“When Living Colour first came on the scene in ’88, many people were surprised that we were black,” Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun said in 2017.
“And for us, we were shocked! Especially in our own country, to see that. Because black people invented rock’n’roll.”
It’s hard to imagine these days that a group of highly skilled, articulate musicians, fronted by a super energised and powerful vocalist with songs that rocked hard would present a promotional conundrum to a major label. But in the late 80s, there was some concern about how mainstream audiences would react.
Black musicians, it was assumed, made R&B, rap, funk or soul music. Not rock.
Vernon Reid co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, a collective of artists, producers, publicists and music fans in 1985. Their primary mission was then – and is now – to foster and support the creative works of black musicians.
Its proud manifesto reads:
‘Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music and we are its heirs. We too, claim the right to creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations irrespective of genre.’
Living Colour’s debut album Vivid was their moment to kick down the door and tell their stories of prejudice and discrimination. Those frustrations are expressed through Reid’s squalling guitar, Muzz Skilling’s often frenetic bass, Will Calhoun’s powerful punctuation on the drums and the soaring and at times seething voice of Corey Glover.
‘Funny Vibe’ was the very first song the group wrote together. It was inspired by an incident Reid had in a department store elevator. The door opened for an old lady to step in and as she did so, she clutched her handbag visibly more tightly to herself.
Album closer ‘Which Way To America’ opens with a blast of machine gun drumming and the lines ‘I look at the TV, Your America’s doing well. I look out the window, My America’s catching hell.’
Someone who did ‘get’ the band early on was Mick Jagger. He played a vital role in helping get them their record deal, going on to produce two songs on Vivid and inviting the New Yorkers to open for The Rolling Stones on their 1989 Steel Wheels tour.
It was toward the end of the tour in LA when the band got their deserved vindication from rock’n’roll royalty when Little Richard was backstage and came to introduce himself.
“They play with feeling and conviction,” Richard told Rolling Stone about the band. “They’re not just saying words to be saying them.
“I think black people need to support them as well as white people, to realize the contribution that they are making at this time. The same thing that started in the ‘50s with me, they are taking it through the ‘90s. And God bless their souls. They are keeping it alive.”
A large part of the reason Vivid’s songs live on comes down to the fact that the issues they railed against still exist in America. In fact, the songs relevance has broadened as Calhoun explained to Will Not Fade in 2017.
“These songs go beyond the [US] black community,” he said. “They deal with the Māori community. The Aboriginal community in Australia. The Native American communities and indigenous communities around the world. They’re not relegated to black and white issues.”
Bands often strive for a degree of enduring relevance but in Living Colour’s case, the situation is a double-edged sword, as Vernon Reid told Loudwire in 2018.
“It’s great that what we had to say is still relevant, but its also kind of painful that it’s still relevant. It’s disturbing that it’s still relevant,” he said.
Perhaps the album and the band’s best-known song is the mammoth opener ‘Cult of Personality’.
The song was written quickly and stemmed from a conversation the band had about fame, power and influence. It namechecks Mussolini and Kennedy, Stalin and Ghandi, and ponders what these charismatic and imposing people inspired in people who followed them.
It can be applied to many more circles of people who enjoy the power that a heightened profile, provided by our technologically enhanced lives, has afforded them. Reid is proud to acknowledge this song’s continued relevance.
“It’s an ongoing conversation for good and for ill,” he told Guitar World in 2010. “And, you know, it’s a cool riff.”