guitar chops playing along to and loving Yes, and Mark Stewart dancing his ass off to funk, soul and disco and attending blues parties.

Punk might have turned Bad Brains' heads but the heart of the song springs from the band's background as a jazz fusion outfit and love of reggae and dub. There is no lead instrument per se as voice, guitar, bass and drums perform crucial melodic and rhythmic roles in a polyrhythmic call and response, warped by a dub sensibility that makes the song feel like it could roll on forever.

Singling out individual players in a genius collective enterprise is unfair – and let's acknowledge H.R's vocal acrobatics and Dr Know's riffing, but the homebrew antigravity drive of Earl Hudson's drums and Darryl Jennifer's bass are the foundation of the song, and what a foundation! Double timed tuned rimshots – or is it cowbells? – and a bass that funks and rings like a thumb piano that lifts the song clear of the broken backed clump of hardcore.

Talk of the song's velocity implies a formless blur, but every note is precisely measured and finely etched making a mockery of the post-human fantasies of the DSP/Max software crowd and their systems music- call it example #7,853,458 in what happens when musical chops and compositional intelligence connects with a desire to drop every trick they know, and a few they didn't know about until the got together and connected.

And then there were the words. The first verse scans like this:

I make decision with precision
Lost inside this manned collision
Just to see what is to be perfectly my fantasy

But when it comes racing out of HR's throat, at a speed that even most any rapper would choke on (and note the mini-rhymes in the 1st and 3rd lines there), this is what it sounds like:

IMAKEDECISIONWITHPRECISIONLOSTINSIDETHISMANNEDCOLLISIONJUSTTOSEETHATWHATISTOBEPERFECTLYMYFANTASY

And just to add the ultimate exclamation point, like the one in the song title, at the end of each verse, Dr. Know's guitar blares like a savage animal with dripping jaws, just about to pounce on your ass.

The song even ends with a verse that reads more like a haiku (not the 5-7-5 pattern, but the same number of syllables) than a punk screed:

A peace together
A piece apart
A piece of wisdom from our hearts

It's a protest song for sure but it's also a plea for humanism. Now, how's that for a mind-fuck?


After its release though, someone should have thrown the 'kill switch' (every band should have one). Bad Brains self-titled debut is one of those albums that if you weren't haunted by "Pay To Cum!" you might rate but I'm struggling to convince myself that it's the same band.

The sheer three dimensionality of the music has become a lifeless slab of guitar sludge and dull rhythms, the songs failing to stay in the memory and indistinguishable from each other, jazz thrown over the side and dub turned into cheap moods. They even take another run at "Pay To Cum!" which is a flabby, lazy straight-a-head mess: It has to be asked if these guys were capable of telling the difference between lead and gold? As for the dub moves, it might sound like dub, but it ain't dub: just a few filter and delay effects added to tracks rather than spinning a new song out of the mixing desk.

If you knew sweet f.a. about the music in question, you could run the line, and it has been tried, that it is Blacks playing White Music better than Whites, which is a pretty desperate and shabby line as the bar wasn't particularly high in the first place.

Maybe the band sensed that a community was expanding and wanted to connect with it, so they simplified things– after all, punk is exactly renowned for its commitment to freedom and freakout (each of a which was an ironic semi-variation from the hippies they hated). Or what it that they just didn't have a clue about what was gold and what was lead? More realistically, they went to the limit and nowhere was left for them to go except backwards, rendering themselves over in one minute and thirty-three seconds.


FOOTNOTE:
1. The original and by far the best version of "Pay To Cum!" was recently reissued on 7 inch vinyl and shitty, lossy MP3 and is available from www.badbrains.com.

Also see our 2014 article on Bad Brains


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